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College students find fewer internships in poor economy

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Fowell Hall
Students walk between classes at the University of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

When it comes to internships, Patrick Steele is up for almost anything. 

"I would be interested in something related to design or engineering," he said. "But I would also be open to anything that's general business."

Steele, a 20-year-old sophomore mechanical engineering student at the University of Minnesota, has spent four months searching for an internship.   

Patrick Steele
Patrick Steele, a sophomore mechanical engineering student at the University of Minnesota, has spent four months searching for an internship.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"There are some listed, but for the most part it's hard to even get a call back unless you have some sort of inside connection or significant experience directly applicable to that internship," he said. 

At this point, Steele is considering summer jobs similar to those he had in high school.  But he's found even retail positions and fast food gigs are hard to come by this year. 

Steele blames the economy for the tough internship market.    

So does Morgan Kinross-Wright, who works with students and companies to line up internships through the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. 

"I think that companies are being more careful about internships and they may not have as many as they did, but they still have some." she said.

A recent survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that companies across the country plan to hire 21 percent fewer interns this year.   They cite the economy as the reason.  

The story is much the same in Minnesota.  Cargill, Toro and Target tell MPR they're hiring fewer interns this year.  Target offered specific figures that show the company will hire 1,100 interns across the country. That's 700 fewer than last year. 

But it's not just large Minnesota companies that are cutting back on internships. 

Hamline Law School
Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"We have to have to watch the bottom line and that's quite honestly why we're not using them," said Mike Corbin, who runs a law office  in Faribault with another lawyer and two assistants.  

Corbin's firm handles mostly divorces and bankruptcies, so business is strong.  His office employed an intern as recently as last fall, but bringing another on board is not something he wants to do, especially now. 

"It is very hard to recoup the cost associated with a direct paid clerk or a paid intern," he said. "Then you add to that the lost productivity of having to supervise and mentor and train these clerks and these interns even when they're unpaid, it adds up to be quite significant and that's not something we can recoup from our clients." 

College career officials, always the optimists, spot a silver lining in this down market for interns.   

Nancy Lochner coordinates internships for students at Hamline Law School in St. Paul.  Lochner admits there are fewer paid internships available for law students.  But at the same time, companies and organizations are creating more positions for unpaid interns.  

"Places that wouldn't have used students in the past are now seeking them out as volunteers," she said. "Somebody can come who's highly educated, that can do the work and needs the work so they have the incentive to work for free."

Lochner said college students need to be creative to find new ways to gain workplace experience. 

Benedict Tubuo
A failed internship search may have resulted in a new opportunity for Benedict Tubuo, a finance student at the Carlson School of Management. The internships Tubuo hoped to secure this summer fell through. So he and two other classmates decided to lay the groundwork for their own finance company.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

A failed internship search may have resulted in a new opportunity for Benedict Tubuo. The 33-year-old Hopkins resident is a finance student at the Carlson School of Management. 

The internships Tubuo hoped to secure this summer fell through.  So he and two other classmates decided to lay the groundwork for their own finance company.

"I know I can work, I know I have the knowledge, I know I have the experience," he said.  "It might not be enough to get me to where I'd like to have been if I'd used a regular job, but at least it gets me to be responsible for my path I would like to follow." 

Tubuo admits actually running a company with his classmates is still far from a certainty.  But, he said its something he wouldn't have tried if he spent his summer in an internship.