Why are some internship programs unsuccessful, despite clear needs in the community for youth employment and a sincere desire to provide experience on the part of employers?
Soft skills are only part of the story
We often hear that youth need to learn “soft skills” , now re-branded as “professional skills” or “workplace culture”. In short, youth need to learn to show up at work on time, communicate well with others at work and comply with basic workplace rules, like don’t sleep at your desk.
In many years of working with interns who are in their first job, I have certainly seen the need to mentor young people in workplace habits. These range from appropriate social media for business use (no pictures of yourself laying across the conference table pretending to be dead of boredom) to arriving to work on time four days out of five.
Unfortunately, some programs don’t give adequate attention to ‘hard’ skills of learning actual job tasks, doing meaningful work and gaining network connections.
What makes work meaningful?
Most adolescents are experts in what President Biden refers to as “malarkey” and for which they have many NSFW words.
What, then, makes meaningful work for interns? I have four “shoulds”. Work we assign to interns should :
- Be something that needs to be done. NOT make work. For example, we have a website used in teaching youth about game development. Since development involves teamwork, part of the course covers basic communication tools like Google Drive, Google Docs and Google Forms. I was not crazy about the fact that one web page simply had a list of links, nor was I sure the links we had for beginners learning about those tools was the best. So, I assigned an intern to check out a couple dozen sites and videos that had been recommended and select the ones she found most interesting. I then checked out the recommendations and updated the page.
- Provide a learning experience. This isn’t to say that we never send interns out for coffee, but a substantial portion of their tasks should involve an opportunity to learn, whether that is a new application, like Google Forms, or a new skill, like writing blog posts that are appropriate for a corporate or non-profit site.
- Offer the opportunity for connection – this may be connection with other interns, like in the sessions we offer in the game design training.
- Include mentoring from adults. This can be anything from a project manager who reviews and gives advice on social media posts to visits to government, corporate or non-profit sites where youth can ask questions and receive information on career paths and job responsibilities. This is a particular interest of mine, since I have seen that many youth have little knowledge of career opportunities.
Work assignments are only part of the story
Of course, there is a lot more to a successful program than appropriate work assignments, but these will get you off to a good start.
Two other crucial factors are clear, comprehensive on-boarding and patience, but those are topics for another day.