Extern vs. Intern? Both Suck, Hire This Instead

Find out the key differences between an extern vs. intern and the #1 job your company should invest in to grow your talent pipeline.

February 11, 2024

Extern vs. intern. Believe us, that’s not a typo. Over the years, many approaches have been tried to provide insight and training to entry-level employees. There’s a chance many of us have been interns at some point; there’s also a chance many of us have been externs. Learning through experience is valuable. However, some experiences may provide better benefits than others. Externships and internships may be the traditional way to train entry-level workers, but apprenticeships offer more benefits – for both the employee and the employer. 

What is an externship?

An externship is a training program offered by an educational institution or business that gives individuals short practical experience in their field. In other words, it’s a short-term, unpaid experience where a student job shadows a career of their interest.

How short-term? An externship can range from one day to eight weeks in length. It’s a trial run, a tester period, the 30-second trailer for what a job may or may not be. An externship acts as an opportunity for a student to gain quick knowledge of a particular career field. 

Externships act as a way for individuals to explore interests and curiosities. Individuals typically secure externships through their schools – or their network. In some occasions, companies will post externships on job sites like LinkedIn or Indeed.

During an externship, externs may:

  • Tour a company’s location or office
  • Sit in on employee meetings
  • Observe and network with professionals
  • Review company informational literature

What is an internship? 

Did you know the term “intern” used to describe a medical practitioner who wasn’t licensed? Since then, the term has evolved and is now used to refer to anyone working as a student or trainee. An internship is a paid or voluntary position within an organization which typically spans a few months or a semester.

An internship provides surface-level learning and is usually geared to undergraduate students. Most interns are assigned meaningless grunt work that actually doesn’t build valuable skills. For most, an internship is a resume checkbox. 

During an internship, interns may:

  • Engage in grunt work administrative tasks
  • Witness the primary functions of the organization
  • Closely observe team members
  • Spend time in a company’s workplace

Extern vs. Intern

Externships and internships are both temporary, on-the-job training programs that place an individual in a position to gain valuable insight into a career. Despite some similarities, there are a number of differences between the two.


Externships are typically unpaid job shadowing opportunities. Internships can be either paid or unpaid. 


Externships are short-term, lasting anywhere from a day to eight weeks. Internships can last anywhere between a few months and a year.

Job Expectations

A company will usually not assign projects and tasks to an extern. Rather, the extern observes day-to-day operations of the job and the company. There is little to no guarantee of a full-time position after an externship. 

An internship offers a longer, more immersive experience. An intern is provided with projects and tasks for the benefit of the team and company and are expected to serve as a contributing member. Internships can end in a full-time offer to work for the company, but a position is not guaranteed.

extern vs intern

Why do externships and internships suck?

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Externs vs. interns… we’ve heard these terms before and many of us assume that all there is to train and nurture entry level employees. The unfortunate truth is: externs and interns are unsustainable options for growing businesses and are usually more work than they’re worth.

Externships and internships can unintentionally narrow your talent pool

Most people can’t afford to do unpaid work. Unpaid externships and internships limit your company’s talent pool to those who have the “best” credentials, the right network, or the biggest safety net. 

Even paid internships can unintentionally narrow your talent pool. Interns are also typically hired on credentials rather than skill  – what school they go to, their grades, their major, what people they know, the past experiences they have. Hiring based on credentials vs. skills can narrow the applicants you have to choose from; we’ve written more about the problems of hiring based on credentials here. 

There no guarantee that an externship or internship will grow your company

If well-designed, an internship ought to act as a primary workforce development strategy and employee feeder. Sadly, however, most internship programs are poorly designed and poorly executed. Most programs do not get the desired result: skilled entry-level employees. In fact, only 56% of interns get hired full-time after they complete an internship, according to Compare Camp. That sounds like a lot of time and money wasted on what should be a company’s #1 feeder strategy.

Why is the number of interns hired full time so low? Part of the reason is that most interns are assigned the company’s most menial, rudimentary tasks. There is no guarantee – and no way of knowing – that an intern learns or provides what your company needs to grow. Plus, who would want to return to a company that bored them out of their mind?

All extern and intern expenses are paid out of pocket

Intern salary? You pay out of pocket. An extern eats at your cafeteria? You pay out of pocket. You’re expected to front any and all extern and intern-related costs.

It can be difficult to design and manage a good extern or intern program

There’s no set structure to an externship or internship. At most companies, you may do some onboarding, then get straight to work. If an internship is run well, it meets the criteria of a short-term apprenticeship – it inspires and propels, launches a career, provides On-The-Job Learning (OJL) and mentorship. But unfortunately, most internships consist of either an end of internship presentation or data entry and are managed by already-too-busy employees. 

What to hire instead – Extern vs. Intern vs. Apprentice

What is an apprenticeship? An apprenticeship is a structured training program providing On-The-Job Learning (OJL) and coursework designed so individuals can meet the needs of highly-skilled jobs. 

extern vs intern vs apprentice

It’s quickly becoming the most sustainable option for growing your talent pipeline and business.

Apprenticeships diversify your talent pool 

Where externs and interns are hired based on credentials and connections, apprenticeships are based on talent and skill. What that does is it opens up your talent pool to a larger group of people. Perhaps those you would have never considered having hired based off of credentials. Apprenticeships add more diversity to your workforce and provide upskilling opportunities to underrepresented classes. They’re a path of opportunity for women, people of color, people with disabilities. If your company values diversity, your jobs need to be designed such that they open your talent pool, attract a diverse workforce, and create an inclusive culture. Apprenticeships can do that.

Apprenticeships futureproof the growth of your company

An apprenticeship is an investment in the success of an individual within your company. As a result, apprentices are more likely to stay at their company after completing their apprenticeship. An apprenticeship is a relatively low-cost investment into a fully-trained, loyal workforce that may - if managed correctly - stay with the company for a long time.

Federal grant money can help pay for apprenticeship expenses

You heard that correctly. You don’t have to pay out of pocket for apprenticeships. If you federally register your apprenticeship, it can open your company up to grants that offset the cost of employment. Depending on your industry and the position, you can receive anywhere from $5-15k per person to offset training costs.

Apprenticeships offer a set design and management structure 

There are basic, necessary components of a high-quality apprenticeship, including coursework, OJL, support services, and more. We’ve built these elements into the heart of Apprentix to ensure apprenticeships are meaningful and engaging for all. Bonus: Apprentix step-by-step design guide can quickly turn your externship or internship into an apprenticeship.

Even movies think apprentices are cooler

The movies know what’s up. Seriously, what would you pick? We’re picking the magic ball for your workforce development – the apprenticeship. It’s Nicolas Cage + magic + a dog, come on people!

movie posters for the assistant the intern and the sorcerers apprentice

Like the article? Spread the word