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To Strengthen Work-Based-Learning, Colleges Must Commit to Internship Supports

July 27, 2022

At a Glance

When COVID disrupted education and work, one community college proved that work-based learning can thrive if administrators and employers are willing to get creative.

Lois Joy Director
Practices & Centers

Mark student access to internships as another post-COVID casualty. Along with disruptions to education and employment, significant pandemic-related changes in student access to internships and internship structure have been documented by recent national surveys. Stifling effects can be found across many industries, but travel and tourism, information technology, and architecture and civil engineering students endured some of the biggest drops in internship opportunities, according to Glassdoor. Polling data by the National Association of Colleges and Employers offered additional insight into the challenges students faced in sourcing real-world experience opportunities in the spring of 2020:

  • About 17.8 percent of employers reported revoking internship offers
  • Roughly 80 percent made at least one change to their program, including 54.8 percent who moved their internships online.
  • Another 48.7 percent of employers surveyed shortened the length of internships
  • Nearly 25.1 percent reduced the number of interns they brought on board.

Little research exists, however, on how the pandemic has specifically affected community college technology internships. To fill this gap, in the fall of 2021, JFF used supplemental funding from the National Science Foundation to explore the impact of COVID on technology internships and expand on findings uncovered in our initial research project: a three-year study of technology internships. This study suggested the following:

  • Technology internships can be an effective bridge to employment
  • Work-based learning builds students’ confidence and self-efficacy toward learning and career goals
  • Internships help broaden participation in technology from groups that have been underrepresented or structurally excluded (link to initial study here).

Online internships provided many students with skills and experiences that helped them land their first technology job despite COVID’s workforce disruptions.

For our new research, we went back to one of our initial case study schools: a community college in Florida with a strong technology internship program, which we called Gulf West. Gulf West’s unique approach requires all technology students to participate in an internship before graduating. Our findings suggest that the requirement made students much more likely to participate in an internship than tech students at other schools where the internship was not required for graduation.

Are Internship “Graduation Requirements” COVID-Resilient?

Internships at Gulf West showed strong resilience during COVID. While student participation in internships dropped early in the pandemic, it regained footing by the fall of 2020. As one faculty member noted, “I’m not aware of anybody in the fall of 2020 who is not graduating because they couldn’t come up with an internship.”

Surprisingly, students we surveyed and interviewed during COVID were as satisfied with their internship experience as those we surveyed before COVID. This was the case even though 45 percent of all internships moved online in that time. Before the pandemic, we didn’t know of any students who had participated in an online internship, so this was a big change in the internship structure that impacted both students and employers. Overall, though, the virtual transition proved to be beneficial to all.

Online internships provided many students with skills and experiences that helped them land their first technology job despite COVID’s workforce disruptions. A key area of professional growth for the online interns was the communication and project management skills they gained working virtually—skills that will likely continue to be in high demand as organizations seek employees who can navigate the online environment. Employers also gave interns more responsibilities, challenges, and learning opportunities as they pivoted to online and remote work and were desperate to fill skill gaps. One technology faculty told us, “It’s not normal, but it doesn’t seem new anymore. But I think they’ve adjusted, and so students are finding internships—virtual internships [are] becoming more normative.”

With ongoing support, employers are more likely to continue partnering with technology programs to provide students with well-structured and hands-on learning experiences, while also filling skills gaps in their companies.

The internship resiliency at Gulf West can likely be attributed to the fact that they are required for graduation. Gulf West applied resources, staff members, and creativity to keep the internships going during pandemic disruptions and beyond. As a testament to this agility, more than half of survey respondents reported that their internship either directly led to a technology job after graduation or provided them with necessary skills to pursue technology employment successfully. Still, students told us that securing technology jobs after graduation was not easy, and it is an area where more college outreach and support for students would likely strengthen employment outcomes.

How Community College Can Improve Internship Programs

We draw several lessons from Gulf West’s experiences with technology internships during the pandemic that could help other community colleges wishing to strengthen work-based-learning programs on their campuses.

  1. Consider making the internship a requirement. When this happens, the colleges put a stake in the ground to take responsibility for ensuring all technology students have the chance to participate in important hands-on learning opportunities. When the internship is not required, it is likely that only those students who face the fewest barriers to participating will do so.
  2. Expand online internship experiences for students and support employers in making this pivot. Virtual internships give students the opportunity to develop project management, professional, and other communication skills employers increasingly crave.
  3. Provide more support to program employers from onboarding, through the development of learning objectives, mentoring, and assessment of skills. With ongoing support, employers are more likely to continue partnering with technology programs to provide students with well-structured and hands-on learning experiences while also filling skills gaps in their company.

For more, read our study, “Technology Internships Prove Flexible, Resilient, and Critical During COVID.

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