In-demand college students seeking summer internships are reneging on offers as companies swoop in to offer better deals. Host J.R. Whalen is joined by Georgia Tech senior Najaah Chambliss, who walked away from an internship, and WSJ reporter Lindsay Ellis, who discusses the trend and how companies are responding.
If you are considering reneging on an internship or job offer, please connect with Jen Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
J.R. Whalen: Here's Your Money Briefing for Friday, March 4th. I'm J.R. Whalen for The Wall Street Journal. We've told you how the pandemic helped create a job seekers market with millions of workers leaving their jobs for better pay and companies struggling to fill open slots. But that's also happening among students who are trying to land summer internships. Competition for interns has gotten so fierce that some who've gotten and accepted offers are reneging on them to take a better deal elsewhere.
Lindsay Ellis: Just like a lot of job seekers, there is demand for people to come in the door. Companies look at their summer internship programs and they're not just thinking about that summer. They're thinking, "Who can we identify among this cohort of interns that a year from now we're going to want to bring back or we want to hire full-time after the program."
J.R. Whalen: On today's show, we'll discuss the growing leverage students have in the competitive world of summer internships with our reporter, Lindsay Ellis. Plus we'll hear from one student who reneged at an intern ship offer and see how it turned out. That's after the break. For college students, an offer for a summer internship can mean getting their foot in the door and launching a career track. But amid the tight labor market, more students are walking away from offers they've already accepted to take an even better one. In a moment, we'll hear from WSJ reporter Lindsay Ellis about this growing trend and the competition for entry level talent. But first let's bring in one of those in-demand interns for a firsthand account. I'm joined now by (Naja Shambliss). She's 21 and a senior at Georgia Tech University majoring in computer science. Last fall, she began applying for internships for this coming summer. Hey Naja, thanks for being here.
Naja Shambliss: I'm glad to be here.
J.R. Whalen: So Naja, back in October you landed a summer internship. Tell us about how that went.
Naja Shambliss: Yeah, so I was applying for internships and I had found this opportunity on, I believe LinkedIn. It was either LinkedIn or Handshake I believe. And so, yeah, I went ahead and applied and I figured I had a pretty good chance of getting this internship because I had previously interned with a defense company and so I thought getting this internship from this other defense company would be not too bad. And I also wanted to intern somewhere else other than this previous company, which is why I was applying for other companies. And so, yeah, I applied and it took a little while to get back to me, but I ended up interviewing with them once and then I heard back from them about a month later, I believe, saying that I received an offer.
J.R. Whalen: All right. But then earlier of this year, your plans changed. What happened there?
Naja Shambliss: Yeah. So at the end of November, my recruiter reached out to me on LinkedIn also asking me to apply for a Microsoft internship and I had already accepted the defense internship, but I was like, it's Microsoft, I've applied for them before. I haven't been accepted previously, so this would just be an extra step for practice for when I apply again for the next recruiting season. So I filled out the application she sent me and then I went through the first round of interviews, which wasn't too bad, thank God. And then I got pushed to the final round and I received an offer after that.
J.R. Whalen: Oh, so what did Microsoft offer you?
Naja Shambliss: I'm not able to disclose the numbers, but let's say it was definitely double what the defense industry was offering me. And then they were also giving me a relocation, stipend and a stipend to help with my moving expenses and stuff like that. So it was a pretty great deal.
J.R. Whalen: So you eventually had to go tell the defense company that you had accepted a new opportunity. How'd that conversation go?
Naja Shambliss: So it's actually pretty funny. I sent out an email to, I believe she was my onboarding HR person and stating that I do apologize for having to do this to you guys so late in the game, but unfortunately I have to renege my offer, and I actually did not get a response for them. I had sent them an email and I never received an email back, but I did look at my portal and it had said that I was no longer being considered for the position. So I don't think they received that information in the best way, but yes, that's what happened.
J.R. Whalen: So when you first got the word from the recruiter that there was a Microsoft internship out there to try to go after, how did you feel about that process at that stage? I imagine you had firmed up the defense company internship and had signed some papers, right?
Naja Shambliss: Yeah. I thought this opportunity was different maybe because I had never had a recruiter directly from a company DM me, or specifically for Microsoft, I have never had a Microsoft recruiter DM me on LinkedIn asking me to apply for position. So I kind of had a good feeling about this process and that's kind of what made me be like, "Okay, even though I've already accepted this offer, this might turn out differently, so let's try it."
J.R. Whalen: All right. That's Naja Shambliss, a senior at Georgia Tech University with us. Naja, thank you so much for taking the time to chat.
Naja Shambliss: Thank you for having me. This is my first podcast experience, so I'm very grateful. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
J.R. Whalen: Oh, we really appreciate it. Thanks a lot.
Naja Shambliss: No problem.
J.R. Whalen: So what's driving this cutthroat competition for interns and what are companies doing to keep potential interns interested? For more on that, I'm joined by WSJ reporter, Lindsay Ellis. She's been looking into it. Lindsay, thanks so much for being here.
Lindsay Ellis: Thank you so much for having me.
J.R. Whalen: So Lindsay, these bidding wars for interns like we just heard with Naja, is that something new?
Lindsay Ellis: So interns, especially in demand fields like computer science, engineering and the like, they've always had some competitive offers, but the level of competition that I heard from interns seemed just really striking. Campuses and companies are saying that they're seeing competition over interns in a way that feels different than prior years, especially the last two years, the first with the pandemic really sinking in and last year with everything in a much different hiring market than we are right now.
J.R. Whalen: So why do interns suddenly have this kind of leverage in the job market?
Lindsay Ellis: Just like a lot of job seekers, there is demand for people to come in the door. And I think that for interns emerges in a couple of ways, the first is, companies really want applicants and they want qualified applicants. And that inherently gives the people who are applying, who have strong resumes, who have the skills that they're looking for an edge. I think the other reason is companies look at their summer internship programs and they're not just thinking about that summer. They're thinking, "Who can we identify among this cohort of interns that a year from now we're going to want to bring back or we want to hire full time after the program." And so this is sort of a key pool for companies to look at their entry level workforce. And so there is more demand in hiring the right people when this could be my pipeline six months from now, a year from now.
J.R. Whalen: Is there ever any kind of a penalty if a student backs out of an internship that they've already accepted?
Lindsay Ellis: It can vary from campus to campus, but yes. Cornell's business school, if you're an MBA student and you accept an offer for the summer and then you go out and interview and accept a different one and back out of that first one, they say that they reserve the right to fine you up to $2,500.
J.R. Whalen: Wow. I mean, for a college student, that's a lot of money.
Lindsay Ellis: It is, yes. And for those two, those were specifically for business school students, so perhaps a little later in their career. But these are people that don't necessarily have income coming in every month and yet still might be on the hook. There are other penalties that are also significant. At the University of California Berkeley's business school, one of the possible sanctions is a 16 hour service project. So that can be a significant amount of money certainly and time if you're caught backing out from this.
J.R. Whalen: But a student might consider switching to a different internship that could better jumpstart their career, right? But is there a danger of them burning their bridges behind them?
Lindsay Ellis: Colleges say that there is. I mean, they are quick to remind students that it's a small world and a small job market in a lot of ways. Recruiters move from company to company. Someone who you interact with when you're 22, you might encounter in a totally different field a few years down the line. They also sort of put in place their own regulations that could hamper a student's trajectory as they continue through their education. Some schools at the undergraduate level will restrict the use of a platform called Handshake where a lot of jobs are listed for students who are caught backing out. I think students who I talked to who have considered this or who have done this look at the name on the resume, they look at the salary that they could be bringing in and importantly, they look at the experience that they think that they're going to get at these preferred internship programs. And in a lot of cases, that's a very strong counterweight to a more nebulous idea of possible ramifications. There's another side to that coin as well, which is the relationship between the college and the company, and many campus career offices are really cognizant of that relationship and don't want to do anything to stress it or damage it. Their fear is that if a number of students back out from opportunities that they've already accepted, might that influence whether a company wants to come back next semester or next year and knock on their door and recruit future classes. And so one aspect of could this be hurtful, is thinking about what is the next student who comes around, what's going to be their experience, and colleges really have that front of mind.
J.R. Whalen: Now, there's usually several months between the time somebody lands an internship and when they actually start. So what are companies doing to prevent people from backing out?
Lindsay Ellis: There usually are several months between these dates and one thing that really surprised me in reporting this is that in some cases there are many more months than I had anticipated. People were telling me that they were interviewing for these summer internships while they were doing a different summer internship. So companies need to keep students warm is what they say, make sure that they're front of mind for these candidates that they've worked hard to recruit. Liberty Mutual told me about their keep in touch campaign, including interns in get togethers that are held virtually, some coffee chats and the like to keep them engaged with what's going on. One logistics company that I talked to mentioned sending holiday e-cards to the students who had accepted. So there are different tactics, some with video engagement and when possible in-person engagement, but others just really leaning into the messaging.
J.R. Whalen: And so how are the companies responding to this trend of interns backing out of offers and how are they thinking about their internship programs more broadly to keep people interested?
Lindsay Ellis: So some of them are looking at pay benchmarks and making sure that this very basic aspect of it, this critical aspect of it is competitive of with other organizations and external benchmarks. Some of them begrudge the trend and you kind of throw your hands up in the air and it's a little bit of a "kids these days" reaction. But the thing that I think most stood out to me on this was a real focus on what can we do as an organization to prepare for the summer, just kind of accepting that this might take place. So a few companies, including General Mills told me and have mentioned that they plan to overhire, basically extending a few more offers than they typical would and hoping that a few more candidates than they want to accept accept, expecting that a few of them are maybe going to back out between now and the summer. And I think they're also thinking about how they recruit and how they build relationships with students. One common refrain I heard from recruiters was, "In this virtual environment maybe students feel less of a strong connection with us as a company and with the recruiters and the team overall. How can we build that up and keep them feeling close?" And so that sort of speaks to some of the strategies, the keeping in touch efforts and the like.
J.R. Whalen: All right. That's Wall Street Journal reporter, Lindsay Ellis with us. Lindsay, thanks so much for being with us.
Lindsay Ellis: Thank you for having me.
J.R. Whalen: And that's Your Money Briefing. I'm J.R. Whalen for The Wall Street Journal.