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Why Internships Can East the Path From College to Career- and Why They Often Don't

Internships can ease the path from college to career — but they often don’t.

It’s becoming increasingly clear how critical internships are in landing a job after college and accelerating one’s career. So I was very interested when I learned that Matthew Hora, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies the path from college to career, had turned his attention to internships because I knew he would challenge some common assumptions.

Hora’s expertise and background is unusual for a person in this field: While economists usually dominate the discussion about the world of work, Hora is an anthropologist. His qualitative approach attempts to shed light on the messy process by which companies hire talent and people seek out work.

For example, his book, Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work, poked at the common assumption about why American companies (and especially Wisconsin companies) are dealing with a skills mismatch or a skills shortage — that they can’t find workers with the necessary training to fill positions, particularly in manufacturing, the trades, and various “middle skills” jobs. (You know the refrain: “Who needs all these highfalutin college grads when we need welders!”)

Hora unpacks that assumption to show that the “skills gap” might actually be a result of broader trends in the job market and peculiar biases at companies. A workplace is a culture, Hora notes, and employers often look for people who will fit into that culture, regardless of their technical skills. Maybe companies are looking for “purple squirrels” — candidates who are impossibly perfect for the position, who need no training. Maybe employers are looking for hard-working kids from Wisconsin farms, not the