Chapter 18: Do Internships Work?

Ricky Hu Xiao and Bob McKercher

Ricky Hu Xiao, E plus Hotel Management Consultancy Co.

Bob McKercher, University of Queensland


This study asks the questions of do internships work? A paired sample survey of 222 Chinese students was undertaken with the first survey completed prior to their internship and the second one after its completion. The study revealed that overall satisfaction and job commitment declined post-internship, although it remained positive. Students’ main complaints related to failure to secure a placement in their desired departments, lack of mentoring from supervisors and being treated as regular staff but with lower pay and benefits. A number of recommendations are made to enhance the internship programme.


The rapid development of the Chinese hospitality industry has raised demand for qualified and highly skilled hospitality talents. However, the industry is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit well-trained and knowledgeable staff (Gu, 2003). In response, a number of Chinese universities and colleges have set up programs at the degree and sub-degree level. Industry though, is reported to be dissatisfied with the quality of hospitality graduates (Lam & Xiao, 2000), partly due to the lack of practical experience many graduates have. It is for this reason that most hospitality programs have added an internship component to their curriculum.

There is tension between meeting broader educational goals of internships and short-term employment needs of many hotels. Ideally, internships should be an integral component of the student’s education and training with the training component complementing class room studies (Airey and Tribe 2000) by preparing students for a career as a hospitality professional (Morrison & O’Mahony, 2003). These lofty expectations often conflict with the reality that many hotels see interns as cheap labour (Roney et al., 2007; Zopiatis & Constanti, 2007). Students are assigned to perform operational jobs where staff shortages exist, while ignoring the supposed pedagogical outcomes. It is for this reason that Roney et al. (2007) observed students believe that hoteliers accept interns solely for financial reasons.

Herein lies the challenge. Students hope internships will equip them with the skills necessary to enter into and develop their careers in the hospitality sector. But if industry sees them simply as unskilled staff hired to fill operational positions, then the risk exists that students will be dissatisfied with their experiences and may feel exploited, with the end result that the internship drives them from the industry rather than encouraging them to pursue a career in it.

This study asks the question of “do internships work?” It examines the experiences of Chinese undergraduate (degree and sub degree students) through a paired sample pre-post survey to assess their internship experiences and satisfaction levels and determine if and why it affects their future career intentions. This study aims to identify the importance of hotel students’ internship experience by comparing the differences between hospitality students’ internship expectations and perceptions as well as their career commitment levels before and after the internship.

Literature Review

Hospitality education programs have changed in many ways over the years, including the shift from strictly hands-on learning to a greater amount of theory-based material, especially at the degree level. Regardless, gaining practical experience remains a critical component to assist an individual’s success in the industry. Internships provide a student with out-of-classroom, field-based experience. Davies (1990) defined them as experiential learning where students have the opportunity to apply what they have learned in school to the real world, while also helping them to integrate and consolidate their thoughts and actions. They have the added benefit of affording students the ability to experience the less-than-ideal situations of the real world outside academia.

Hospitality education is ideally suited for internship programmes as it can provide insights for students pursuing a career in their field of interest (Lam & Ching 2007). In addition, researchers believe hospitality education should align with industry needs by ensuring the provision of sufficient practical facilities (Barron, 2008; Busby, 2005; Christou, 1999) and applied training opportunities. Walo (2001) found that internship programs help develop management competencies. Most industry recruiters strongly support internships and consider internships for the extent of experience, rather than the specific nature of the assignment (Lefever & Withiam, 1998).

Internship programs have received considerable support from educators, industry, and hospitality students. Many hospitality education institutions have sought to establish a universal standard or model, but due to the diverse nature of the hospitality industry, there is no one perfect internship program (Pauzé et al., 1989). This has led to considerable diversity among programs with some internships lasting for a few weeks, while others lasting up to a year.

The major stakeholders involved in a college-level hospitality internship are industry professionals, students, and educational institutions. Each of them contributes to the overall quality, educational outcome, and career preparation provided by an internship. Ideally, industry representatives, faculty members, and students should jointly develop an internship program. A well-developed internship program should maximize the potential to produce high-quality hospitality management graduates (Pauzé et al., 1989). As a result, a balanced effort from education and industry is needed to ensure the programs generate future hospitality talents (Casado, 1992).

Internships can deliver benefits to industry, educational institutions and students. Benefits to industry include cost-effective supplemental staffing, pre-screening for potential new hires, and partnering with a university. They connect hotels to a source of workers who can contribute fresh ideas to the industry and provide them with an opportunity to participate in the training process of their future managers. Furthermore, using interns can help hotels reduce their labour costs (Jauhari, 2001; Pauzé et al., 1989; Petrillose & Montgomery, 1998; Walo, 2001). Petrillose and Montgomery (1998) suggested that the majority of industry recruiters agree that the hospitality students’ with internship experience are highly preferred. These results are a positive outcome for both hotels and students.

Cooperative education programs are useful for educational institutions because they facilitate the closer establishment of connections with employers (Grubb, Dickenson, Giordano, & Kaplan, 1992). Other benefits for the university include enhanced community relationships, improved student retention and classroom participation, as well as updated curriculum. Students are the representatives of the institution. When an institution is well represented by a student, the institutional community appears favourable, thus enhancing that institution’s reputation. The link between education and industry can strengthen collaborative research opportunities and establish long-term cooperation relationships between industry and education (Walo, 2001). Furthermore, as part of experiential learning, internship programs contribute greatly to the overall educational process of their students (Grubb, 1995). Internships can particularly be useful in situations where educational institutions lack facilities to offer experience in areas such as food and beverage or where faculty members lack expertise. They also provide a great opportunity to fill the gap between classroom theory and practical experience (Callanan and Benzing 2004; Knouse and Fontenot 2008; Tse 2010).

Students enjoy the opportunity to explore a specified job in their desired career field. Zopiatis and Constanti (2007) observe that many hospitality and tourism students know little about the industry or its realities before their internship. An internship program can give students a brief experience of their future work environment and provide them an opportunity to practice what they have learned in the classroom (Walo, 2001). Gabris and Mitchel (1989), Petrillose and Montgomery (1998) and Zopiatis (2007) showed that students expect internships to boost their self-confidence, leadership, and communication skills. Learning opportunities are another benefit. Students are taught basic skills in the classroom. However, an internship exposes the student to in-depth application of those basic skills. Domask (2007) believes that internships can serve as a training grounds for students to learn from experts and gain practical experience.

Notably, the internship program can “help the students to test their career choice and develop important hands-on workplace skills for them” (Walo, 2001, p. 12). Furthermore, evidence suggests that many students gain employment with their internship employers on graduation (Tse, 2010). Another benefit of internships is that students who complete internship programs broaden their social network. Bonds form among peers in the intern program as they discuss their various experiences, while a student’s professional network expands to include the institution providing the internship (Tse, 2010).

However, internships are not without their challenges, for despite many benefits, not all internship programs are successful. Baron and Maxwell (1993) observed that some students developed a negative view toward the industry after completing an internship. The reasons include a lack of challenging work, a lack of management involvement (Knutson, 1989), poor compensation, lack of education, and even discrimination (Gunlu & Usta, 2009). Furthermore, as Christou (1999) asserted, both graduates and the industry are disappointed with internships’ ability to develop soft skills, such as time management, leading and motivating, personnel skills, and working on a team.

One important reason seems to be a gap between students’ expectations and experiences (Kandampully, Mok, & Sparks, 2001) leading to lower satisfaction with the placement. Expectation refers to beliefs before an experience, whereas perception refers to how people feel after an experience. The difference between pre-expectation and post experience measures satisfaction. Students may have unrealistic expectations, especially university level students, who may feel they are qualified to move directly into a management – oriented placements, in spite of a lack of applied experience. Nelson (1994) found students were most satisfied with internships providing relevant work, some autonomy, and timely feedback.

A further issue is unclear outcomes at the start of the programme. Some institutions design internship programmes with specified learning outcomes that must be agreed to by industry partners through a formal contract. These types of institutions also often have dedicated staff who coordinate the programmes and assign students to their placements on the basis of fitting the student’s professional development wishes and the partner’s specific traineeship needs. Others though simply require students to gain a certain number of hours of work experience without any specific outcomes. They put the onus on the students to organize their own placement often with unspecified goals.

As a result, satisfaction with placements is inconsistent. Busby et al. (1997) indicate that students are satisfied with their internship experience, particularly in the areas of improvement in technical skills and knowledge within their internship. Emenheiser et al (1997) noted that a majority of students were satisfied with their internship. Problem-solving ability is suggested as the most vital area for students’ improvement in the hospitality industry. Girard (1999) investigated interns’ perceptions of work, supervision, and appraisal within various hospitality organizations’ internship programs and suggested that interns are highly satisfied with their work and are generally satisfied with supervision, whereas appraisals remain an area of concern. However, Lam and Ching (2007) investigated the difference between expectations and perceptions of Hong Kong hospitality students toward their internship program and found that the overall student expectations were not met. Ju et al. (1998) also found that Korean hotel students had low satisfaction levels.

Taylor (1988) indicated that poor supervision is the most likely condition to lead to dissatisfaction and that mentor relationships provide invaluable benefits for students. Nelson (1994) stated that repetitious work with little freedom to apply and test knowledge, along with the high risk accompanying inadequate or untimely feedback, is related to dissatisfaction with supervision. By contrast, hospitality interns report greater satisfaction when they have a supportive relationship in the work setting. Fu (1999), Ko (2008) and Chiang et al (2005) highlighted the importance of hands on supervision, a clearly defined programme and clear training outcomes. Conversely, Lam and Ching (2007) argued that students’ internship perception scores are lower than expectation scores for three main reasons: lack of sufficient coordination between schools and employers, lack of opportunity to apply theories in the workplace, and unreasonable bosses. They discussed three possible reasons for such dissatisfaction. First, poor administration and coordination between schools and hotels may lead to unclear training objectives. Second, students may find it difficult to apply theories they have learned in school to work situations. Thirdly, students may not be happy with their managers.


This study investigated hospitality internship satisfaction to reveal the association between internship satisfaction and career commitment. The study objectives are to identify students’ expectations and perceptions before and after their internship, and to determine if the internship experience influences their commitment to work in the hospitality industry. A descriptive research method is adopted to gain information on the current status of the phenomena to describe “what exists” with respect to variables or conditions in a situation (Cohen, Manion, Morrison, & Morrison, 2007).

A paired sample pre- and post-internship survey was undertaken. Final year students at three hospitality institutions in China were surveyed. The research framework uses five constructs: internship expectation, internship perception, internship satisfaction, pre-test career commitment, and post-test career commitment. The questionnaire was developed on the basis of relevant literature review. A pilot study was conducted with a panel of experts to clarify the items on the survey. Two versions of the survey— pre-test and post-test versions—were created for the group of students. Each questionnaire was custom designed to specifically identify key components from each sample population.

Data collection for the pre-internship phase of the study began in the end of June 2012 and concluded on June 30, 2013. During the first data collection period, each group of students was visited either at the beginning or ending of a class meeting. Instructions were read aloud to the participating students. They were informed that participation was voluntary and that all responses would be kept anonymous and confidential. All respondents were assigned codes to ensure consistency between the first and second surveys. The second data collection round was conducted for the same group of students in the middle of June 2013, which was concluded on June 20, 2013. On their reunion day after internship, the students were provided a questionnaire with instructions for answering the questions.

The study utilized a causal–comparative research design to compare the expectations and perceptions before and after internship in the same group of students. The causal–comparative design most often includes at least two groups and one dependent variable (Gay & Airasian, 2003). In this study, students starting and finishing their internship form two groups for comparison. Data were analysed using the Statistical Package for the Social Science [version 20 (SPSS 20)]. The questionnaire included multiple-choice questions, Likert scaled questions and an open-ended question regarding the students’ place of work.


A total of 222 students completed both the pre-test and post-test surveys. Almost two-thirds of respondents were female (63.1%) and more than half came from two provinces, namely Liaoning and Shandong (55.9%). A majority of them were studying at the higher diploma level (55.9%), whereas the remaining were studying at the degree level. The vast majority were aged between 18 and 22 (91.5%). Almost half (45.9%) had no working experience prior to starting their internship, with another 39% having less than three months experience.

Constructs Variables

Pre Mean

Post Mean



Satisfaction Satisfied with internship 4.35 4.06 3.04 0.00*
Satisfied with the kind of work 4.39 3.87 5.23 0.00*
Internship to convince to pursue 4.36 3.64 6.71 0.00*
Think of quitting 2.51 2.77 -1.80 0.07
Work for bad reputation hotel 2.14 2.32 -1.18 0.23
Hotel is using “cheap labour” 3.27 3.48 -1.38 0.16
Skill Development Develop new skills 4.66 4.29 4.59 0.00*
High autonomy 4.48 3.73 7.12 0.00*
Development opportunity 4.55 3.67 8.87 0.00*
Gain knowledge 4.66 4.20 5.94 0.00*
Apply knowledge into practical 4.65 3.96 7.24 0.00*
Learn language 4.65 3.96 7.95 0.00*
Higher GPA 4.61 3.9 7.22 0.00*
Cultivate willpower 4.65 4.22 5.47 0.00*
Know the practical experience 4.61 4.06 6.44 0.00*
Accumulating social experience 4.67 4.18 6.16 0.00*
Reading industrial book and magazine 4.01 3.62 2.87 0.00*
Quality of Supervision Reasonable boss 4.67 4.06 6.75 0.00*
Support from supervisor 4.64 4.08 5.73 0.00*
Careful mentoring 4.57 3.94 6.63 0.00*
Trusted by boss 4.47 3.84 5.89 0.00*
Feedback 4.52 3.84 6.21 0.00*
Structured organization 4.58 3.82 7.66 0.00*
Clear outcome 4.65 3.85 8.70 0.00*
Periodic meeting with supervisors 4.36 3.09 9.84 0.00*
Personal Benefits Fair pay 4.60 3.05 14.40 0.00*
Staff benefits 4.66 3.22 12.57 0.00*
Delicious staff canteen 4.64 3.00 14.69 0.00*
Professional Uniform 4.46 4.01 4.56 0.00*
Working Interpersonal Environment Treat as regular staff 3.72 4.05 -2.74 0.00*
Sexual harassment 4.74 4.28 5.54 0.00*
Friendly guest 4.69 3.64 10.35 0.00*
High team spirit 4.73 3.82 8.88 0.00*
Sense of belongingness 4.65 3.76 8.23 0.00*
Interpersonal environment 4.64 4.06 6.59 0.00*
Working Condition Regular shift 4.59 3.50 10.41 0.00*
No evening and overnight shift 4.27 3.07 8.90 0.00*
Interesting and challenging work 4.49 3.68 7.19 0.00*
No strong pressure 3.95 3.34 4.82 0.00*
Rotation 4.47 3.36 9.61 0.00*
Convenience Transportation 4.31 3.21 9.04 0.00*
Simple and repetitive task 3.47 3.75 -2.04 0.04*
Personal and Family Support Family support 4.50 3.91 6.13 0.00*
Personality Suitable 4.29 3.65 5.459 0.00*
Career Development Clarify career choice 4.60 3.98 6.37 0.00*
Get a managerial position after 4.43 2.94 11.20 0.00*
Good for Resume 4.60 4.10 5.62 0.00*
Build social network 4.62 4.05 6.12 0.00*
Past experience benefit internship 4.55 4.01 5.479 0.00*
Hotel is not my career 3.10 3.27 -1.13 0.25
Recommend the internship 4.07 3.65 3.41 0.01*

Table 1. Comparison of Pre-internship expectations with Post-internship Experience

Table 1 compares the results of the pre-and post-internship surveys. The 51 variables measured were grouped into eight thematic domains. Statistically significant differences were noted in 47 of the 51 tested variables suggesting a significant gap exists between the students’ expectations and their lived experiences. The only variables that did not show a difference related to two variables that students rated negatively (thinking of quitting the internship, perception of working for a bad hotel), which suggests they were working in unsuitable places, and two variables that scored positively (hotel is using cheap labour and hotel is not my career), which indicates their initial negative expectations were met.

The findings indicate that students’ perceptions changed quite dramatically after they finished their internships, and usually not for the better. Indeed, significantly lower mean scores were reported on all but two of the 47 instances where differences were noted. The only two that reported a positive change were reaffirmation that they were treated as regular staff (an essentially negative perception) and stronger confirmation of the pre-existing belief that the tasks would be simple and repetitive (another negative perception). For most of the rest, while the mean scores decreased, the students still rated them positively, suggesting the internship experience was acceptable but not as beneficial as students had hoped. Four variables changed from positive to neutral including the quality of food, working overnight shift, fair pay, and secure a managerial position after the internship, with considerable gaps recorded between expectations and perceptions for these variables.

Looking at the eight thematic domains, some notable differences could be discerned. It is not surprising that the post-test results showed overall satisfaction remained positive, but was lower than expected. Although no differences were noted for variables related to thinking about quitting the internship and having lower intention of working for a bad hotel, students remained less satisfied with their internship in terms of their experience and what type of work they did, leading some to question the suitability of hospitality as their career in future. Furthermore, students also had a stronger feeling that they were being used as cheap labour.

Skill development was another area where the results expressed equivocal views. In general, they reported learning something, but as with other aspects, the learning did not meet their expectations. They felt that they learned a language, developed their skills, and applied theoretical knowledge in a practical setting, but they also felt that they learned less practical knowledge application than expected, consequently, affecting their development opportunities.

A major concern of students was the supervision and mentoring received from their line managers. The mentoring and feedback they received from their supervisors was not as detailed as expected. In general, students felt that they did not meet with their supervisors often enough, had fewer than expected clearly defined outcomes from the internship, and received little feedback.

The general arrangement of the internship was acceptable to the students, although their personal benefits did not meet their expectations. Their pay was lower than expected, and the uniform they received was not as appealing as expected. In addition, the food in the staff canteen did not met their expectations. The primary complaint in this part is about staff benefit. As interns, the students did not receive the same benefits as regular staff, even though they were performing the same tasks.

The primary complaint from students was that they were expected to work as if they were regular staff, but at a lower pay. This could be linked with the personal benefits part about their complaints regarding their own benefits. Another complaint is students felt little sense of belonging in their internship. They generally liked the team and team spirit. Sexual harassment was not as serious as expected. However, the hotel guests that students met were less friendly than they expected.

The students felt their working conditions and their job nature was not as expected, with more shift work, rotations, and fewer regular shifts. Another reason for lower satisfaction was the feeling that they felt they were not rotated enough to gain a holistic understanding of the hotel operation. Furthermore, students felt the tasks they were assigned were not interesting or challenging, but simple and repetitive.

Disturbingly, the internship did not help students clarify their future career path. The students agreed that their internship enriched their resume and expanded their social network; however, they found fewer than expected opportunities to gain a managerial position after the internship. Notably, they questioned how much the internship developed their career.

One reason for lower satisfaction levels could be attributed to the fact that students were not assigned to their preferred departments, as shown in Table 2. Indeed, only 59 of the 222 students got to work in their chosen department, with the other 163 assigned elsewhere. For example, only five of the 40 students who wanted to work in Human Resources did so, with most of the rest assigned either to Front Office or F&B Duties. Just one of the 27 students who asked to work in Sales and Marketing did so, while 17 of the 44 students who wanted to work in F&B found a job there and less than half of those who wanted a Front Office post were assigned to those types of duties.

The study suggests, therefore, that students were assigned to places where hotel had the greatest staffing needs, rather than in placements that would benefit the student’s own career development. Not surprisingly, those students who were not assigned to their preferred placement location were far less satisfied with their internship experience than those who were.

Expected department
F&B HSKP S&M FO FIN HR Others Total
Actual Department F&B 17 4 10 19 4 11 4 69
HSKP 0 0 1 5 0 0 0 6
S&M 0 0 1 3 0 1 0 5
FO 20 5 9 36 3 20 5 98
FIN 1 0 0 2 0 1 0 4
HR 4 0 1 9 1 5 1 21
Others 2 3 5 7 0 2 0 19
Total 44 12 27 81 8 40 10 222

Table 2. Expected and Actual Working Department

Perhaps these findings also explain why most students felt they would benefit more from shorter internships. Before the internship, a slight majority of respondents (57%) felt an internship of six months or less was appropriate, with about 40% feeling internships of between six months and a year would be suitable. However, after the internship, almost three-fourths of students changed their views, stating a preference for an internship of less than six months. Notably, about 17% of the students felt that an internship of between nine and 12 months was ideal before starting the internship; however, after completing their internships, only one person still supported this view.

Does the internship affect students’ commitment to a career in the industry? Ideally a positive internship experience will either cement a student’s desire to work in the hospitality sector or convince her or him that this type of career is not suitable. Before the students started their internship, 10.4%, 60.3%, and 28.6% of the students reported low, neutral, and high commitment to the hotel industry, respectively. By contrast, after completing their internships, 16.3%, 49.6%, and 34.2% of the students reported low, neutral, and high commitment to the hotel industry, respectively. Overall, more than half the students (57%) students reported a change in career commitment because of the internship, with 63 (28%) stating that the internship improved their career commitment, while another 64 (28%) felt that the internship experience lowered their commitment.

Discussion and Conclusions

Several studies have described internships as the key part of hotel education. In addition, students prefer to join tourism and hospitality schools offering the internship components (Lam & Ching, 2007). King et al. (2003) indicated that students see internships as useful in developing competencies required to acquire their first job. As the main, or even the only, piece of experiential learning, internship is crucial in hospitality education (Petrillose & Montomery, 1998).

Do internships work? The short answer is yes to some extent but not as well as they should. Both overall satisfaction and career commitment scores decreased after the internship, but still indicated satisfaction, with mean post-internship scores for overall satisfaction and commitment both being positive. Students had three major complaints. The first complaint was that they do the same tasks as regular staff but for a lower pay and limited benefits. Using student interns can help hotels reduce staffing costs (Jauhari, 2001; Walo, 2001), and because they are regarded as a helpful solution for the hotel industry, many hotels assign them to regular full shifts. The second complaint was the lack of mentoring from senior staff and line managers. The students received limited and basic training before being placed, which was not as expected. They wanted regular meetings with their supervisors for guidance and feedback. However, they found the coaching and mentoring they received to be less than they expected. The third concern was not securing the type of the internship they want and being placed into an operational position instead. This raises confusion among students regarding whether the internship is simply a job or part of their learning process.

As a result, a gap exists between students’ expectations and the industry reality. A number of measures can be taken to narrow this gap. Redesigning internships is one step that could improve the whole experience. Current internships need to clarify the responsibilities of all stakeholders. In addition, it is beneficial for the industry to have more experienced supervisors with leadership skills coaching and mentoring people. For the ideal length of the internship, there should be a balance between the industry reality and students’ learning needs. Longer is not always better, providing the internship is meaningful.


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Practical Learning in Hospitality Education Copyright © 2021 by Ricky Hu Xiao and Bob McKercher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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