The new entry level job

The new entry level job Nick Youngson

The cost of college and a tight job market fuel a boom in paid internships.


University of Portland Senior Catalin Wong arrived at AWS Elemental with minimal tech experience, but under the guidance of a mentor, she was soon paid $15 an hour to run market research on millennial viewing habits.

Her job title? Intern.

The word “internship” used to make students cringe. It conjured nightmares of fetching coffee and filing papers with no compensation other than “experience.”

For top students interested in the right industries, that’s no longer the case.



Unpaid internships are going out of style as the economy continues to flourish and universities become more selective about the internships they promote. Responding to the tight job market, large corporations in booming industries—think tech and healthcare—are turning attractive paid internships like Wong’s into talent pipelines.

Yet the rising economic tide does not lift all boats. In struggling industries — media, fashion, advertising — or small businesses, internships are often unpaid and job prospects are slim.

Plus, regulatory changes implemented by the Trump Administration are making it easier to hire unpaid interns, who in many cases are more tech-savvy than their employers.

“A lot of times employers are confused about the definition of 'internship,'" says Karissa Bent, internship and engagement Coordinator at the University of Portland. "They definitely don’t know the difference between that and a seasonal part-time job.”


“There’s a trend toward more,” in the world of internships, Flores says. “More interest from employers and more demand from students.”


For the talented (or lucky) students who land them, paid internships unlock successful careers.

After a paid marketing internship at Audigy Group, University of Portland Senior Harrison Horblit was hired on as a part-time content coordinator. Wong also landed a part-time job after at her AWS Elemental internship.

Kaiser Permanente hires around a third of its interns, says Ebony Lawrence, who oversees Kaiser’s internship program.

“When you used to say internship to a recent graduate they’d say, ‘I don’t want an internship. I want a full-time position,’” Lawrence says. “They’re starting to understand internships are the way to get into an organization.”


“When you used to say internship to a recent graduate they’d say, ‘I don’t want an internship. I want a full-time position,’” Lawrence says. “They’re starting to understand internships are the way to get into an organization.”


Universities are starting to understand that too. Many colleges are beefing up internship credit requirements for students. Career center directors say most entry-level jobs now call for two to three years of meaningful work experience that can often be achieved through quality internships. 

As tuition costs skyrocket, colleges also appear to be promoting internships as a way to offer students return on their investment.

“There’s a trend toward more,” in the world of internships, says Greg Flores, the career center director at Portland State University. “More interest from employers and more demand from students.”  


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But as demand increases, employers and colleges are getting pickier about the process.

Career centers have become choosier about the postings they show students. The University of Portland filters internship listings through a two-part test. The process, Bent says, involves “a huge qualification list.”



The knowledge economy demands specific skill sets, so there is less of a demand for general HR or marketing internships, says Miriam Lea, who manages interns at the Beaverton offices of semiconductor manufacturer FormFactor.

“They’ve become much more focused on projects and are looking for very specific skills.”

Competition among students is fierce.  At Kaiser Permanente around 100 students vie for the average internship, which pays up to $20 for undergrads and up to $24 for graduate students.  Even smaller businesses can see around 50 applications for an unpaid position.


“There’s such a heavy interest in pushing kids to take internships,” Horblit says. “Sometimes they end up not liking it or feel like they’re wasting their time.”


In the time-consuming race for the perfect internship, some students inevitably get left behind. “There’s such a heavy interest in pushing kids to take internships,” Horblit says. “Sometimes they end up not liking it or feel like they’re wasting their time.”

Low-income and minority students are at a particular disadvantage. They rush to campus jobs rather than networking events. They can’t pay student loans or tuition with “experience points” from an unpaid internship.

“You have to be twice as good as your peers,” Wong says. “Networking is difficult for a lot of people and then you end up with an internship you might not like. It’s a lot of pressure.”

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Where do businesses in struggling industries fit into the shifting internship landscape?

Many fall back on the unpaid internship model.

Tina Janke, owner of Midtown Marketing in Medford, began hiring unpaid interns in 1994 to help her build her business at an affordable cost. But somewhere around 2015, she says, interns started demanding to be paid for their work.

“The biggest problem I’ve got with interns down here are there are none,” Janke says. “They’re all expecting to get paid.”

If the students prove themselves, Janke progresses them to paid contract work. “Some of them do work they’ll hate and never want to do again,” Janke says. “It usually involves lots of research. If they can handle that, the next time a new client comes they get paid.”

Sometimes that adds up to more than $15 an hour. Sometimes it doesn’t.



Nicole Whitesell, owner of Portland clothing chain Shop Adorn, says she can afford to pay her interns but instead she provides them with enough educational experiences to make their investment valuable. Plus, she pays for interns with her time. On a recent Friday, for example, she took the entire day to meticulously work through a retail store business plan with a student.

“We don’t need to offer a paid internship,” she says. “I know that’s really controversial right now. But the amount of training and education and teaching that goes into this is enormous.”

Whitesell tries to help out students who can’t work for free. She might offer them a part-time retail position during their internship, or allow them to work remotely most of the time.


“We don’t need to offer a paid internship,” Whitesell says. “I know that’s really controversial right now. But the amount of training and education and teaching that goes into this is enormous.”


In January, the Department of Labor under the Trump Administration moved away from defining criteria for legal unpaid internships — a system developed in 2010 — to a more subjective seven-part test.

The new, vaguely worded guidelines ask who benefits most from the experience — the employer or intern — and makes it easier to hire interns without paying them. The change injects confusion into an already unregulated market, where a spate of lawsuits proved that plenty of employers benefit from unpaid interns.



One factor driving the regulatory shakeup is clear: Many young interns are more tech savvy then their employers, so it’s getting more difficult to tell who benefits in the intern-employer relationship.

Interns introduced Janke to Google Docs while Kaiser interns found new, web-based ways to connect with millennials.

Form Factor’s paid interns, fluent in social media management software like Hootsuite, revamped the company’s Facebook page.

“Could I learn to do it? Yes,” Lea says. “But by the time it takes me to go back to school and learn the things I need we’re going to have a new program invented.”



In a mutually beneficial internship program, employers trade time-tested workplace lessons for interns' tech expertise.

Janke says her interns benefit from her decades of experience with high-level marketing strategy.

Plus experienced managers can help instill time-honored values about how to succeed in a job: show up at 9 to 5, and know how to conduct yourself at a meeting and be a “team player.”


“A lot of times employers are confused about the definition of 'internship,'" Bent says. "They definitely don’t know the difference between that and a seasonal part-time job.”


In today’s competitive labor market, employers use internships to develop both technical and “soft” skills, says state economist Josh Lehner.

There’s no data on the value interns provide to the Oregon economy, Lehner says.

But the hundreds of internship postings on Linkedin and other job sites tell a big part of the story.

Internships, paid and unpaid, fluctuate with the economy.

During a downturn, unpaid internships abound. During a boom, employers in expanding industries shell out living wages. Meanwhile, colleges are pressed to justify the market payoffs of expensive higher ed degrees.

These variables add up to an internship market that offers better opportunities, albeit not for everyone. Students need to pick the right industry. They need to rise above their peers.

In other words, college students today need to do exactly what their parents did to get that first job out of college. Except today, that first job is an internship.


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Caleb Diehl

Caleb Diehl is a reporter at Oregon Business

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