Cindy Morgan-Jaffe, Executive Director of The Internship Institute, contributed this post as a Featured Guest Blogger. The Internship Institute is a nationally focused, action-oriented non-profit organization that develops and promotes best practices around internships, assures access to quality internships and provides solutions to effectively bridge the gap between school and work.

Hope. Where are we as individuals, families, communities and nations without it? Hope sustains us through tragedies such as that in Japan and unrest in the Middle East. Hope is what lets us believe in a better future even as we face such difficult times.

As the Executive Director of The Internship Institute, I work daily to provide hope for others. I join hands with fellow parents, corporate and community leaders and like-minded professionals to clear pathways to brighter futures. I believe this is both possible and essential for our prosperity and survival in the global economy.

Today, more than ever, we hear the clarion call for internships. While some job-training programs face cuts, hefty grants are being issued by The Department of Labor for career training programs and community partnerships aimed at increasing college graduation rates. A common recommendation especially by Learn and Earn advocates is to increase internships and related experiential learning counterparts (apprenticeships, co-ops). Yet, in many cases, the reality of such efforts falls short.

The Internship Institute is a nationally focused, action oriented non-profit. Our goals are to develop, certify and promote best practices around internships, to assure access to quality internships, and to provide solutions that bridge the gap effectively between school and work. One best practice is the creation and support of formal internship programs. Indicators of success of such programs are higher graduation rates, a more focused and prepared talent pool, and employers eager to reduce costs of recruitment, training and turnover. When these programs are thoughtfully designed and adequately supported, the benefits can far outweigh the costs for both employer and individuals.

Why Internships Fall Short

There is no substitute for experience. Experiential learning gives individuals the opportunity to explore the world of work, align interests and skills, determine fit, find mentors and make meaningful connections. Employers benefit because they get to test drive talent, develop mentoring capacity and build relationships in the community.

However, the internship experience often fails those invested. The following are common reasons:

  1. The focus is more on the need for the internship and less on the quality of it.
  2. The lion’s share of the work in placing interns falls on educators (career centers, faculty and intern program managers) who are under staffed, underfunded and who don’t operate in the employer sphere.
  3. The burden for success falls on the employer and intern who are commonly untrained or inadequately supported in how to make the internship count for all invested. (Few supervisors will follow a manual on how to supervise an intern.)
  4. Confusion exists around what models are best for different populations and needs. (A high school internship is much different than one for a third year college student or postgraduate.)
  5. The management of the process is inconsistent. Is the manager the intern, the supervisor, the educator (if involved), all or any of the above?
  6. Poor fit of intern with career interest, intern with employer, intern with supervisor, intern with the work and intern with knowledge of what he or she needs for success.
  7. Compliance concerns, confusions and variables tied to differences in industry and employer practices.
  8. A mindset that academic study and work-based learning should be on separate tracks. (Apprenticeships are only for trades, not professions, and vocational schools are for the lower performing and lower class.)
  9. The assumption that an academic setting and education prepares students for a work setting and career.
  10. Unpaid internships are inaccessible to large groups of talented and diverse individuals.

Ironically, the practice of experiential learning goes back centuries, drawing on the connection between mentor and mentee to build mastery. Yet the factors above, in addition to larger social, economic and political factors, have contributed to a broken system that – according to some – never worked that well in the beginning or has not evolved sufficiently to reflect the needs of society today. A presentation called “Changing Paradigms” by Sir Ken Robinson, the British Minister of Education, sums it up nicely.

“The problem is [we] are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past. And on the way [we] are alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school. When we went to school we were kept there with the story, which is if you worked hard and did well and got a college degree you’d have a job. Our kids don’t believe that…”

There are ways, however, to modernize the educational system and to use internships as a way to engage students and help them gain necessary job-related skills.  Indeed, formal internship programs, if implemented effectively, can do much to build the preparedness of students, and to help them become engaged and invested members of the future workforce.

Why Formalized Internship Programs Work

Formalized internship programs can address most if not all of the factors listed above.

At the top of the list is clarity and buy-in around the mission of the program. For example, if college completion is critical to the mission and a measure of success, then how this is achieved must be integrated into the program design and implementation from the start.

Successful internship programs share common best practices that include:

  1. A clear mission, process and indicators for success.
  2. Projects interns do are designed to fit both the needs of the organization and the needs of the intern.
  3. Clearly defined processes, expectations, structure and consistency.
  4. The employer is able to articulate how the program ties to the larger business strategy of the organization and communicates that across the company.
  5. Training and support for the interns and their supervisors before and during the internship.
  6. Mentoring for both supervisors and interns (Partnerships between employers and academia that include mentoring students in school helps to better prepare the intern for the internship experience.)
  7. A system of feedback and evaluation with ongoing and pre-determined check-ins.
  8. Links back to classroom learning, education planning and support for education activity.
  9. Compensation at the very least for out of pocket expenses.
  10. Compliance with laws and regulations issued by the Department of Labor.

Connection to the College Completion Agenda

When students connect their learning to who they are and how they fit into the universe of life and work, they are more engaged. When employers connect to talent that becomes invested in the success of the organization, everyone wins. Internships can be the launch pad for this engagement. Formal internship programs can be the strategy for fostering such engagements. And as time goes on, all will realize that a lifelong practice that connects work to learning ensures healthy, vibrant societies.