When you think about internships, you may assume they’re something offered only to college students, but these days some employers are offering them to high school students as well. An internship can provide an excellent opportunity for high schoolers to test the waters of career paths they may be considering and to improve the quality of job experiences they’d otherwise not have access to.
Julie Lammers is senior vice president of government relations and advocacy at American Student Assistance (ASA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to guiding young people toward a rewarding career path. I asked her about high school internships and her advice for parents and students who may be interested.
The Epoch Times: Internships are usually something that college students consider. How widely available are internship opportunities for high school students?
Julie Lammers: Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges to keeping students engaged with their education and future planning, now more than ever the expansion of work-based learning for high school students is critical for both individual student success and long-term economic outcomes for all. The problem is that too many students are simply unaware of these invaluable opportunities to gain real-world experience.
Based on research cited in ASA’s newly published guide “High School Work-Based Learning: Best Practices Designed to Improve Outcomes for Today’s Youth,” while 79 percent of high school students are interested in a work-based learning experience, only 34 percent are aware of any opportunities for students their age—and just 2 percent of students have completed an internship during high school.
At the same time, we know that work-based learning benefits both young students and employers in a number of ways, including enabling students to connect classroom learning to the real world, giving students the chance to earn industry credentials before graduation, allowing students to build social capital, and cultivating a pipeline of talent with new perspectives.
The Epoch Times: What are some practical steps parents and high school students can take to identify internship opportunities they may find valuable?
Ms. Lammers: While more educators, employers, and policy leaders have seen the benefits of high school work-based learning programs and the positive impact these opportunities have, many students aren’t hearing about these opportunities.
Parents and students should investigate whether there are any community-based or state- or town-run programs that coordinate internships. Increasingly, community-based organizations and government entities have become important intermediaries for helping students find internship opportunities. They should ask their local YMCA or Boys & Girls Club, or a city or state entity such as Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, Career Connect Washington, Employ Milwaukee, or Massachusetts Connecting Activities.
There are also corporate entities, such as John Hancock Life Insurance Company, that might offer community-wide programs in your area. Moreover, some states allow employers to post opportunities, and students can search the options that align with their interests and career goals.
The Epoch Times: What are the advantages of working a high school internship versus a standard summer job?
Ms. Lammers: First, I would note that ASA advocates for paid internships so that students don’t have to make the tough decision between having to work to earn and being able to earn while they learn.
One of the biggest differences between a paid internship and summer job is the professional network that can be built. Research shows that most jobs are filled through networking. That’s why it’s imperative that we look beyond skill sets alone and strategically invest in student professional networks. A student can have the strongest skills in a particular area, but without the proper support system, they might not be able to access the same resources and opportunities as peers who are more well-connected.
Internships, including virtual and face-to-face experiences, help young people to build and grow career networks over time. Students should start with resources available at their school. However, they should not limit their conversations to career counselors (if available). Nonprofit organizations, such as Big Picture Learning, as well as teachers, coaches, friends, and their friends’ parents can also help connect young people with invaluable internship opportunities.
A paid internship is more likely to help a student build their professional network because it is aligned with long-term career goals. A summer job may have a different role: It allows a student to make money and gain some workplace skills, but it is not a part of a longer career plan. A student is less likely to make the connections that can help with building a professional network. Working at the mall, for example, is a good way to learn important skills about customer service and showing up on time, but unless the student wants to stay in retail for their career, they are unlikely to make the kind of professional connections that can help to build their social capital. And with over half the jobs coming through a personal connection, it is very important that students start to build that network of career connections early.
The Epoch Times: When it comes to narrowing down a career path, what advice would you give high school students?
Ms. Lammers: One of the reasons that we are so focused on work-based learning in high school is that it gives students the opportunity to test and try the things they might like, as well as to learn about the kind of work experiences that are not for them. Eliminating the things a student might hate is just as important as finding something they love, and it’s really important to take the time to test and try before the risk of trying and failing is too high.
Oftentimes, we see students waiting until college to take their first internship. If they discover at that point that they don’t like their chosen field, it often comes after they have taken lots of classes and spent a lot of money. The pivot to something else at that point in the educational journey can be both costly and time-consuming. That is one reason why we would love to see high school be the time for students to test and try these work-based opportunities, allowing them to make a well-informed, confident choice for their educational and career paths.
To do this best, students should keep learning inside the classroom and out. They should seek out opportunities to participate in career exploration challenges that will enable them to experiment with different job roles while solving real-world problems, as well as free, virtual meet-a-career professional events, such as the ASA Engage Spring Series,
Students should experiment, or “try on,” as much as they can. In high school, they should seek out work-based learning opportunities such as in-person or virtual internships, pre-apprenticeships, experiential learning opportunities, service learning, or entrepreneurship experiences. All of these experiences allow students to build a workplace identity, helping to narrow down the types of roles or activities they foresee for themselves in the workforce (e.g., working in an office versus working in a lab, or working as part of a team versus working independently). Every experience teaches a student something new about how they like to work and how they can be most successful. These experiences should be valued and multiplied for every young person.
The Epoch Times: How can high school students best prepare to apply for internships?
Ms. Lammers: The best way for a student to prepare is to start by exploring potential careers based on their interests and passions, both through resources that may be provided through school counselors as well as through the use of free, online career exploration tools available outside the classroom. We believe that middle school is the ideal time to expose students to activities that can help them explore their skills and talents, experiment with their interests, and start planning for their future.
On the school side, schools often serve as an important facilitator of these experiences—they help to smooth the way for participation, ensure the students can get credit for the experience, help with transportation and logistical issues, etc. Many high schools have listings of internship opportunities or can help students search and apply for internships. Schools can provide additional support by ensuring that students are workplace-ready with an appropriate resume and interview skills, and that they understand the basics of the workplace, including the importance of showing up on time and dressing appropriately.
The Epoch Times: How can high school interns make the most of their internship experience?
Ms. Lammers: The most important thing for a student to do is to take the internship seriously as an opportunity to learn something about the world of work and their own personal work style. Even an internship that students hate can help them build social capital, understand their workplace identity, and develop workplace skills. The key is to understand that an internship can be just one step on the journey of finding what they love to do and where they want to fit into the working world. Students should embrace that learning experience, be unafraid to try and fail, and keep at it until they find what’s right for them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.