The Case for Inventing a New Form of Work Experience: the Externship

Why the market desperately needs a new form of work experience and how the remote Externship from Extern is the way forward.
Matt Wilkerson | Co-Founder & CEO of Extern
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Back when I was in college at MIT and on the hunt for work experience, I was excited to land a 4-week externship that paired me with an alumnus at a major business information company to work on a software project during the January term.  Just before I was slated to start at the beginning of 2004, I got the news that my externship was actually canceled.  The reason?  The alum no longer had time to support me, and nobody else on her team had the bandwidth either.  This was the last opportunity I had to build my resume with work experience and explore a new industry before my penultimate internship summer which would count the most.  Instead, I ended up taking a seminar.  

While having an externship or internship offer rescinded isn’t uncommon, it is far less common than the usual way students and career switchers are denied professional opportunities meant to build one’s resume — not hearing back at all. 

Everybody needs work experience.  You cannot progress in life without it.  You cannot truly learn a concept, craft, skill, function, industry, or trade without it.  Recruiters and hiring managers are probably not interested in you for a job without it.

But when you don’t yet have experience, getting that experience is the hardest thing to obtain.  As of the start of 2024, there are about 9 million open job listings.  61% of entry level jobs, in fact, require 3 years of experience.     

The truth is that entry level hires with no experience are considered a liability by companies.  They’d rather spend the extra time, resources, and money to find an experienced candidate than use company resources, management, and employee time to train an inexperienced one.  

This Catch 22 is most obvious with new college graduates, and it extends to anybody looking to enter a new career or just progress their professional experience and knowledge quickly.

How are new graduates and career switchers trying to solve the problem today?

There are two common ways.

1. College Degrees

The standard credentials for entering the workforce have propelled students into debt due to the cost of a degree rising significantly faster than the cost of inflation – 12% per year – thereby putting into question the ROI that comes from a degree.  The impact is starting to show.  A recent survey from YouGov showed that just 39% of Gen Z said advancing their education is important to them, and 46% of them said they don't think college is worth the cost.  There were 4 million less enrollments in college in 2022 than in 2012.

2. Alternative Credentials

I recently spoke with an accomplished industry leader in cybersecurity at a leading product security company who told me that he sees so many students with cybersecurity degrees, certificates, and "credentials" who can't get hired -- despite the well known gap between demand for cybersecurity professionals and supply of cybersecurity talent.  Most continuing education certifications, or degree certificates that are specifically intended to lead to job outcomes, don’t actually do anything. Evidence has suggested for a while now that hiring managers and recruiters aren’t influenced by alternative credentials.  While they may provide educational benefits to the learner, unfortunately nobody was ever hired from completing an edX, Coursera, or Linkedin Learning certificate.  

All things being equal in the form of a college degree (including not having one) held by someone, the only credential that matters is real professional experience.  There is a reason the majority of your resume and Linkedin profile are dedicated to it.  It’s the only thing that matters once you are in that stack of resumes on a recruiter or hiring manager’s desk. 

So how do students obtain professional experience today?

Student Jobs / Side Jobs

These are the types of jobs that pay at least minimum wage but are limited in the types of trade or white collar skill sets they can build: working at the student library, waiting tables, driving an Uber, delivering food, etc.  Students, or anybody for that matter, should generally be qualified to take these jobs at the going market rate to support cost of living.  But they won’t build one’s resume or competitive skill set to avoid being underemployed after college.

Internships in Competitive Fields

By this we mean internships that don’t involve “making coffee” or similar tasks.  Internships in competitive fields like tech, consulting, finance, data analytics, media, law, and medicine (just to name a few examples) rely on employees, management, and HR at a company to spend significant time onboarding, training, project managing, mentoring, giving feedback to, and assessing interns because the skills involved are not readily available from the student population.  

Most higher education institutions play a minimal role in helping students land internships – mainly organizing interviews, company sessions, and career fairs, rather than directly creating these opportunities with companies (although a small minority of schools like Northeastern, Drexel, and Waterloo have developed co-op programs with industry).  And we are now at a point in time where most Americans, Gen Z in particular, are questioning the ROI of higher education, which is accelerating the decline in enrollments.  

Because of the significant amount of human capital resources needed to support interns, whose work may or may not be of value to the company given their inexperience, competitive internships with meaningful projects can be extremely hard to obtain. This is especially true for those who may not have graduated from an elite institution, such as lower income students.  

According to the New York Times, Vaishali Sabhahit, global head of university talent at Adobe, said the company typically received applications from more than 100,000 candidates for its summer internship program in the United States and hired about 600 interns – a 0.6% acceptance rate.  The internship acceptance rate from applications at Goldman Sachs is 1.5%.  Let’s assume a 2% acceptance rate for top corporate internships which indicates how difficult it is for students to find meaningful project work in a real professional setting.

Key Barriers to Internship, Co-op and Apprenticeship Opportunities

There are 8 key barriers preventing the availability of more meaningful internship, co-op, and apprenticeship opportunities for students and career switchers:

1. Cost to Companies

Hosting interns can be costly for companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises that might not have the budget to support unpaid internships, let alone paid ones. Cost matters when assessing the ROI of unproven talent which could potentially be negative to a company in the short term.

2. Time and Resources for Training and Support

Internships require a significant investment in time and resources to train, onboard, mentor, and project manage interns effectively. Some organizations may not have the capacity or staff to provide a meaningful internship experience.

3. High Competition and Limited Openings

In certain industries, the demand for internships far exceeds the supply. Highly competitive fields such as software engineering, Wall Street finance, and management consulting may have limited openings due to the number of students vying for a relatively small number of positions.

4. Focus on Experienced Candidates

Companies facing immediate hiring needs might prefer to hire experienced workers rather than invest in the longer-term development of students through internships or apprenticeships. Other companies may still prioritize internships for students and career switchers who are further along in their education or who already have some level of professional experience via other internships, limiting opportunities for those without prior experience such as first and second-year college students.

5. Lack of Awareness or Priority

Some industries or companies may not prioritize the creation of these opportunities due to a lack of awareness about the benefits they offer or other priorities taking precedence.

6. Economic and Market Conditions

Economic downturns or uncertain market conditions can lead to companies cutting back on internship programs to focus on core business operations and retaining full-time staff.

7. Regulatory and Legal Considerations

There are legal considerations around internships, especially unpaid ones, that can deter companies from offering these opportunities. Compliance with labor laws and regulations to ensure unpaid internships meet educational and training objectives so that interns are the primary beneficiaries can be complex and challenging for businesses to navigate.

8. Educational Institution Partnerships

The development and maintenance of these programs often require strong partnerships between educational institutions and companies. Establishing and sustaining these relationships can be challenging, especially for companies or schools with limited budget and resources.

So how can students and career switchers systematically get meaningful experience in a world where the assistance from higher education is limited?  How can students, career changers, and inexperienced individuals gain the experience they need when employees, who are most qualified to train them, are busy with company priorities like developing products and services to increase revenue and profit?

The eight company barriers, my disappointing externship experience in college, and the experience of countless other students and career switchers who have struggled to land professional experience on their resumes led us at Extern to invent the remote Externship – a completely new form of professional experience. 

Externships from Extern merge high-impact work experiences with expert guidance and smart software, breaking projects into actionable steps for best practice mastery.

This approach, which will be enhanced by AI large language models that produce “expert managers” for students, refines skills through iterative learning and personalized feedback, ensuring real-world project success.  This repeatable system harnesses collective expertise to provide students with essential training and support, delivering top curated insights to companies.  Repeatable, high quality work output.  Repeatable, high quality professional experiences.  

In the following series of articles, I outline in more detail the challenges in higher education, alternative credentials, and the free market workforce that call for a new system of work experience.  I discuss how this new system, or work experience “product” we call the Externship, can enable people who lack experience to productively contribute to organizations and maximize skill building in a real professional setting.  Simultaneously, it can incentivize companies to remove the eight barriers (i.e. risks) outlined above to offer more professional experiences to inexperienced people, starting today with students.

Read next: How to Help Anyone Discover and Launch their Career through Professional Experience

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