Thursday, Sep. 21, 2006

The New World of Internships

Like many of his new classmates at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, freshman Cory Hipps spent the summer working. But instead of stocking jeans at the mall or pulling sodas at the Dairy Queen, Hipps, 18, clocked 9-to-5 days at the accounting firm Deloitte, testing software designed to help customers manage debt. He earned wages, kudos from his bosses and the promise of internships at the firm throughout his college years. "Anyone my age can say they want to do something with their career," he says, "but I already am."

Internships are changing. Once a summer-long tryout for hooked-up college juniors, internships are going younger, longer and more serious.

High schoolers as young as 16 are providing services to science labs, hospitals and high tech companies — and not just of the coffee-fetching kind. The results are so encouraging that a growing chorus of educators, experts and employers — prodded by the Gates Foundation — is pushing for internships to be incorporated into high school curriculums.

Advocates argue that early introduction into the world of white-collar work offers young Americans a far better chance at navigating this fast-moving, skills-oriented economy.


The internship as defined today is a part-time job of limited duration, paid minimally or unpaid, in which the interns learn while contributing to the organization. Many involve supervision by a school or youth program (Hipps' was arranged by Inroads, a nationwide group that helps young African-Americans into careers).

For employers, internships provide a pool of raw but talented labor from which they can cherry-pick the best and brightest. Among college interns, 90% report job offers from their employers, says Employers rank students' internships and job experiences above grade-point averages in hiring — not surprising in an era when companies from Lockheed Martin to NASA have to engage etiquette trainers to teach new hires just how to shake hands.

Even high schoolers are groomed by companies such as Microsoft; the software giant sinks its hooks into the most promising by reeling them into college internships that often lead to jobs. And internship programs that focus on minority or disadvantaged youth are proving a successful way for large employers to diversify their workforce.

Why younger students are flocking to internships now is a question experts debate. Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, attributes their popularity in part to helicopter parents who "push" their kids to stand out in a hypercompetitive college market and employers who "pull" younger and younger prospects in to win a hypercompetitive talent race.

Andrew Sum, a sociologist at Northeastern University who studies youth in the workforce, has a bleaker explanation: traditional jobs for youths are disappearing. As immigrants and oldsters crowd the market for jobs flipping burgers or packing groceries, teens are getting squeezed. In 1978, 61% of kids aged 16 to 19 worked; in 2005, it was 40%. Sum's data does not include internships.


Josh Joseph learned of the internship program at Health Central Hospital in Ocoee, Fla., from his mother, Molly, a nurse. "I wanted to somehow set a career path — the earlier the better," says Joseph. He was 16 at the time.

The internship involved five rotations, including emergency, surgery and nursing, during which the five high schoolers performed any job that didn't require a license. He recalls watching as emergency-room workers tried to revive an older woman. "I always thought the doctor did all the action, but I saw it's a real team effort; that really impacted me," he says. Joseph, now 17 and entering senior year, hopes to become a doctor, and thinks the internship will give him an edge in college and medical school applications.

Malika Hale's parents urged her toward an internship last summmer because "they felt like it would be good for college." But the 16-year-old ballet dancer from Santa Fe, N.M., was just plain bored. "I just wasn't excited about school or dance or anything anymore. I wanted to do something real."

A friend at school told her about an internship geared toward high schoolers at the Santa Fe Institute, a world-class scientific research center. The program paired six teens with top scientists to learn how to write computer programs modeling complex systems. Hale's project focuses on the dynamics of how people get on and off airplanes. "Even though it's not going to, like, affect the future of the world, it's a really cool problem to think about because everyone's experienced it," she says. "It's the first time I realized science is applicable to everyday life. Even if you're not planning on becoming a biochemist, you still ought to know how science works to operate as a human being in the world."

Best of all, she adds, the internship revived her enthusiasm for learning, just in time for the school year. "Just to get excited about thinking again," she says, "is really important to me."


More internships are working their way into the school year. A teacher urged Becky Lundy to apply for the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation internship that took place over spring semester. For a half credit she worked at the Empire Theatre in Richmond and learned to run the sound board, work microphones and dabble in Foley sound art. "I never considered a future in theater production, especially if I stuck around Richmond, but now I see it's possible," says Lundy, 16.

Some educators are so convinced of the surprising benefit of work on students, especially those at risk of failing, that they have incorporated internships into the curriculum. The Big Picture Company, a nonprofit funded by the Gates Foundation that runs 36 schools in 12 states, considers internships "the core" of high-school education.

When Cristina Roman, 16, entered the Bronx Guild, a Big Picture school in New York City, she carried just six credits and a rough past. Teacher Priya Linson paired Roman's history project on immigration with an internship two days a week at Congressman Jose Serrano's office, where Roman learned to help process constituents' immigration papers. "I had to be responsible for the first time," she says. It wasn't easy. She arrived at work dressed in painted-on jeans, snapping gum and baffled by the most rudimentary office tasks. "I'd never used a fax or a copy machine," she says. "I used to pick up the phone, like, �Uh, hello?'"

"She was a mess," her mentor, Awilda Rivera, agrees. But she learned. "We treated her like a colleague, because that's what you are when you work here." By the end of the school year, Roman was meeting alone with constituents, representing the congressman at public meetings and answering phones with crisp confidence.

At school, Roman aced her project, racked up 20 credits by year's end, passed the state Regents exam — and was invited back to intern at the congressman's office this fall. "Maybe I'll even steal one of their jobs when I graduate," she muses.


Because it is part of her schoolwork, Roman's internship is unpaid. The subject of pay is a sore point with critics. "It's ridiculous that kids will enter the work world bearing tens of thousands of dollars in college debt, and still be expected to work for free," says Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt.

When desirable internships don't pay, they exclude all but the affluent, who can afford to skip paychecks for that career-launching stint carrying a record producer's bags or holding swatches for a famous fashion designer. But many reputable employers, mindful of that inequity (or just sick of rich kids), now pay at least minimum wage.

Kevin Cox, the orthopedic surgeon who founded the internship program at Health Central hospital in Florida, insisted interns be paid $7 an hour. "That way, we can compete with Disney World and all the other places these kids could work," says Cox. Still he had to battle "old-timer" colleagues who harped that truly motivated kids would work for free. Nonsense, says Cox. "I'm adamant that that is not fair to our less privileged population. Paying them puts everyone on equal territory."

If Paloma Saez's internship hadn't been paid, she says, "my parents would have liked me to take a job on the side." As a high schooler interested in both art and science, Saez, 16, interned this summer at the art conservation lab of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For $9 an hour for four days a week, she helped test and catalog materials used in sculptures.

Getting such an early start on the career path can only help Saez decide where she wants to wind up, says her mentor and boss at MoMA, Chris McGlinchey. "I had a postdoctoral student write me the other day saying she had just happened upon conservation science," he says. "She had never realized you could combine art and science, and now she's scrambling to try to redirect her career this way."


Paid or unpaid, some high schoolers and their parents hope internships will pay off in the increasingly high-stakes scramble for spots at top colleges.

Forget it, say some. "They don't help," says Frank Walsh, college guidance counselor at the all scholarship selective Regis School in New York City. "Colleges would much rather you did a college-level calculus course last summer than interned at an investment firm" — one reason Regis gives students the option of internships only during the spring of senior year, when the application ordeal is over.

But Cox of Health Central's internship program points out that internships expose young people to accomplished adults in their desired professions — a great source for standout recommendations, many of which he has penned for his former interns.

Ricky Malvar says he feels certain his enthusiasm about his Microsoft internship won over his interviewer at his top-choice school, the University of Southern California.

Malvar was among 500 to apply for 35 spots at the Bellevue, Wash., software giant. "Here I am, I'm 16 and working with 46-year-olds on the same projects," he'd marvel. Tasked with finding bugs in a flight simulator, he didn't know which was harder to learn: the programming language or the language of work. "I had to speak and write in a way that adults would understand, or the project would be at risk," he says. "They dress in shorts there, but it's still a very serious business."


Research shows internships help prepare youth for the world of work in other subtle ways. "Collaboration is complex," says Reed Larson, a psychologist at the University of Illinois who studies adolescent development. "Learning to understand a point of view, coordinating strategies, influencing key people — I think it's essential that people start learning these skills at an early age." Schools and jobs at McDonald's don't teach those tools, she adds.

Even the mental stress of work on youth might have a lasting positive effect, says Jeylan Mortimer, sociologist at the University of Minnesota and author of Working and Growing Up in America, helping them better cope with stress when they entered the real work world.

But in a culture already obsessed with work, can thrusting kids into the realm of deadlines and BlackBerries be entirely healthy?

It may be too late for some kids. If he weren't interning at the nature conservancy group Wave Hill in the Bronx this summer, Filipp Kotsishevskiy, 16, says he'd be filming his own movie, starting a business or volunteering abroad. "I feel like I could wind up doing anything, so the earlier you can try stuff out, the better," he says.

His mother, Elena, sighs. "Actually, I just want him to take a vacation."