Internships Give Students a Real-World Context to Learning

Over the next 10 years, more boomers will leave the workforce and need new skilled workers to take their place. Not only will the next generation of workers inherit careers over the next decade, the BLS predicts there will be more growth in jobs that require an associate’s degree, while jobs that require long-term on-the-job training will diminish.

With the 2012 average national unemployment rate ranging from 8 to 9%, and a threat of a returning recession, we must focus on what drives employability in this market. Young adults were among the hardest hit in the recession with only 54 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 finding employment in 2012. Unemployment in young adults can cause many lasting problems for the economy:

    • No additional financial help for struggling family.
    • May dropout of high school or college for a working opportunity.
    • Won’t gain transferable working skills at low-skill jobs.
    • Delayed independence, marriage, and large purchases and investments.

In 1984, when I graduated from college into the country’s last bad recession, I was one of the fortunate and the few to find a job at the time. I began working two days after I graduated from college while other people I knew left for Europe, graduate programs, volunteer opportunities like Peace Corps, or took jobs beneath their education level until the economy turned around. One of the only reasons I was hired, being a hard-working graduate from a state school, is because in college I held two unpaid internships in both Washington, D.C. and New York City. I waited on tables those summers to earn my way. What I learned on those internships would be invaluable to me as I began my first job.  The insight that I gained from juggling a white-collar job by day and a minimum-wage job by night showed me two worlds. One was where I was going with my education, know-how, and ambition. The other represented a world where, no matter how hard you worked, it would be hard to make ends meet.

Today, we are quibbling over paid or unpaid internships. My unpaid internships were the best financial investments I could have made. At age twenty-six, I was promoted to assistant vice-president and Director of Marketing and I was the first female to hold the position in an industry, which, at the time, had mostly men in higher positions and mostly women as assistants. Students in America need internships –for college credit or for no pay.

Students need an education outside of school to give a context for learning. Success in college, career, and life can only be gleaned through making seemingly unrelated connections.  If students don’t risk to do and to fail, how can they know what they might really achieve? It’s not just about what students know in the 21st century, it is also about what they know how to do. If we don’t all wake up to that reality, we will continue to fail students and fail ourselves.

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