August 24, 2020

Internships and the Cost of Geography

author photoBy Colby King

This year, National Public Radio (NPR) received 20,520 applications for the 27 internships they are offering this fall. That was nearly 8 times the number of applications NPR received for 55 internship slots the year before, according to a report in Current, a trade journal that covers the public broadcasting industry in the US. Executive Director Julie Drizin notes how we are currently in “truly tough times to be job-hunting.”

I found this report after seeing behavioral economist Jodi Beggs retweet it, saying, “Wow I feel like we just learned something pretty important here.” In the report, NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara as suggests that this increase in applications is likely a result of the internships being offered remotely this year, and not requiring participants to move to the expensive large cities in which they are typically offered.

As Beggs noted, there are likely several factors contributing to the large increase in applicants to these few internships at NPR. This year’s much higher unemployment rate is just one of many likely factors. The geographic flexibility of the internships being offered remotely, though, strike me as possibly the most important factor. If nothing else, the newfound geographic freedom coupled with the large increase in applicants suggests to me that geography really has been a hindrance for people who might have applied to these internships in previous years.

If you are a college student, you have likely been encouraged to participate in an internship at some point while you complete your degree. Internships can be great! Karen Sternheimer has written here at the Everyday Sociology Blog about how internships add value to sociology degrees. Regardless of a student’s major, internships help participants learn skills and make connections in industries they are interested in. I participated in two internships in college, one for the Lawrence County Conservation District in Pennsylvania, and one with a presidential campaign in Iowa leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucus.

Unpaid internships, though, are less great, because they are really available only to those who can afford the costs of their work going unpaid. In 2010, Lucy Mayo and Pooja Shethji discussed how internships have become a critical component of many students’ educations and resumes. As they explained:

Financial barriers, however, often prevent low-income students from accessing high-quality internships, many of which are unpaid. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may need a summer income in order to pay for college, leaving the career-rich opportunities unpaid internships provide off the table.

In 2015, Michaela Winberg then a student at Temple University, wrote about how unpaid internships cater to those from upper class backgrounds and exclude others. She also discussed how Temple, like many other universities, work to help students find paid internships. Some schools with substantial resources are even able to help their students by supplementing the student’s income while they take on internships that they might not otherwise be able to afford. For example, Amherst College’s Meiklejohn Fellows Program provides a stipend of up to $4,500, as well as additional professional development and other support, for low income and/or first-generation college students who take on unpaid internships.

Fortunately for the 27 applicants who land a spot this fall, the NPR internship is paid, at $15/hour.

If you are interested in finding a remote, paid internship, the Everyday Sociology Blog’s publisher W.W. Norton & Company has remote office and remote sales internships available this fall, each are 8 weeks and also pay $15/hour.

But, what explains the dramatic jump in applications for the NPR internships? NPR’s internships have been paid for years, so that does not explain the jump in applications. Although there are several factors at play here, I think this jump in applications really highlights just how much of an exclusionary cost the geography of the internship opportunities was for potential applicants in previous years. This year, for the first time, because the internships are remote, participants do not need to worry about the costs of moving, travel, or learning a new city.

At the outset of the pandemic, many observers fretted that people may move away from cities, since amid a pandemic, residents are less able to take advantage of many of the amenities associated with city life.

For many reasons, it seems unlikely that city populations will decline in the long term, though. Instead, the pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, may be creating opportunities to remake cities to make them more accessible, equitable, and just for all residents. Further, density alone is not entirely associated with the spread of the virus, and, as rural sociologist David Peters explains, rural America is more vulnerable to the pandemic than cities.

And, notably, it seems a typical train car in New York City’s subway system is safer than an average college classroom because the train car’s ventilation system replaces the air in the car about 18 times/hour. Anyway, agglomeration economies are sticky things and the opportunities offered in cities are likely to attract residents even if more people continue working remotely once the pandemic subsides.

The opportunities offered by remote internships, though, really do change the costs for potential internship participants and provide students the opportunity to at least apply for internships with organizations in places they might not have otherwise considered.

There’s an old song I listened to a lot around the time I moved away from home to go to graduate school that I think captured the ambivalence I felt about the leaving my hometown for new opportunities. The song is “End of this Town,” by Mr. Henry. In the chorus, the singer reflects on that tension, singing “Taking chances/keeping one foot on the ground/while the other’s hanging over/the end of this town.”

Remote internships offer students the opportunity to do just this – keep one foot on the ground at home, while taking a step toward a new opportunity in a different place. As more remote internships are offered, I hope that students who might not be able to move away will continue to find opportunities like this, so that they can connect with and learn more about fields they might want to work in, without the costs of moving away.

Comments

As I start an unpaid marketing internship, it's important to understand how my privilege has created opportunities not available to others. It's true that I'm taking on heavy debt to attend college, but this internship is more focused on my degree and career plans than the other paid internships that I could have taken, ones that were not remote and asked me to potentially increase my exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
Great insight, Colby!

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