A Brief History of the Internship

Completing an internship isn’t just a rite of passage for today’s college students. Some get paid for their work. Some pay to do the work. Others get academic credit. For some, it’s a combination of all three.  Either way, many students feel an internship is that must-have bullet point on their resume (second to the degree, of course) that will catch a prospective employer’s attention.

It is estimated that 20,000-40,000 interns gain real world work experience every year in the Washington, D.C., area alone. We are currently exploring the possibility of collaborating with a local college’s internship program and hope to hire one of these interns in the near future. Though we may be new to this type of employer-employee arrangement, it’s one that has been around since the medieval period.

The modern internship is a distant relative of apprenticeships that began under the guild system in the 11th century. Agricultural methods and technology had become more advanced, requiring fewer workers in the fields. Would-be farm workers took up trades in their early to mid-teens, paying a guild master to teach him the trade. Apprentices typically lived with the master for a decade, if not longer, and couldn’t marry or earn wages during the apprenticeship. At the end of the apprenticeship, the apprentice became a member of the guild and a journeyman, which meant he could earn his own wages.

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that the apprenticeship system died out, albeit briefly. Vocational training replaced it, which equipped workers with the skills needed for factory work in the 18th and 19th centuries. Apprenticeships resurfaced in the late 1800s and early 1900s but masters were replaced by employers who no longer housed apprentices. The length of the apprenticeship was drastically reduced because apprentices were taught only parts of the trade, rather than the whole trade. Apprentices such as machinists and carpenters learned their craft and received payment based on predetermined wage scales and upon completion would join trade or labor unions.

Internships as we know them today – students working at jobs to gain hands on experience in the so-called world of work – evolved over the course of the 20th century as other fields incorporated supervised, practical experience into educational curriculums. The term “intern” was first applied to medical students in the 1920s. Government and business eventually adopted the term and internship and co-op programs began to be offered on college campuses in the 1960s. But it wasn’t until recently that internships became a norm for the average college student. According to an InternMatch infographic posted on the Undercover Recruiter, only 3% of college students completed internships in the 1980s in comparison to 80% of college seniors in 1999. Today’s students often complete several internships prior to graduation and even have the option to complete internships entirely online or in other countries.

As important as internships are to students, they’re equally important to employers. Our decision to hire an intern is multifold. For starters, we want to nurture future professionals in the field by giving them real world historical research experience. Furthermore, we’d like history students to know that there are career options beyond teaching and the law. Additionally, hiring an intern is a win-win situation for our small business. The intern will complete entry-level research on appropriate projects and in doing so will help us meet our project timelines. If you are a small business owner or employee and are interested in hiring an intern or establishing an internship program, the resources below may be of help. Or, if you’ve already hired interns, please tell us what you’ve learned from the experience. We’d love to hear from you.


U.S. Small Business Administration – includes information on how to set up an internship program and information on recruiting and compensating interns.

National Association of Colleges and Employers – provides information from how to set up internship programs to best practices.

NFIB.com – highlights the Department of Labor’s criteria for hiring unpaid interns.

How to Find an Intern Who Will Make an Impact for Your Business – HuffPost article explains how to find and hire an intern that’s right for your organization.

To learn more about the history of internships, please refer to some of the resources we used to compile this overview, including the Department of LaborTimeForbes, and this in-depth historical overview published by Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries.