The intern economy is booming this summer

June 26, 2015, 7:00 PM UTC
Illustration by Martin Laksman

The full-time grownup job market isn’t the only one on the rebound: According to employment research firm Burning Glass, internship openings for college students have fully recovered to pre-recession levels. The number of positions available for the summer grew 3% this year over last, to a total of 118,421 postings (a growth rate roughly in step with that for entry-level jobs).

More important, many experts think the quality is rising along with the quantity, as more companies shed fetch-the-VP’s-coffee-for-no-pay internships in favor of programs that are key to their talent pipelines. “Internships have become the approach du jour to bringing new people in,” says John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. Burning Glass data suggest that’s particularly true for employers in the arts, and in video and graphic design—industries that posted one internship for every three post-grad entry-level positions.

The more desirable the internship, of course, the stiffer the competition. For many positions in the technology arena, students need to know programming languages like Java or SQL even to be considered, says Burning Glass CEO Matt Sigelman. In communications and marketing—the largest internship segment—candidates will get nowhere if they can’t demonstrate their social media chops. But as the bar for entry gets higher, some experts are optimistic that unpaid internships are going out of style. If that proves to be true, lifeguarding and waiting tables may soon become even less appealing to ambitious college kids.

A version of this article appears in the July 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “The Intern Economy Bounces Back.”