You can think of individual contributions to the public good in three categories:
- required and monetary: we pay taxes
- required but non-monetary: we contribute service to juries, register for the draft, etc.
- voluntary: this includes things as varied as civility, participation in local organizations, and philanthropy.
Certainly if you completely ignore #3 and are a continuous jerk, the state may step in and punish you, but in this category society seems to flourish only when we go beyond the minimum legal expectation. It’s not enough to do it; you have to want to.
As we think about the outcomes we want for graduates beyond employment and a good starting salary, these three ways seem to capture what they’ll face, and the third group is one we can try to cultivate in college.
But when we turn from individual to corporate contributions, something funny happens. I can think easily of examples in the first category (corporate taxes on income, sales, payroll) and especially the third. Most name-brand companies have a charitable foundation, promote local events, encourage their workers to be joiners.
But curiously, our expectations in the second category seem very industry-specific. For example a real-estate developer might be expected to contribute in-kind services to mitigate environmental impact, or a government contractor may sell the army a bunch of laptops with the expectation that it will donate the leftovers to developing countries. But there isn’t an all-purpose counterpart to something like jury duty, applicable to all corporate citizens regardless of their business.
If we’re ready to create one, then I think it should be internships. There is not enough work-based learning to go around.
The demand side is fine. Educators know that work-based learning is powerful in many ways. It contextualizes what we pick up in regular courses. It forces nimbleness and flexibility. And it reminds students vividly of what all this effort and sacrifice are for, before they drop out. Also on the demand side, our students — even those who are the first in their families to attend college — have heard of internships and know they want them. This contributes to growing national sentiment that internships should be paid, so they’ll be available even to poor students.
But providing such placements is hard on employers — hosting internships was always a shaky investment, requiring lots of effort and supervision without an immediate return. If it lands in my three-category breakdown at all, then this contribution has been mostly #3, a kind of voluntary philanthropy.
But such largess makes even less sense as the workforce becomes more mobile, and less loyal. These days employers can’t tell themselves they’re getting an inside track on hiring the best talent; even if it works they won’t have that employee for long anyway.
In other words, internships have moved squarely into the realm of public good, not private. I would like to see a forward thinking state, say, mine, consider telling employers that the cost of doing business here may be paid either in all cash, as it is now, or as a combination of cash and a set-aside percentage of their entry-level positions for emerging talent, participating in internships while they’re still in school.