The Career Conveyor Belt: How Internships Lead to Unequal Labor Market Outcomes among College Graduates

Abstract

Progressing quickly from school to work is an indicator of early career success for college graduates. Recent research shows that inter-institutional connections between elite universities and prestigious employers easily move students at these schools into a select few firms. Prior research has yet to fully address whether students at non-elite colleges have differential access to connections between their colleges and potential employers. Drawing on 176 longitudinal interviews with students across four majors, I track 91 seniors who have all completed internships as they graduate and enter the labor market. In doing so, I document the inter-institutional connections through which employers recruit some students for internships that often lead directly to permanent employment opportunities, a process I call the career conveyor belt. Career conveyor belt internships have procedures in place to hire some, or all, of their interns immediately following graduation. Students that must find their own internships rarely end up in career conveyor belt internships, and they often spend 3–6 months job-searching after school ends before finding full-time work. Analysis reveals that college major plays a critical role in determining which students access career conveyor belt internships. These findings suggest students’ differential access to inter-institutional connections between schools and employers produce unequal labor market outcomes between college graduates by major.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Some Business and Engineering students completed co-ops. Co-ops are not functionally different from full-time internships; the major difference is that they take place during a Fall or Spring semester (or two consecutive semesters) rather than over one summer.

  2. 2.

    Six respondents chose not to sit for a second interview, five of whom provided detailed employment information in writing. Of the six who were not retained, there were no more than two from any one discipline.

  3. 3.

    Respondents’ self-identified their social class, but I also captured information on their parents’ jobs, levels of education, and income to create a fuller picture of each student’s class background.

  4. 4.

    Institutional data pulled from a recent university graduation survey that is uncited to maintain confidentiality.

  5. 5.

    At the time of Wave 2, besides the three respondents who were unemployed, seven were in graduate school, leaving seventy-five respondents with jobs.

  6. 6.

    If firms made an ad hoc decision to not hire the intern, and the student (and therefore I) never knew about this, I would not consider the internship as providing a career conveyor belt. However, if a student were aware of a process for turning interns into employees, even if that intern did not receive a job offer, then the internship was characterized as having a career conveyor belt (e.g. a firm takes twenty interns with the expectation that five will be hired on full-time).

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to acknowledge Steven Lopez, Tim Bartley, Peter Ikeler, Davon Norris, Laurie Michaels, Lindsey Ibanez, Vincent Roscigno, and Natasha Quadlin for their helpful comments and insights.

Funding

Funding was provided by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant and grants from The Ohio State University.

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Correspondence to Corey Moss-Pech.

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Moss-Pech, C. The Career Conveyor Belt: How Internships Lead to Unequal Labor Market Outcomes among College Graduates. Qual Sociol 44, 77–102 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-020-09471-y

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Keywords

  • School-to-work transition
  • Higher education
  • Labor markets
  • STEM
  • Hiring
  • Internships
  • College majors