tHE essential components FOR quality iNTERNSHIPs
Raising the Bar: A Blueprint for Quality High School Internships
Partners for Progress aspires to expand equitable access to high-quality internships for high school students. The following recommended practices set a standard for internships with the aim of promoting excellence in all internship opportunities available to high school students. These practices were developed by Partners for Progress based on strategies and recommendations from the following businesses and nonprofit organizations: BlackRock, Bloomberg, Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School, Cristo Rey New York, Futures and Options, Here to Here, Kirkland & Ellis, NAF, New York University, The Opportunity Network, PENCIL, and The Pinkerton Foundation.
Essential Components for Successful High School Internships
An excellent high school internship is structured for success. Its design considers the needs of both the student intern and the employer to create a mutually beneficial and positive early work experience. The employer gains a valuable team member who contributes meaningfully toward the organization’s goals, and the young person learns and practices career skills, builds confidence and character, develops a network, and starts a track record of professional success that will inform their educational and career paths.
The eleven best practices listed below create a structure for success for high school internships. These practices are fundamental and inclusive. Though they are driven by a belief in high expectations and accountability, they are intended as a base for many implementation models (school-, nonprofit-, or employer-coordinated) that serve a variety of youth populations interning in a range of industries. When practiced together, they maximize the potential for a successful high school internship.
Structure and Capacity
High school internships have the most potential for success when they are structured by formal and comprehensive procedures that support both the intern and the supervisor, and when there is sufficient capacity to put these procedures into practice. Ideally, a third party or intermediary with documented experience and capacity—like a nonprofit partner, school, or in-house HR team—is responsible for developing a procedures manual or similar internship guidelines, determining who is in charge of different tasks, and monitoring the progress of each step along the way.
An Employer Focus
Opening the door to a high school student—or many students—can be a challenging proposition for an employer, so understanding the employer’s needs and the value a high school intern can bring increases the likelihood of a successful internship experience and a sustained employer partnership. Across fields, companies, and departments, employers’ needs and wants vary widely. Where one employer may simply want to increase productivity with a new intern, another may want to develop a talent pipeline, bring new and diverse perspectives to the table, or create leadership development opportunities for their junior staff. Understanding the employer’s goals is crucial for a successful experience.
Successful high school internships are part of a broader career development framework that includes career exploration and career-readiness training opportunities. The opportunity to acquire relevant work-readiness skills (e.g., professional office behavior and time management) and interpersonal skills (e.g., communication and teamwork), as well as the opportunity to investigate career and educational paths, predict success on-the-job and a work experience that can influence a young person’s vision for their future.
Classroom to Careers
When internships and in-school learning complement each other, they each become more influential than they are alone. Aligned objectives and curricula for work-readiness trainings, the classroom, and the internship reinforce students’ learning experiences by allowing them to form deep connections between academic topics, their practical applications, and personal educational and professional goals.
Positive Work Environments
Successful high school internships are offered by employers who promote positive work experiences through safety, compliance, and inclusion. The employer has the resources to host an intern (e.g., sufficient office space, technology, and equipment), as well as a designated supervisor who can manage their schedule and tasks, and provide necessary support. Ideally, employers are aligned with the principles of positive youth development and encourage the learning and growth of their interns, especially through career exploration and networking activities within the company.
Interns should be compensated with a wage or stipend, in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act. When employers invest in the compensation of their interns, they are more likely to provide a work experience for their intern that mirrors the real-world, where team members are expected to contribute meaningfully and to follow company policies and procedures. When interns are paid, they earn needed money, learn the value of their work, and that they are held accountable to their employers’ expectations.
The Right Fit
Matching a student to an internship is part art, part science. A formalized assessment or interview process to learn a student’s interests, skills, goals, and personality—as well as logistical factors, like their schedule and commute—is just as important as a system to find out the employer’s expectations, skill requirements, anticipated projects, organization and team culture, and supervisor personality. Matching an employer to the right intern and an intern to the right job takes into account as many of these factors as is feasible. Internship supervisors should have the opportunity to meet and interview interns in-person to ensure a good fit and to generate buy-in from the employer.
Intern Engagement and Reflection
High school interns are most successful when they have opportunities, both alone and with their peers and colleagues, to prepare for their specific internship experience, develop relevant goals, and reflect on their experiences upon completion. These deliberate occasions for introspection and dialogue support their ability to connect their work experience to their academic learning, build social-emotional and career-readiness skills, and develop career plans.
The mutually beneficial relationship between an employer and employee in a real-world work scenario is mirrored by a successful high school internship. When an intern has clear tasks or projects that support the employer’s goals and an understanding of their value to the organization, it cultivates the intern’s sense of purpose and reward achieved from authentic, meaningful work. These real contributions—increased productivity, newfound efficiency, fresh ideas—support the employer’s engagement and investment in high school internship opportunities.
Internships have the greatest likelihood of success when interns and their supervisors receive support over the duration of the internship from a designated third-party (like a nonprofit, school, or in-house internship coordinator). The third-party should be available through a known communication protocol to troubleshoot issues when they arise, in addition to making proactive regular check-ins, both in-person and over the telephone or email. These check-ins provide the opportunity to encourage and acknowledge successes, mitigate challenges before they become overwhelming, and ensure positive internship progress.
Measure What Matters
Excellent high school internships are evaluated to assess the impact on the intern and to inform the development of future internships. Strong evaluation practices measure student performance and growth from multiple perspectives (e.g., completion of work hours, intern self-assessments, supervisor evaluations of the intern’s performance), training efficacy, and internship quality.