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.
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.
WHAT IS AN INTERNSHIP?
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 CareerExposure.com. 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.
"THE EARLIER, THE BETTER" TO DO SOMETHING "REAL"
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."
INTERNSHIPS AS EDUCATION
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?'"