Way back in April, I remember asking a friend about his job search was going. “It’s going alright,” he said, “ I just got back from my second round of interviews.” Upon asking further, I found out that, should that round of interviews go well, he’d be eligible for a round of day-long “practical interview,” which turned out to be a euphemistic term for a day-long internship. If he sufficiently wowed his supervisors, he’d have another opportunity to show off his skills at a week-long mini-internship over this summer. Finally, if he was deemed sufficiently impressive after that trial period, he’d receive an offer for a full time internship. A full time internship next summer, that is.
At the time, it seemed ridiculous, and it still does. In the past, there’s always been a few highly selective companies with ludicrously rigorous recruitment processes. But these were companies which filled very specific niches, demanded very specific skills, or whose internships offers were practically job offers. The company whose internship my friend applied to was none of the above. It was a fairly run-of-the-mill investment bank, some Goldman Sachs-esque firm.
And to a certain extent, that does make sense. Candidates which are willing to go through such an arduous and drawn-out process tend to be more committed to the company they are applying to, while the long process also gives employers ample opportunity to weed out candidates who are underqualified, underprepared, or simply not productive enough for their standards. Having the first pick of potential candidates, assuming no or few other companies are recruiting early, is the cherry on the cake.
From a strategic perspective, then, it makes perfect sense for companies to recruit as early as possible and require as extensive trial periods as possible. Those that do get to reap the benefits, while those that don’t miss out on potential talent, and likely end up incurring the costs of both firing ineffective workers and hiring replacements. It shouldn’t be surprising that this practice becomes more common with every passing year, and that companies have even begun reaching out to freshmen in an attempt to lock them in for internships during their junior summer.
But what freshman knows what they want to do freshman year? Everyone knows that freshman who’s absolutely convinced they know what field they’re going to go into, who then either realizes they don’t like the field at all or find themselves called to another field. Similarly, there are inevitably freshmen, or sophomores, who are convinced they know where they want to work, but really will have to go through several job changes before they find the job that’s right for them. Studies which have examined student data have found that twenty to fifty percent of freshmen go into college without any idea about what major they want to pursue, and seventy-five percent of students change their major at some point. College, after all, is the time and place for students to explore and figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Often by explicit design, it offers students a place place to develop their identities, search for meaning, and find what they love. At risk of being cliche, this exploration come from trying new things and being exposed to different lifestyles. Being locked into a series of mini-internships leading up to a larger one junior summer hardly seems conducive to that.
And then where does it stop? Now that freshman recruiting is the new battlefield upon which firms compete for talent, the advantage which comes from snapping up a freshman will decrease as that becomes the norm. Inevitably, some enterprising recruiter will try to steal a march on their competition and reach out to pre-frosh. After all, what difference does a semester make, when the start of recruiting season has already been moved ahead by years? And, of course, what substantial difference is there between a prefrosh and a high school senior? A pre-frosh has already been accepted into college, but the same indicators which prestigious colleges use to gauge if a student is right for them can be just as easily obtained by firms. If anything, on a purely quantitative scale, an average pre-March 15 high school senior’s performance will probably be substantially better than that of an accepted pre-frosh.
I’m not going to be so melodramatic as to claim, or even imply, that this recruiting competition will devolve into firms battling to snatch up promising babies and make them commit to internships. That’s absolutely ridiculous. But what I will say is that today’s system is terribly exploitative, designed to force students to make uninformed, poorly thought out snap decisions which will shape the rest of their lives. Firms have begun adding time limits to their job offers, and not the month-long limits we are all familiar with from the college application process. Companies know that, even should they alienate one applicant, they will have countless others, affording them the opportunity to push ever more rigorous and restrictive requirements.
Are companies going to stop these practices? Not while it secures them valuable talent. It’s an employers market right now, especially in finance and consulting, where these practices are most prevalent. There is simply no reason for companies to change their practices, not when they are doing so well by it and have little to gain by making their internship process any easier. All that’s left to hope for is that companies don’t abuse their leverage too much, and that the internships actually live up to their promise of helping students get the job they want.