Typically, we think of internships at the college level. My two sons participated in several internships as a requirement during high school, and they learned a lot! Here are some reasons why I think high school internships can be extremely valuable and what to look for from our personal experiences.
First, I’ll explain how our program worked. Each year, (9th, 10th, 11th, 12th) the kids had one week off in January and had to work a full 40 hours. It was a challenge to find opportunities, but over the years our school had compiled a list of companies that were willing to work with the kids for a week. Otherwise, it was up to parents to find opportunities. A one-week internship may seem short and they were unpaid but, they were valuable none the less. I’ll talk more about this later. For now, here are the benefits we saw with our kids and their friends.
Exposure to different types of jobs – This is a great opportunity for students to see first hand multiple types of jobs within an organization and how they interact. Seems obvious, but experiencing it is much different than hearing about it or seeing a chart. They observe and hopefully, participate in the cooperation of the different departments and people. For example, in a widget making company students will see the widget developer, the widget manufacturer, the widget salesperson and the office administration that keeps the parts connected. Or maybe a law office. They will see some attorneys spending time in court, others will spend most of their time researching, and of course they will see the support staff and the responsibilities that they have. This is a great time for them to really think about what job types they want to learn more about as well as what they are not interested in. By pursuing multiple internships over the 4 years, they can have a pretty good understanding of what they are drawn to and how they might fit. The best part is, because it’s in internship, there’s no pressure, it’s just a learning experience.
Resume building, networking, and collecting references – This is a great way to get a head start preparing in these areas. While working part-time at a retail store or fast food chain is helpful, having experience in a professional environment takes it to the next level. These can be resources that the student can revisit in the future for a college level internship.
Developing a professional manner – Many of the jobs a high school student would have require good customer service skills. That is incredibly important. (Have you been to a store lately!) Adding the personal skills involved with interacting within a professional environment, at different levels, helps prepare them a little more for their future career. By experiencing and observing interactions between coworkers, students begin to develop their own professionalism.
Experiencing the reality of work life – By this I mean the whole routine and schedule of it. Kids are used to a school routine which has many breaks and buffers. They have extracurricular activities, see friends and, while busy, it is not the same as a 40-hour work week. My sons each had epiphanies about working during their internships. They had a moment (around Wednesday!) each year where they realized that people go to work 5 days a week, all day, for YEARS. It really impacted them that they had to make a purposeful and meaningful decision about their own futures.
One of my sons went off to an engineering firm that worked with NASA/Goddard in 9th grade. Well, he decided then he wanted to be an engineer. We said great! (he’s 15…) For the other years we sent him off to other types of engineering firms as well as a research lab at NIH. He did not like anything else! Having this goal, he knew what classes to pursue. The summer of his junior year he took an aptitude assessment which confirmed his natural engineering abilities but also helped him see what type of job within the engineering field he would thrive in. The internship experiences were a beginning and the aptitude assessment confirmed things but also directed us more specifically. The combination of internships and the aptitude assessment clarified his decision and our confidence that he would be successful. He was accepted into the engineering department at Virginia Tech where he is working hard towards graduation.
My other son was not really drawn to work, or school… He is also creative and turns out, was bored at school. Some of his internships were a little loosie goosy like shadowing a favorite teacher. One position was with a small flooring distributor in their accounting department. (My sister provided this position) Well this was not a good fit! We still laugh about it! One year I was trying to get a position for him with an advertising agency. They were amenable to the idea but couldn’t take him in January. We found something else, but that’s when it occurred to me…we can do this anytime. I called them back and he was able to go in June. It was in Baltimore at the Inner Harbor. He had to take the metro, walk a few blocks and arrive on time every day, adding to life experiences that can’t be taught. He was editing photos for one of their clients. It was a cool environment, but the advertising business was not an interest. His internship experiences were only providing information about what he did not like. This was still valuable, ultimately we didn't want him to pursue something he didn't care about.
Pursuing his interest in being creative, we also spent time touring art schools and he took different types of art classes. Nothing really clicked. Do we just send him to community college to find himself?
The summer of his junior year he took an aptitude assessment and we were surprised to find out that engineering was part of his result. I don’t know how we would have figured that out without the assessment. We also learned from his result that he was challenged in a traditional classroom setting and had some significant music abilities. That information changed our entire approach to his choices about school and career.
He is a sound engineer now. He mixes and masters music in studio as well as creating his own. He went through a 10-month sound engineering program and is self-taught otherwise. He doesn’t have a traditional view of a work week. He works all the time, literally 15-16 hours a day. It’s about opportunity for him, whenever there is work or inspiration, he’s on it! Once again, the experiences were valuable because they forced us to keep looking, and for this son the assessment changed everything.
As for what to look for in an internship, be completely flexible. One week, one month whatever is available. Kids learn more than you think! Paid or unpaid, it’s the experience at their young ages that we are shooting for. The most important objective is to find a company where they will provide a meaningful experience. What you don’t want is to place them somewhere that views them as the filing/shredding person. Reach out to people you know, but also reach out to companies where your student may have an interest. Somewhere they have some responsibilities but get a good view of a particular type of job they may be interested in.
Finally, they are still young and there is a lot to process. However, having firsthand experience with a job they like or one they don’t, as well as the real-world work life experience, adds great value to their decision-making process. When combined with an assessment like the Highlands Ability Battery they have even more reference points to relate to. What we found out with our sons was, the internships opened their eyes to the weight of their decision and gave them substantial ideas about what they did and didn’t like. The aptitude assessment confirmed some areas but also directed us more specifically. They each had a comprehensive foundation to use for making meaningful decisions about their futures. Get Started