How internships affect social mobility & why they need to be accessible to all

by | Jun 6, 2019 | Diversity recruitment, The Inclusion

Written for the Inclusion by Rick Bacon, CEO Aqua Metrology Systems. In 2018 he was awarded a PhD from the University of California Santa Barbara where his dissertation focused on internships and social networks.

We live in a society where having a meaningful, well-paid job determines where and how we live. It defines our access to homeownership, healthcare and education and what we spend on travel, entertainment and consumer goods. In other words, the type of employment we have, and our social mobility, are inseparable.

In this article, I will discuss how internships play a key role in driving social mobility.

Catch 22

One of the first hurdles a work entrant encounters is that employees want people with work experience. But how do young people, especially those from underserved and underrepresented communities, get that first job?

Internships have emerged as a way that young people can begin the transition from formal education to employment. They provide young people with an invaluable opportunity to understand the company, its values and what working there is really like. And for employers, internships offer them a less costly way of assessing new talent. So, for both, it is a ‘try before you buy’ opportunity that can help reduce the high first-year drop-out rates of graduate recruits.


Of those had to decline internships said external barriers, such as being unable to afford it, or being unable to move to a city were the deciding factor.

Access to internships are not equal

The problem is that access to internships is not equal. The evidence is that internships are found through the personal networks of the student and their family. Under-privileged students rarely have these networks. Neither are they as cognisant of the fact that they need internships to get into prestigious companies. And even if they do know this fact they don’t know how to navigate the recruitment process. This means that these students do not have access to one of the first, and arguably most valuable, rungs on the career ladder. Companies are also denied the opportunity to bring such young people into their recruitment pipeline.

*Figure from Pay As You Go? Internship pay, quality and access in the graduate jobs market by the Sutton Trust, 2018.

Middle-class graduates are more likely to find a placement through personal contacts. Certain high paying professions, such as Law and Finance are nearly 40% reliant upon their connections. This is indicative of middle-class young people having the networks and the social and cultural capital to promote themselves and find opportunities. It’s also important to note that 68% of internships gained through contacts were unpaid, ruling out many young people from underserved communities who would not be able to support themselves through the programme.

The ‘Diversity ‘Dividend’

We live in a society where companies are recognising the benefits that diversity can bring – the so-called ‘Diversity Dividend’It’s proven that diversity offers increased value in every aspect of work, this includes – leadership, decision-making, product development, market insight and access, as well as sales and customer support.

For many organisations, making the transition to a more inclusive workforce requires many changes. Those changes are both attitudinal and behavioural and are required at all levels of the business. From this perspective, the needs of young diverse people are highly compatible with businesses seeking to become more inclusive.

But with internship opportunities going predominantly to young, well-connected people from privileged backgrounds, it only serves to filter out the difference, not filter it in.

How companies benefit from internships

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) Development Survey 2017 showed that 20% of graduates leave by the first year of completing a graduate programme. Faced by these very high drop-out rates for graduate employees, companies are turning to internships as a recruitment and assessment tool.

Internships provide the company with valuable insight into the young person’s work ethic, attitude, inquisitiveness, ability to work in a team, problem-solving ability, communication skills, willingness to adapt and learn, etc. Moreover, companies are aware of how competitive securing an internship can be, so it has also become a filtering indicator of a young person’s persistence, grit and determination.

Additionally, internships offer the opportunity for engaged employees to become coaches and mentors to the young interns. Staff are often thrown into this supporting role, with little or no training, obliging them to adapt to working with a youthful ‘newbie’. The evidence is that the interesting and inquisitive young person will stretch the coach more, thanks to their different beliefs, opinions or ways of working, than those of their colleagues and peers.

This can lead to interesting and thought-provoking questions about existing and perhaps stale ways of ‘doing’ things, which now get a new, and fresh perspective. It also allows for a better understanding of the company’s ‘diversity-readiness’.


Of those who had to decline internships said external barriers, such as being unable to afford it, or being unable to move to a city were the deciding factor.

Making internships a driver of social mobility

Improved social mobility is closely tied to young people from underserved and underrepresented groups obtaining access to meaningful well-paid employment. For this to happen, these young people must have access to the best internships. These work experiences can assist them in both understanding the type of career they want and increasing their chances of securing a job.

Most companies now expect a potential recruit to have had at least one (often more) internships. In an increasingly competitive employment market, having an internship has become a ‘must have’ requirement for businesses. Companies perceive people with internships, as those who are more likely to be ‘work ready’.

Theoretically, everyone should benefit from internships.

The trouble is that quality internships are accessed by those on the ‘inside’ with the right social capital and connections, and exclude those on the outside, namely, the underserved and underrepresented.  

By offering internships to diverse people, companies can build a future recruitment pipeline of diverse talent and learn about their ‘diversity-readiness’. This also helps them understand the changes they must make if they’re to impact social mobility, fulfil their side of the social contract, and earn their slice of the diversity dividend.

Read the report from The Sutton Trust here.

Rick Bacon is passionate about the value of internship programmes for young people and forward-thinking companies. As a business leader, he can vouch for the transformative power of internships for young people from diverse backgrounds and for the employees they encounter. Rick grew up on a farm and, in securing a place at Cambridge University, gained access to an international career path. He is currently CEO of Aqua Metrology Systems, a California based water technology start-up. In 2018 he was awarded a PhD from the University of California Santa Barbara where his dissertation focused on internships and social networks.

Did you enjoy the read?

Sign up for our newsletter below to get our monthly insights email The Inclusion.