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Internship vs. Externship vs. Returnship

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Internships, externships, and returnship programs can help you land your next job while equipping you with new skills.

Internships, externships, and returnship programs can help you land your next job while equipping you with new skills.

Differences Between Internships, Externships and Returnships

The job market is highly competitive. Skills are abundant among job applicants, and college degrees don’t hold the same value they used to. A worldwide improvement in educational attainment is a good thing (except when graduates take a lifetime to pay back a student loan), but it means that employers nowadays will look for great candidates and not just those who have the bare minimum qualifications.

There was a striking and surprising message from Elon Musk during an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2021. He claimed that as world population growth has come to a slowdown, a labor shortage will be inevitable due to the amount of work needed and a lack of workers to fill those jobs. Musk, being CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, certainly has his own perspective on labor and probably feels this shortage of workers firsthand if he looks at his factories and observes that supply just can’t keep up with demand.

All of the above said, there are several ways a person can land a job aside from going through the excruciating process of cold-applying on the internet but getting no callbacks or only managing to land an initial interview but no follow-ups.

Despite the modernization in how people are recruited, internships, externships, and returnship programs still exist and are viable paths to landing a good job. What’s the current deal with each of these options, and are they still worth doing?

Are Internships Still Cool?

According to Chegg, tech companies provide 44 percent of the top-paying internships in the United States. This statistic alone tells you that, yes, in some industries, internships are indeed still cool. You could argue that with all the costs incurred in recruitment, corporate marketing, hiring, and onboarding activities—why not just allocate some money to spend for people who’ve found themselves waiting at your company’s door, waiting to get a full-time job?

Graduates and job applicants understand the value of internships, not just in terms of padding a resume—internships develop professional aptitude, strengthen character, and provide opportunities to build a professional network. And in the company’s perspective, internships are important because they’re a good way to both scout and develop talent, which could end up converting into full-time employees.

The Abuse of Unpaid Internships

Not all internships are abusive, and certainly not all internships are unpaid. But a 2021 survey reported by CNBC revealed that 40 percent of interns were unpaid. This was a survey of 267 employees from companies such as Dell, Wells Fargo, and Adidas. Not every unpaid internship ends up being ‘abusive’—it is those internships for which the intern is asked to do work full-time, which a normal worker would do in the first place.

Asking an intern to the work of a full-time employee and be either overly underpaid (below minimum wage) or not paid at all—these are obvious signs of abuse. Not only does the intern get less, or not even any money—but the mandatory protections such as health insurance, social security, etc. are not provided to the intern.

Should You Go for an Externship Instead of an Internship?

When I think of externships, I think of Gordon Ramsay while he was still a relative unknown, shadowing Marco Pierre White—celebrity chef, whom we probably all agree that Ramsay has greatly overshadowed. But not all externs end up like Gordon Ramsay, and not all tradesmen learning from an expert mentor ever end up following in their footsteps.

That said, externships deserve some exposure and attention from those seeking their next job the same way internships do. Corporate Finance Institute refers to externships as a hybrid of “experience” and “internship.” Here are a few benefits of going through an externship aside from an internship:

  • Getting to see up close what a professional does and learn his day-to-day while not being too overloaded with an intern’s work
  • Light commitment usually lasts a few days to a few weeks, typically light workload
  • Great way to find out whether you like a certain job, company, or industry. It’s one to like a job before you actually see it up close and another to see others do it

And here are some drawbacks and reasons why you might find it as a waste of time and energy:

  • Not immersive enough, little to no skill gained unless the externship is paid for by the extern
  • Needs either payment or the right qualifications for the extern to get in
  • May not convert into a full-time job as well as an internship might

It Might Be Take a While for Externships to Become Mainstream

Why aren’t externships as mainstream as internships? Is it because companies opt for internships due to the disguised ‘free labor’ they offer? Perhaps externships don’t get much attention because of the view that they are simply glorified extended field trips to a certain company. Some even call externships “extended initial interviews”—that’s how shallow the type of work is to be expected from the extern.

But clearly, externships are beneficial both to potential employees and employers. The commitment from the extern isn’t too much that they aren’t pressured to stay, nor is there much likelihood of exploitation. And for companies, externships give them a chance to breeze through a pool of potential candidates quickly and not waste too many resources doing so.

What on Earth Are Returnship Programs? describes a returnship as a “return-to-work program,” essentially an internship that provides career opportunities for individuals who have taken time off from the workforce for any variety of reasons.

This definition of returnship reminds me of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz’s book, From the Ground Up, where he talks extensively about how he and his wife help US military veterans reintegrate themselves back into the labor force—a movement wherein Starbucks boasts of hiring hundreds of thousands of veterans.

But going back to what a returnship is, it evidently includes any type of reason to have been absent from the labor force for some time, such as:

  • Child care: women quitting their jobs to focus full-time on kids
  • Elderly care: quitting to take care of an elderly parent or relative, usually those with medical conditions
  • Taking a long break from work
  • Recovering from a medical condition
  • Taking time off to study or go back to school, and much more

Like Starbucks, well-known companies which operate a large global workforce are known to offer returnship programs. Glassdoor recently compiled a list of companies that offered such:

  1. Hewlett Packard Enterprise
  2. Cloudflare
  3. UniversalGiving
  4. Goldman Sachs
  5. Cedars-Sinai Hospital
  6. Credit Suisse
  7. GTB

FlexJobs also made its own list, and aside from the above, the below companies are also known to offer return-to-work programs:

  1. Accenture
  2. General Motors
  3. HubSpot
  4. IBM
  5. Intuit
  6. JPMorgan Chase
  7. Microsoft
  8. Morgan Stanley
  9. NBC Universal
  10. PayPal

Organizations are clearly tapping into the pool of those people who’ve had a “gap” in their careers. Suddenly, job gaps aren’t so scary anymore. Job seekers should not be afraid of handing out a resume that tells a recruiter that there was a certain period when they didn’t do any work at all. Returnships should be taken to the mainstream, too, and here’s why companies should leverage returnships.

Why Companies Should Leverage Returnships

  • Second chances: Everyone loves a second chance, and returnships are the very definition of second chances. People who left the job market for a long time may have built up some remorse for how they went about their careers in the past and end up with a new perspective. You’ll also have returning workers who are just as excited as newbies but already with a lot of experience under their belts.
  • Diversity of experience: Diversity in the workplace has gotten more and more attention in the past few years, and it gained significant traction, especially in 2020. When you hire returning workers, you are likely to get people from different backgrounds who have gotten more input and exposure from outside the workplace.
  • Hiring skilled, gritty, and experienced people: As I said, in giving people a second chance, the type of workers you’ll get from returnees are skilled, gritty, and experienced. While returnships usually are for people to start from scratch, your returning workers would already have some actual work skills they can apply or that will translate. You will also have grittier workers, especially those who took a break to focus on child care or elderly care.
  • Grateful employees: Worker attrition is something each company manages and pays a lot of attention to. When you hire returning employees, you will have gained grateful employees because these are normally the type of people that employers pass on due to having big job gaps. Competitive companies can leverage returnship programs and recruit workers who will not easily quit because these are workers who had already quit for a long time.

The Bottom Line: Watch Out for Abuse and Avoid Exploitation

We can compare and contrast internships, externships, and returnships all day long, but the bottom line is this: when you enter any one of these, be on high alert for abuse. And most especially, avoid exploitation at all costs.

Great as these recruitment strategies are, more often than not, these programs are friendly fronts to ulterior motives of getting cheap-to-no-cost labor and improving the company's perception.

When you think that internships, externships, and returnship programs, especially when paid, are charity cases for organizations—think again. Companies get a lot back from doing these things, too, and these programs ultimately save them money—whether it's savings from a recruitment costs standpoint or a tax deduction.

When looking for an internship, assess whether it will ultimately convert into a job, and as much as possible, only take paid ones. For externships, meet as many people as you can. And for returnship programs, be bold enough to join the workforce again while at the same time remembering your rights as a worker. Above all else: take care of yourself.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.