For high school students, internships can be the best introduction to a possible career path and an important step in getting job-ready.

Take Angela Hereford. When she was a sophomore at Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, she initially had her sights set on becoming a lawyer and, as part of the school’s internship program, was hoping for a position at a law firm. What she got was a job at the nonprofit Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health. Even in that setting, she felt intimidated and couldn’t bring herself to ask questions.

But her career plans changed and her confidence grew over the course of her internship.

Now a senior, Hereford says it was one of the best experiences she has had at the school.  “I learned how to speak up more and how to respond without the age difference being any problem,” she recalls. As she applies to colleges this year, she says she’s thinking about a career in nonprofits or advocacy work.

Hereford is one of the fortunate few. She attends a school that has prioritized work experience, even as it focuses on college preparation. In their first semester, sophomores take a seminar on resume writing, interviewing and other job-preparation skills. During their second semester, they work as unpaid interns one afternoon a week.  A part-time internship coordinator works to find jobs, cement relationships and fix problems when they arise.  The program also gets an assist from the school’s influential board of directors, who ply their networks for opportunities.

Internships “are a fundamental part of our school vision,” says Carmen Ocon, the internship coordinator.  “We want them to extend their schooling experience right into the world and see how the society around them functions. We want them to get started in thinking about what professions they might pursue.”

Despite the school’s heavy investment, internships still can be hard to line up.  For some businesses, the hours are not enough or are at the wrong time. Others worry about the maturity of a 15- or 16-year-old. Many who do take Young Women’s interns (including Catalyst Chicago) are nonprofits.

Kris Zimmermann, assistant director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says one of the biggest challenges is making sure the students know what is expected of them. One girl didn’t bother to call when she was absent; the issue had to be resolved with a school counselor.

Zimmermann adds that it can be difficult to create an enriching experience for the students, too. “It’s a learning experience for both of us,” she says.

The center decided to stay in the program, she says, because it aligns with the center’s mission—improving the lives of women and girls. “They need to experience the work world as a way to help them develop,” she says.

Simeon Career Academy faces a stiffer challenge: tailoring work experience to a student’s career track. 

Diane Fleming-Coker, head of Simeon’s finance academy, says that about a third of the 25 seniors who will graduate this year from that career track have held jobs that weren’t directly related to the field. They’ve worked at grocery or retail stores. 

But next year, the school is seeking to partner with Northern Trust Bank to give students paid internships that begin before the school day is over.  The early start is a plus for students involved in extracurricular activities.

The school already has one class that allows students to leave early in the afternoon to work at places such as daycare centers and grocery stores. Victoria Coney, who teaches the Work Experience and Career Exploration class, says even the simplest job can teach a student valuable skills.

“This helps make them responsible,” she says. “It keeps them excited about school.” Twelve other CPS schools offer the class, which is state-funded and aimed at 14- and 15-year-olds who are at risk of dropping out.

But with the economic downturn, it’s getting harder to place students anywhere. This year, just 11 of the 19 Simeon students who signed up for the career exploration class have jobs.  Usually, nearly all are working. “For the jobs that I’m looking for [to place] my students, there are adults waiting for those jobs,” Coney says.

The culinary arts academy at Simeon is part of a program called Pro Start in which students can earn a nationally recognized certificate that qualifies them for special scholarships and credit from colleges and universities across the country. Work experience—a total of 400 hours over two years—is mandatory.

Many students get their hours by attending weekend training sessions and volunteering to staff events sponsored by the Illinois Restaurant Association. Others hold after-school jobs at places like Potbelly’s or Wendy’s. Some do internships at high-end restaurants or hotels during Christmas break, a time when businesses need more workers and teenagers are most available.

If need be, academy head Loretta Johnson will put them to work in the school’s catering business. “It’s not paid, but they can use this to decide, ‘Is this what I like to do?’” Johnson says. “Even if it isn’t, you can still have it on your resume.”

For Garrick Turner, a one-week internship during the Christmas break at downtown restaurant Carnivale helped him get a full scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Art, worth $75,000. At the end of the week, the restaurant asked him to stay on, which he did for more than two months, chopping vegetables and meat without pay but getting valuable experience.

“It wasn’t so much about getting paid as it was about learning the business and broadening my horizons,” he says. The internship led to a paid job at a catering business. Then Turner went on to win that full scholarship.

However, some students cannot afford to take an internship if it doesn’t pay. Camille Holmes, career and technical education facilitator at Clemente High School, reports that only three or four students in her programs do an internship each year.

“I try to encourage them, but I’m also being realistic,” she says. “If they have other commitments, such as food for their family, I understand.”

As a stand-in, Clemente has arranged job-shadowing days at places such as Charlie Trotter’s restaurant and Hyatt hotels for culinary students and Midwest Folding Company for drafting students. “It’s a crash course in that job,” Holmes says.

Clemente teachers also try to make the classroom experience more practical than theoretical. In each of the career tracks—culinary arts, fashion design, architecture, information technology, carpentry and business network design—students imagine, design and create their own projects. 

“It gives them more motivation,” says Holmes. “They fare better in the class, and they’re committed to it.”  In other words, it’s like an internship.

Phuong Ly is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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