Interns at top firms in Silicon Valley and related tech firms can, reportedly, make between $5,000 and $7,000 per month. Some of them are still in high school.
It might appear insane for a high school intern to make more pay, annualized, than his or her teacher before even leaving said high school.
But it’s not. It’s a reflection of the tech sector’s realities.
Partly, it derives from competition for talent in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields (STEM). “The demand for STEM skills is increasing virtually exponentially while we aren’t turning out graduates at the same rate,” says Ross DeVol, chief research officer at the Milken Institute.
Silicon Valley and tech firms are increasingly competing with Wall Street for such graduates.
But there’s more to the insatiable drive for talent: The tech sector is a roiling mass of instability. The floor of Silicon Valley is littered with tech companies that didn’t reinvent themselves in time.
“It’s the changing of the landscape that has a lot of firms unsettled about where things are going,” says Kyle Mayer, professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. Apple went from a computer company to making smart phones and tablets. “Amazon started out as a marketplace for selling books. Now not only are they a marketplace for selling everything, they do a lot of back-end storage, with servers that store a lot of other companies' data.”
Tech and new media firms that have to constantly reinvent themselves or die need a rare kind of creative, conceptual talent: not simply people who can solve a question proficiently, but who can redefine the question itself.
“It’s not just about the smartest person in the room,” says Mayer.
Of course, in many cases, a prospective intern or candidate may well be the smartest in the room - inventing viral apps in their spare time or hacking a network for fun. But it’s not enough.
Individuals don’t solve complex problems in the tech sector. Teams do. Having a “good fit” – someone who can work well in a team such that it becomes more than the sum of its parts.
“It’s important to remember: What’s the cost of getting the wrong person in there?” says Russell Coff, professor of strategy at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “In many cases it’s a creative endeavor, putting together product development teams, and there’s only so much you can handle in terms of a personality that doesn’t fit.” An internship is a good way to suss that out.
Given that many firms have become famous for what Mayer calls “acqhiring” - buying out smaller companies not for the product but for the highly successful team inside - $7,000 for an intern is a small price to pay.
Bloomberg analyzed Glassdoor salary data to chart out the highest-paid interns. Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley's heavy-hitters dominated the list:
We compared their salaries to a few other Bay Area companies on Glassdoor to figure out just how much more these interns are pulling in. These numbers are approximate, averaged from user submissions, but they paint an interesting picture of an intern's value in the tech sector.
First, just to put things into perspective, median American household income was $51,371 in 2012, according to the Census Bureau. That's a little over $4,000 per month.
Zynga, the mobile and social games giant behind FarmVille and others, didn't appear on Bloomberg's list. But according to Glassdoor, the company pays its interns nearly as much as Google, Facebook and Microsoft per month on average, edging out the likes of Apple and Amazon.
Compare Zynga to Electonic Arts (EA), makers of blockbuster console gaming franchises like "Madden NFL" and "Battlefield." EA interns earn less than Zynga's but their salary is nothing to sneeze at, especially when most American households make.
Pixar, the Disney-owned animation studio with Silicon Valley roots, pays its interns, on average, a measly monthly rate compared to the tech giants accross the bay.
Electric car manufacturer Tesla also shares some DNA - and a co-founder - with the tech world. But Tesla interns don't make nearly as much as their counterparts in the tech sector.
One of these average salaries is earned, on average, by Yelp's software development interns. The other is the marketing interns' monthly rate. Guess which is which.
Newspaper interns might not fare much better than marketing interns in the Bay. The San Francisco Chronicle's summer internship is advertised at $650 per week.
For what it's worth, none of the Bay Area-based Glassdoor interns have submitted their salaries to the site.