Most high school students never get the chance to complete an internship. But what if more did?
Experts suggest having an internship in high school can be a highly valuable experience for students, helping them learn how professional environments operate, gauge their interest in different careers, and begin tackling real-world problems.
Yet while 79% of high schoolers were interested in work-based learning experiences, just 34% knew of opportunities for students their age and only 2% had completed internships, according to a youth career readiness guide released in March by American Student Assistance, a nonprofit focused on helping secondary students navigate career opportunities.
For school districts wanting to add or expand high school internship opportunities, the following 8 best practices are key to establishing a strong foundation.
Look for paid internships
The goal should be to help students secure paid internships, said Mandy Hildenbrand, chief services officer for the nonprofit Genesys Works. The organization, based in Texas, has six locations across the country and partners with about 200 schools and 210 employers to provide pathways to career success for high schoolers in underserved communities.
Genesys Works programs include a skills training course that is followed by a paid, year-long internship at a partner company site. Getting paid is especially important for students in underserved communities and those who would be the first in their families to go to college, Hildenbrand said.
Paid internships make such opportunities “more available to the students who are most vulnerable for not achieving the same economic outcome as their peers,” she said.
Make it attractive for employers
Many employers want to expand and diversify their talent pool, and offering internships can help meet that goal, Hildenbrand said.
“By investing in students in high school, the company can develop a talent pipeline they can nurture, support and train,” she said.
About 20% of Genesys Works alumni end up working full time for companies they interned with, and nearly half maintain connections with their internship supervisors, Hildenbrand said. Training and supervising interns can also be a useful experience for managers and employees who are preparing for management roles.
“It’s a great way to help your current pool of employees,” she said.
Secure the support of school leadership
Getting buy-in from top administrators, particularly superintendents and principals, is a major ingredient for success of an internship program, Hildenbrand said.
Internships have become ingrained in the culture of Sutton Memorial High School in Sutton, Massachusetts, which began with a pilot program nine years ago, said school internship coordinator Sergio Marcucci. Last year, about 90 Sutton High seniors completed internships.
“Students start thinking about that in their junior year, when they start thinking about their senior schedule,” Marcucci said.
Schools can start by inviting guest speakers, setting up job shadowing opportunities, and doing “virtual externships,” said Tricia Jacobs, director of career and technical education and workforce development at Alexandria City Public Schools in Alexandria, Virginia.
For example, one externship connected students with the city’s planning and zoning department, whose staff discussed their work with students and gave them a problem to solve, Jacobs said. The students then logged their own hours to work on solutions, which they presented to city staff.
“They got 30 hours of externship and applied it to a real-life problem,” Jacobs said.
The departments within school districts’ central offices can also be fertile ground for internships, such as for students interested in teaching or information technology careers, Jacobs added.
Adjust school schedules
Schools must adjust class schedules to ensure students are available when employers need them, Hildenbrand said. For example, Genesys Works interns typically have classes in the morning and work 20 hours per week in the afternoon.
Marcucci agreed, saying the first thing Sutton High did was implement nonrotating schedules. “Nonrotation provides stability in your schedule, and that makes it work for the employer,” he said.
At Sutton High, internships are based on the number of AP classes seniors take: The more AP classes, the fewer hours devoted to internships, Marcucci said. Students who take more than four AP classes work on a “passion project” instead of an internship.
For example, last year a group of students started a pressure washing company by devising a business plan, pooling their money to buy a pressure washer, and advertising their business on Facebook. “They ended up making a profit,” Marcucci said.
Make sure it’s meaningful work
Internships should consist of more than menial work so students can acquire work skills and learn to problem-solve in real-life scenarios, which in turn gives students a real sense of accomplishment, Hildenbrand said.
Marcucci pointed out that even if businesses only need students for things like clerical work, they can still provide a meaningful experience by exposing students firsthand to their business operations.
“We try to find the most authentic internships for them [students], but in the same breath, they are 17 years old. They haven’t graduated,” he said, adding that it’s important to try to match the internship with the student’s interests.
“As long as the student has the open-mindedness and flexibility of expanding their search, we have a good chance of finding an internship,” Marcucci said. “I pride myself on customizing the internship for the student.”
Jacobs said it’s essential to match internship opportunities with local labor force needs, particularly in career and technical education fields. “Everything that we do in CTE, all our pathways, are based on the needs of our region. We wouldn’t be offering something if it wasn’t needed.”
Monitor everyone’s experience
Jacobs suggested that schools have a work-based learning plan approved by all parties involved: students, parents, employers and the school. Additionally, “it’s important that the employer knows the capability of the student, so we are not setting up the student for failure.”
Schools should do monthly check-ins with internship supervisors and have students and supervisors fill out “pulse point” surveys a few times per year, Hildenbrand said.
At the end of the internship, wrap up by getting feedback from everyone involved, Marcucci said. “An overwhelming amount of students say it’s one of the best experiences they’ve had.”
Provide additional support
It’s essential to take into account transportation when matching students with internship opportunities, experts said. Schools can provide vans or buses, or use funding for ride share services like Uber and Lyft, Hildenbrand said.
In Alexandria, city buses are free for students. When needed, the district’s work-based learning specialist works with students to ensure their transportation needs are addressed, sometimes in conjunction with the employers, Jacobs said.
Before they embark on internships, students should also receive training in organization, time management and financial literacy — the latter being especially important for paid internships, Hildenbrand said.
Genesys Works also helps employers by providing training in things like identifying microaggressions and applying a diversity, equity and inclusion lens to their workplaces, she said.