From the Desk of Barbara Robertson

Commencement speakers commonly extol the value of lifelong learning beyond the classroom. In his 1994 commencement address at Howard University, for instance, Colin Powell advised graduates that they were “entering a life of continuous study and struggle” to achieve their goals and discover their talents and interests.

What does this mean in the near term for recent graduates and undergraduates who have yet to complete their studies? One practical answer is internships, which provide invaluable on-the-job training and enable participating students to “test drive” a given profession.

Much of the nation’s business community has enthusiastically embraced internship programs in recent years. In fact, it’s now famine-turned-feast for students seeking such opportunities.

According to job site Glassdoor, half of all internships were canceled at the height of the pandemic. Those that remained were largely virtual, unpaid, or both.

The picture has since brightened considerably, so much so that some students now feel emboldened to pick and choose as they mull various options. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that students were “reneging on summer stints they accepted back in the fall as recruiters barrage them with interview requests and richer offers.”

The motivation of companies that offer internships is obvious enough – they want to attract quality workers, and they invest in their interns accordingly. Advanced internship programs usually involve robust recruitment across a wide array of colleges and universities, a finely tuned on-boarding process, and formalized protocols to introduce participants to company operations and assess their employment potential.

Unpaid internships place low-income students at a disadvantage. Fortunately, as the competition for recruits heats up, firms are increasingly opting to pay their interns.

The time commitment for students can be substantial – summer programs often run 10 weeks – but it’s well worth it. Beyond the training opportunities mentioned above, internships expose participants to the customs and cadences of professional life – a significant benefit for those whose young adult years have revolved around classroom instruction.

Enterprising students and recent graduates need not confine their search for internship opportunities to formal programs that require applications. If you’re eyeing a particular industry or company, why not create your own opening? Do your research and pitch the appropriate contact on your vision for an internship, emphasizing your strengths, achievements, and career objectives. Employers prize workers that show initiative.

Local companies that eschew college interns are missing out on a proven method for recruiting top talent. Our region is blessed with an exceptional postsecondary education system, and is awash with bright, driven young people. The surest way to tap into this talent pool is to offer paid internships that guarantee access for students of all income levels.

Versions of this commentary have appeared in the Santa Maria Times and Lompoc Record.