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Required College Internships Can Help More Students Launch Careers

March 24, 2022

At a Glance

Internships have so much potential to increase career success that community colleges should require them for graduation, provide key supports, and ensure that students are paid for their work on the job.

Lois Joy Director
Practices & Centers

Offering invaluable on-the-job experience, college internships help young people navigate the difficult transition from school to work and successfully launch rewarding careers.

At JFF, we believe that all learners, regardless of socioeconomic or racial background, should experience internships and the many benefits they offer. And we’ve just done research that convinces us that community colleges can increase the number and diversity of people who reap these rewards if they require students to participate in internships in order to graduate.

We know that requiring internships would be a bold move. But the results of JFF’s recent three-year study of community college technology internships for the National Science Foundation (NSF) indicate that internship requirements would pay big dividends. They would ensure that many more students get the essential work experience that gives them a leg up in finding full-time tech jobs and launching careers. And by focusing on community colleges, which enroll the majority of low-income students and people of color in the United States, they also have the potential to diversify the tech workforce.

Both students who had completed internships and those who hadn’t told us they needed more support finding and applying for positions.

The bottom line? When internships are not required for graduation, few community college students participate. And the reason may surprise you; it’s not a lack of student interest. Our research shows that community colleges without requirements are not set up to help most technology students find and succeed in internships. Community colleges that require internships are in the best position to provide the critical infrastructure and supports students need.

JFF undertook the NSF research to better understand the impact of information technology and engineering technology internships on degree completion rates and employment outcomes for community college students. We also investigated whether these internships expand access to technology careers for people from populations that are underrepresented in the tech industry.

Our research involved a close look at tech internship programs at two Florida community colleges that we call Gulf West and Gulf East. We analyzed 10 years of student education data (2009–2019), interviewed 29 college administrators and faculty members, 23 employers, and 61 technology students, including some who had completed internships and some who had not.

A Crucial Bridge That Few Are Able to Cross

The results show that effective technology internships can play a crucial role as bridges from school to work. They also shed light on the many barriers to success that community college students face in their daily lives—and on the essential role colleges can play in removing them.

Without effective institutional solutions, it’s likely that only students with few barriers to success will participate in optional internships. And that’s likely to inadvertently reinforce systemic inequities and preserve the status quo of white male dominance in the tech field.

The first thing we noticed at both schools was the most students who enrolled in a technology program did not participate in an internship. A major reason is that technology internships take place during the last semester before graduation, when students have gained enough skills to bring to the workplace, but many students left college before then. And for the most part, even those who made it to their final semester only participated in internships when they were required.

You can’t just give [an intern] an assignment and walk away.

Internship Employer

The problem is that pursuing an internship isn’t a simple matter of, say, enrolling in a class. Finding an internship is a lot like looking for a job, and many students said they didn’t know where to begin the process—they didn’t know how to find internship opportunities, and they didn’t know how to apply for them if they did.

Moreover, participating in an internship creates scheduling challenges for students who are already juggling school, work, and personal responsibilities. And commuting can be a problem for those who have limited access to transportation. On top of that, students who need to earn money to support themselves said unpaid internships aren’t an option—and many internships are unpaid.

Both students who had completed internships and those who hadn’t told us they needed more support finding and applying for positions. For some, the search for an internship ended like any other job hunt: Many job postings led to dead ends. One student without contacts in the business community recalled being “left to flounder,” and a Gulf West student said, “You’re almost having to beg people to take you as an intern.”

‘Should I Even Be Here?’

The lack of diversity in the largely white male world of tech was also a problem.

“You can feel intimidated when you’re walking into a room full of people that don’t look like you,” one student told us. “Should I even be here? . . . You get that kind of vibe.”

You can feel intimidated when you’re walking into a room full of people that don’t look like you.

Student Intern

A female intern reported that both customers and coworkers expressed a preference—sometimes overtly—for dealing with her male counterparts. On the flipside, she said, other interactions tended toward over-friendliness and some involved “touchy-feely behavior.”

Internships could be challenging for employers, too.

Some found it difficult to design work assignments that met college requirements. Others said scheduling presented problems because interns might be available only one day a week over a 16-week semester. “You just get the intern up to speed and it’s time for them to go,” one employer said.

Many employers also pointed out that interns required more active supervision and thoughtful work assignments than other employees. “You can’t just give [an intern] an assignment and walk away,” said one small employer. Others noted issues with interns’ workplace behaviors, including poor phone etiquette and failure to show up on time.

Supports for Students and Employers Are Essential

To ensure that technology internships provide students with bridges to IT careers and help employers tap a new pipeline of highly qualified talent, community colleges should act as hubs offering an array of services and resources that make work-based learning feasible for interns and employers alike.

Colleges should design internships that, at a minimum, include these essential elements for students:

  • Pay for the work they do
  • Support of faculty and staff program coordinators and mentors, fellow students, and employers from beginning to end
  • Flexible scheduling options
  • Conveniently accessible locations, opportunities to work remotely, or transportation supports for jobs in locales that are hard to reach

And they should offer technology employers help with these challenges:

  • Creating roles with activities that allow students to fulfill their course requirements and hone the skills they’re learning in class
  • Accommodating students who can only work a limited number of hours and likely don’t have the same technical or soft skills as adults with years of work experience
  • Supporting students from populations that are underrepresented in the tech workforce

Requiring internships for graduation—and providing the supports that make internships feasible for students—is worthwhile because our research shows that the real-world experience students gain through internships improves their technical expertise, helps them develop professional skills and make contacts with prospective employers, and generally gives them a sense of confidence about their ability to complete their educations and enter tech careers.

As one Gulf East student told us, “There [are] multiple things that the classroom experience alone cannot teach you.”

There [are] multiple things that the classroom experience alone cannot teach you.

Gulf East Student Intern

Importantly, those findings cut across gender, race, and ethnicity, suggesting that internships have the potential to broaden participation in technology careers among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous workers, as well as people from low-income backgrounds and women of all backgrounds.

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