Work Begets Work: The importance of skills-based internships

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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A couple of summers ago, I walked into the lobby of IBM’s offices in Manhattan and saw a student that I knew from our work leading P-TECH schools. It was the first day of his summer internship, and he was in a button-down shirt and dress pants—pretty different from the attire I had seen him wearing at school. He was nervous, pacing back and forth. 

I was excited to see him. “Welcome! What’s going on?”

He told me that he already had questions but wasn’t sure if he should ask his manager. “What if my questions are dumb?”

I assured him the exact opposite, to remember everything he learned in preparation for his internship, to be bold, and to listen, take notes and dive in with questions and ideas. He nodded, and we went our separate ways.

At the end of the day, we crossed paths again in the same spot. “How’s it going?”

“My team is great”, he said. “I’m thinking about convening a meeting to go over some ideas for my project”.

Wow, I thought, convening a meeting? With that amount of growth in eight hours, imagine where he will be at the end of eight weeks.

For me that interaction is a tiny demonstration of how important early work experiences are. There is no better way to prepare young people for careers than giving them the opportunity to experience real work. The benefits to students are significant across a number of measures. Internships, whether during school breaks or during the school year, are powerful ways for students to apply and hone skills they have learned in school. It gives them a direct understanding of how what they are learning in the classroom applies to their future careers. These work experiences also enable students to build professional skills that all employers need, from time management and workplace etiquette to teamwork, communication and critical thinking. These skills are often best learned in job settings where students also see career role models in action, and build networks with professionals who offer ongoing guidance and connections. Importantly, working gives young people direction by allowing them to explore questions like, “Is this the kind of job I want to do? What are the tasks that motivate me?” Finally, as students build their resumes, one job can help lead to another as they make their way up a career ladder.

More on the Forum Network: Career Ready? Helping young people navigate the pandemic job market by Anthony Mann, Senior Policy Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

The best work experiences are those where young people are treated like professionals. They are immersed in teams, invited to meetings, given projects that help contribute to the overall mission and held to deadlines and standards. They have managers who ensure that their they have supports to succeed, with actions as basic as welcoming them with a building tour or lunch, providing clear guidance and offering timely feedback. Even better, they assign students mentors, give them exposure to executives and make themselves available for questions and encouragement.

The challenge—and responsibility—for industry is making sure that early work experiences are provided at scale and with a commitment to equity and inclusion. Many young people from underserved communities do not have opportunities to work outside of hourly jobs because their families may not have the social capital to help open doors to plumb industry work experiences.

Traditionally, many companies offer internships to students at specific universities with the goal of making them an offer for a job. But internships reaching younger students from a wide range of backgrounds are important for companies to build a more diverse talent pool earlier, enhance brand loyalty and demonstrate its values.

The need to provide young people with opportunities to work are more urgent than ever. Technology is accelerating at an unprecedented pace, with technologies like artificial intelligence changing many things about how we live and work—including the nature of our work, and the jobs we do. To ensure that young people are prepared to fill these future jobs, they must start building the necessary skills now to gain technical fluency, as well as evergreen skills like adaptability and collaboration. Without the private sector’s commitment to providing those experiences to the most vulnerable young people, the opportunity gap between the haves and the have nots will only continue to be exacerbated.

Find out more about the OECD and the Future of Work

The opportunity gap has only worsened during the pandemic, and here it’s important to note that while the pandemic has changed the nature of work experiences, they do not need to be put on hold. For many industries, remote working is a standard in how they conduct business, enabling employees in the same city or across the world to accomplish tasks productively. Working virtually may become more of the norm over time across many jobs, and thus providing young people with the experience to perform jobs through video conferencing, instant messaging and phone meetings will only further prepare them for 21st century opportunities. All aspects of internships must thus be adjusted to this new way of working to support new workers—whether having virtual lunches or coffees, or more deliberate and frequent check-ins to ensure that questions are answered.

Providing these professional learning opportunities—in whatever form—can change the course of lives. The young man described earlier had such a great internship with IBM that his manager kept him on for the whole school year. After earning his high school diploma and two-year college degree at P-TECH, he went on to more college, and now is working as a data analyst.

And it’s just the beginning of his career, along with the careers of thousands of young people who have interned at IBM and with the hundreds of business partners taking part in the P-TECH School Model. But more businesses need to provide these opportunities, customised for the times we live in, if we are to prepare generations of young people as the leaders and workers of tomorrow. Won’t you join us?

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Work Future of Education & Skills

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Grace Suh

Vice President, Education Corporate Social Responsibility, IBM Corporation

Grace Suh is Vice President, Education, Corporate Social Responsibility at the IBM Corporation. In her position, Grace manages IBM’s global education portfolio, including the P-TECH 9-14 School Model, a public education reform initiative spanning more than 240 schools and 28 countries, and SkillsBuild, a newly launched program designed to upskill and reskill adults through online learning, mentorship and hands-on experiences. Prior to IBM, Grace worked at the Children’s Defense Fund, a national child advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. In addition to the corporate and nonprofit sectors, Grace has worked in city government with a focus on juvenile justice issues. Grace serves on a number of education committees and boards, including the Coalition for Career Development, the Cahn Fellows Programs and Schools That Can. Grace has a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.

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