Internships and job shadowing offer a close-up look at life in the workplace, yet some high school students are so focused on academics that they pass up the opportunity, or they are uncertain about their interests and don't know where to start.
But the push to improve college and career readiness and produce a better-prepared workforce is increasing the pressure on schools to build partnerships with businesses. What's more, educators realize that students are motivated when they see the relevance of what they are learning.
"The central goal is to get students out of the classroom and into the real world so they can feel and see the entire work process," said Randy McPherson, a counselor at Trezevant Career and Technology Center in Memphis, Tenn., and the American School Counselor Association's counselor of the year in 2011. "Otherwise, they don't really grasp what a day looks like or what a job entails."
While there is no agency tracking trends with internships, interesting models are being used across the country, and students often find the work exposure enlightening--even life-changing.
Internships can be set up in various ways. Some are offered in the summer, some on evenings or weekends or during part of the school day. They can last a few weeks or more than a year. Many are unpaid, but some offer a paycheck or grant school credit for the work. With job shadowing, students typically spend a few hours or a full day on a job site to learn about a profession.
Whatever the structure, a work experience can confirm, or rule out, a career choice. It can also help students cope with mistakes when the stakes aren't so high, as later in life.
Learning on the Job
Alex Carroll worked last fall as an unpaid intern at a golf course near his home in Searsport, Maine. The high school senior has a passion for the sport and was considering it as a career, along with mechanical engineering. The golf pro showed him the business side and how to maintain the course.
"I knew a lot of money went into it, but I didn't realize how much. And I didn't realize how much was needed to care for the fairways," said Mr. Carroll, who had to write a weekly blog about his experience for school. After the internship, he decided a two-year golf college wasn't for him. Instead, he's applying to colleges, including the University of Maine, and may try to play golf there.
Recognizing the value of workplace exposure, Mr. Carroll's teacher, Kathleen Jenkins of Searsport District High School, has expanded internships and job-shadowing programs with local businesses, including a solar-energy company, jewelry store, newspaper, and plumbing firm.
Internships at Searsport, like at many high schools, are unpaid. And that can be a barrier for the teenagers who need to earn money to make ends meet or save for college.
But Garrett Miller, a New Jersey-based workforce-productivity coach and the author of 2012's Hired 'Right' Out of College, encourages students not to rule something out because it doesn't pay. "You are being paid in experience," he said. "A recruiter looking at a resume never asks how much were you getting paid. ... If it looks interesting, he just says, 'Tell me about that.' "
With all the emphasis on grades and college, schools have fostered an "elite" attitude that doesn't always embrace workplace experience, according to Bill Coplin, a professor of public affairs at Syracuse University, in New York, and the author of 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College, published in 2012. In addition to academics, students need to develop a work ethic, communication skills, and the ability to work on a team. The high school curriculum is "traditional and very narrow," said Mr. Coplin, which particularly hurts low-achieving students who may not be pursuing a four-year degree but need to develop career skills.
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