Interns Take A Star Turn

Last week’s historic criminal conviction of a former president came as a surprise to many who have become inured to the topsy-turvy world of Donald J. Trump. But I had a sense this was coming a few months back when I saw that one of the lead prosecutors for the Manhattan District Attorney was my old friend Josh Steinglass. I was even more confident when Josh stepped up last Tuesday to deliver the State’s closing argument, which lasted four hours and 41 minutes.

I knew Josh in college and law school. In law school, he played bass in the band for the end-of-year Law Revue satirical show. The year I co-directed, he was onstage for the performance at the music school theater that ran way too long, way too controversial, resulted in a near-riot, and – as the associate dean gravely informed me the next morning – a 20-year nadir in law school - music school relations. My most vivid memory of Josh is rehearsing for that Law Revue. I’d finagled a key to a music practice room, promising to keep it pristine. Josh brought his bass along with an oversized sandwich which he proceeded to consume between numbers. As mayo dripped from the sandwich onto the carpet, I read him his rights. But Josh continued to prosecute that sandwich without fear or favor.

In college, Josh was a member of the Progressive Party of the Political Union, a debate society. Prog debates were known for a lighthearted approach to topics serious and not, something I cultivated as Chairman. On the Prog floor, Josh was famous for one thing: Jack Nicholson’s iconic courtroom speech at the conclusion of A Few Good Men. You know, the one that starts with “You can’t handle the truth!” During a speech or in response to a question, point of order, or point of personal privilege, as long as the magic words “Did you order the Code Red?” were uttered, Josh transmogrified into Colonel Nathan Jessup, stomping around the floor, yelling, berating fellow members, and reciting word-for-word:

Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg?

[Pointing here. Someone in the room was always Lieutenant Weinberg.]

I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know -- that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives; and my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.

He would go on for minutes; it was spellbinding. At the end, we’d all re-ask the question – Did you order the Code Red? – then scream along with Josh: YOU’RE GOD DAMN RIGHT I DID!

I must have seen him do this a dozen times – clear and compelling evidence that Josh Steinglass would be superb in a courtroom. And according to the New York jury, he was.

It’s long been obvious that tryouts are highly predictive of job performance. Hunter and Hunter demonstrated a strong correlation between tryout and eventual job performance – much stronger than references (only 60% as predictive as a tryout), interviews (30%), or educational background (22%). As tryouts assess a wide variety of skills and do so longitudinally rather than at a single point in time, their predictive power is pretty predictable. In addition, hiring managers consistently identify work ethic as a key attribute; companies are desperate to avoid “lion on the CV, cat on the job” syndrome. Work ethic is hard to accurately assess in any other way.

But the triumph of tryouts is best exemplified by the rise of internships. Unlike apprenticeships – full-time employment with built-in training – internships are short-term employment experiences pursued during an educational program. In the 1980s, only 3% of college graduates completed an internship. Now it’s nearly 50% and most internships yield full-time job offers. Strada’s recent Talent Disrupted report found that students who participate in internships are 49% less likely to be underemployed at graduation. And 60% of students who don’t intern report wanting to do so.

But don’t consume your mayo-dripping victory-sandwich just yet. Because internships tend to be informal, unsystematic, and relationship-based, they’re highly inequitable. Students who receive Pell Grants are 30% less likely to participate in internships, Latinos 25% underrepresented, and LGBTQ 21%. When it comes to paid internships – essential not only for being able to afford to live while working, but also because paid interns receive more job offers i.e., employers are more invested in paid interns – only 51% of female interns are paid compared to 76% of male interns. Black and Latino interns aren’t paid as often as White and Asian interns and first-gen interns are also at a disadvantage. Community college students are also much less likely to land paid internships. As a result, the first National Survey of College Internships released last week by Strada summarizes the state of internships as “not unlike other extracurricular programs in higher education — such as study abroad — that are known to be disproportionately pursued by privileged students with ample resources.”

Likewise, because they’re informal, internship experiences are highly uneven. Few employers view internship as their primary talent sourcing strategy. Some treat interns as low- or no-cost resources for menial or frontline tasks. While such work experiences can build communication skills, they’re probably not a meaningful connector between education and career launch. Even when interns are paid, some employers don’t provide much thought or effort e.g., mindless job shadowing instead of a defined role, failing to provide much supervision or mentorship. According to one study, 33-38% of internships are not “high quality.” Researchers have even documented a lack of risk management: interns placed in unsafe situations, the workplace equivalent of Col. Jessup’s wall.


Getting a good first job has already become tougher. In the past six years, the percentage of underemployed college grads has risen from 43% to 52%. Anecdotal data is piling up that entry-level positions in engineering, cybersecurity, and healthcare now – surprisingly, depressingly – demand years of work experience. And now something’s about to rouse sleepy internships as powerfully as being yelled at by Jack Nicholson, transforming them from a nice-to-have to a must-have for every college student. Like nearly everything these days, the answer is AI.

Between 70-80% of employers believe AI will do the work of recent college grads and that, as a result, they’ll be hiring fewer entry-level employees. Here’s what one UK-based executive recruiter forecasts for the Big 4 accounting firms:

Over the next five years, the Big 4 accounting firms will significantly reduce their graduate and school-leaver hiring intake as they begin to implement AI across various areas of their operations… A consensus is emerging that AI could automate many tasks currently performed by junior staff at the Big 4, such as data processing, audits, and legal work, leading to smaller overall organisational sizes, increased profitability for Partners, and more efficient solutions for clients… Historically, the Big 4 have hired substantial numbers of graduates, offering high-class training that benefits the broader economy. With fewer traditional roles available, it raises concerns about where new graduates will find comparable opportunities and training.

AI is on the cusp of transforming entry-level work. From time immemorial, employers have made this implicit bargain with entry-level workers: you may not know the industry or role very well, but we’ll hire and pay you while you learn the ropes; and as you’re becoming productive, you’ll spend your time on menial or mechanical work. Going forward, the Big 4 and other employers aren’t going to want or need workers to spend hundreds of hours assembling financial reports, bidding on Google and Facebook ads, or drafting client pitch decks. AI will do that. Instead, employers will expect entry-level workers to leverage AI and spend the bulk of their time on higher value client work and projects. But new employees won’t be able to do higher value work without relevant, in-field experience i.e., tryouts that train.

The Wall Street Journal is already connecting the dots. Employers plan to hire 5.6% fewer graduates than they did in 2023 and candidates with prior experience have a big advantage. According to the managing partner at a DC-based systems integrator, “AI right now is making… entry-level positions—I don’t want to say obsolete —but they’re changing them.” In the age of AI, getting a good first job without prior experience will be even less likely than Lieutenant Weinberg grabbing a gun and getting on that wall.


Outside of brand-name schools, failure to bake relevant work experience into postsecondary programs is a recipe for anachronism. It’s time for colleges to get serious about internships. But transforming informal internships into something as systematic as the co-op programs run by Northeastern and Drexel – where every student has an opportunity to complete one or two six-month in-field internships in four years, or three internships in five years – is a major challenge. Formalizing internships first requires recognizing them for credit, which entails verifying learning objectives and validating they’ve been met. That means activating faculty, assigning advisors, and delivering preparatory courses.

None of these are simple, but they’re still easier than activating employers. This necessitates establishing a more robust employer interface, far beyond the traditional “lite” career services function, in order to convince employers to launch internships and hire more interns – not an easy sale when employers have more pressing priorities. In addition, it’s not as though employers are about to turn on a dime and allocate time and resources to build dozens or hundreds of co-op-like relationships. If we’re lucky, large employers will invest in a handful of relationships while mid-size and small employers might invest in one.

Employer engagement on internships is further complicated by the rise of new forms like Tech Talent Boost Washington, launching this summer at North Seattle College. The state-supported program, delivered on the Riipen platform, allows employers to post 40-hour projects in areas like mobile app development, cloud computing, and data analytics in order to evaluate students and recent alumni for full-time employment. Interns are paid $1,000 for the 40 hours. As a spectrum evolves of full-blown in-person internships through to 40-hour work-integrated learning projects, employers will even more loathe to directly engage numerous individual higher education institutions across multiple forms of student work.

Just as new apprenticeship intermediaries are doing the heavy lifting of setting up and running apprenticeship programs (making it easier for employers to say yes to apprenticeship programs and hiring apprentices), the internship revolution will be televised by a new class of service provider. Like their online program manager (OPMs) predecessors which a decade ago made it safe and easy for hundreds of colleges to launch online programs, internship service providers (ISPs) will make it safe and easy for postsecondary institutions to launch co-op programs along the lines of what Northeastern and Drexel have built over decades. And given employers’ strong preference for a single point of contact for the continuum of internship-to-work-integrated-learning, ISPs will have a strong argument for prospective college partners. Moreover, by representing dozens or hundreds of colleges and universities – potentially millions of job candidates – ISPs will make it easier for employers to put internship at the center of their talent acquisition strategies and move to scale. Concomitantly, as internships become more central to talent acquisition, internship experiences will become less uneven and even more attractive to students and schools. ISPs will scale internships and narrow the experience gap by establishing this virtuous circle.

What will ISPs actually do? By far their most important task will be to aggregate internship and work-integrated-learning opportunities for schools and students. They’ll do this by lightening the load for employers, making it easier for them to say yes to internship and to hiring more interns by performing functions like centralized sourcing, screening, and matching candidates, pre-hire orientation and training, mentoring, and – most important – serving as the employer of record; saving employers the cost, hassle, and risk of putting every intern through their HR systems will go a long way to achieving scale. For colleges, ISPs will match employers and projects to departments, programs, and students, help prepare students for interviews, mentor, allow schools to easily define learning objectives, and – critically – track progress and provide evidence that learning objectives are being met.

As AI transforms business processes and entry-level positions, watch for states and eventually accreditors to begin requiring colleges to arrange relevant, in-field work experiences before sending students on their merry way. Virginia has already set this as a goal for its public universities. But as AI causes underemployment to skyrocket, high-quality internships mandates for all students are coming as surely as Col. Jessup’s men after Private Santiago.

Higher education institutions are about to have “a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom” to integrate work experience into academic program. Colleges that deny the coming impact of AI on entry-level hiring and the experience gap, or that think they can go it alone, may have “the luxury of not knowing what I know.” More likely – as with election and trial deniers – they just can’t handle the truth.