Tufts By Numbers: The Land of No Data: Internships

This past week, Tufts students dressed in heels and suit jackets walked (willingly! hopefully!) into a big black hole of data: internships. At Tufts’ career fair last Friday, hundreds of students milled around, hopeful to become one part of the invisible statistics of internships. But shaking hands and collecting business cards aside, how much are students really told about the internship arena?

The number of opportunities available, number of competitors and acceptance rates at the vast majority of internships in the United States are unknown. A search of all internships on Jumbo Jobs delivers 444 results as of Feb. 12, a fraction of the 2110 results delivered by the Liberal Arts Career Network’s website on the same day, and fewer than those offered on national job search websites like Indeed.com. Internships are out there, but where is their data?

Internship acceptance rates, the size of the applicant pools and even the number of available positions are either uncalculated or unadvertised. These numbers that aren’t recorded are telling – an absence that points to a lack of oversight, regulation and analyses.

But the thing about data is that even when you can’t find it, there’s a story to be told. In 2014, ProPublica published an investigation on unpaid internships, one of the most notable recent investigations on this subject. The site’s inconclusive results speak loudly to the industry’s hidden nature: “Exhaustive data on interns doesn’t exist.”

Additionally, the National Association of Colleges and Employers advertises an annual Internship & Co-op Survey that costs $285 to view for non-members. For the students and young professionals to whom this data is relevant, the cost alone makes this survey inaccessible.

Even more importantly, regulations for internships, especially unpaid ones, are unclear. For a job in the for-profit sector to qualify as an internship, it must meet six criteria determined by the United States Department of Labor. These criteria focus on ensuring that the intern is receiving training and experience that directly benefits them. Importantly, this means that even if an unpaid internship qualifies for course credit, if it doesn’t adequately benefit and train the intern, it is not legal.

Massachusetts provides further regulations on unpaid work, explicitly stating that the worker must be receiving training in charitable, educational or religious institutions in order for their unpaid work to be legal.

But without public data on internship programs, community oversight for these regulations is challenging. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys about 147,000 businesses and government agencies each month to “provide detailed industry data on employment, hours and earnings,” according to its website, no internship-related data is collected.

When data doesn’t exist, the driving forces that allow analysts and journalists to understand an event or trend disappear into thin air. In the employment world, internships stick out as unchartered territory that census and survey data doesn’t reach.