While the US economy boasts a low unemployment rate of 3.8 percent (despite two years of the COVID-19 pandemic), it is important for high school and college students to begin exploring careers they are interested in and gaining professional work readiness skills.

To better stand out during their future internships and/or job searches, students should focus on choosing an area of study, exploring a potential career industry, and understanding what qualities employers are looking for in an ideal candidate.

Advantages of Early Career Exploration

High school and early college students should seize the opportunity to “test drive” a career in an area for which they feel they are suited. In addition to providing professional work experience, internships can also provide valuable insight. A student who is a straight-A math student may think they will someday be an investment banker—another in a long line of finance professionals in their family. A finance internship may prove that true—or it may turn out to not be at all what the student expected, which in turn could affect the student’s college or major choice. College students who have chosen a major may discover, through an internship, that they are on the right track, or they may need to make some adjustments. 

The Value of Experience-Based Work

The majority of college internships for juniors and seniors are recruitment focused. Companies providing summer internship opportunities are looking for the best candidates to fill their entry-level positions and, typically, will extend employment offers to a handful of interns at the conclusion of their internship. 

Where does that leave students who are seeking a learning and informative work experience and not an extended job interview? The answer is an early, experience-based internship. Students who participate in these kinds of internships get a glimpse into a career area in a workplace setting while gaining the career readiness skills that will prepare them for college and post-college experiences. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) defines career readiness as “…a foundation from which to demonstrate requisite core competencies that broadly prepare the college-educated for success in the workplace and lifelong career management.” NACE identifies eight career-readiness competencies.

Students who participate in a career-exploration internship that is experience-based will build on skills in each of these areas, preparing them for success in future internships or careers.

Internships in a Virtual and Hybrid Workforce

In the last two years, working remotely has become a new normal for many organizations. While some organizations have returned to their fully on-site, pre-pandemic structure, others remain fully remote, and a number have created a hybrid workforce. What does this mean for internships?

In response to the needs of both employers and students, more and more companies are supporting virtual internships. Companies have adapted to the changing workplace and are still able to provide a valuable educational experience by engaging students using a variety of tools necessary in the virtual workspace: using virtual conference and meeting applications (such as Zoom GoToMeeting, WebEx, etc.), online document collaboration, project management software, cloud calendar and scheduling, and more. Virtual internships offer the opportunity for students to develop some career-readiness skills that might have been used infrequently or not at all in an onsite internship. 

With flexible hours and project work, interning virtually provides an opportunity for students to improve their organizational skills and become more independent. Without the option to immediately walk over to a supervisor to ask a question, interns can use the opportunity to work through an issue separately before seeking help. Additionally, students can hone their digital communication skills, which have rapidly become the predominant mode of communication in the workplace. Regularly participating in audio or video calls familiarizes students with the work culture of the organization and gives students an opportunity to practice their verbal communication skills, which results in increased confidence when speaking in an online group setting. 

For employers, the advantages of virtual internships include requiring less direct supervision, allowing flexible work hours, and capitalizing on the fact that today’s intern is very comfortable with virtual tools and technology. Internships that continue to adapt to a changing workplace will give students the ability to adapt to change as well—a vital skill necessary to elevate a student’s candidacy for future employment, internships, and other life experiences.

Likelihood of Future Internship or Employment Success

One of the most common roadblocks many college graduates face in their job search is a lack of previous work experience. In the last decade or so, the number of entry-level positions requiring previous work experience has grown. According to NACE’s Job Outlook 2021, employers responded that when choosing a job candidate, students who have had internship experience have an edge over those with otherwise equal credentials. Candidates who have interned with the hiring organization have an even greater advantage to be considered for a full-time job. Respondents also stated that other key factors in decision-making included the candidate’s major, leadership roles held, and general work experience. 

In recent years, a variety of college graduate surveys have shown that internships directly affect the number of job offers college graduates receive. According to results from NACE’s Class of 2019 Student Survey, 53.2 percent of all graduating seniors who applied for full-time jobs received at least one job offer. However, of this group, 57.5 percent were students who had completed an internship. Other surveys have shown students who have internship experience receive 1.17 job offers after graduation, while those who had not completed internships received 0.98 job offers, a 16 percent decrease. 

The Power of Building Connections Early

Today, more than 85 percent of open positions are filled by networking. Internships provide high school students and first- and second-year college students with the opportunity to build connections within a potential industry, increasing their likelihood of future employment. Interns are encouraged to build a professional online presence, including starting networking on LinkedIn. Additionally, career readiness skills acquired during an internship will contribute to a student’s confidence and ability to network at in-person events as well as online forums. One of the many reasons that networking is an essential aspect of employability is the fact that upwards of 70 percent of all open positions are not advertised. Through internships, students can connect with industry professionals, establish relationships early on, and eventually increase their likelihood of being considered for many of these positions.

As the workforce continues to adapt to a changing climate, students who participate in an internship early on will build on their career readiness skills and readily adapt to future workforce changes and challengesa vital skill necessary to elevate a student’s potential for success in a future job, internship, career, or other life experiences.

By Robin Clebnik, Founder and Chief Internship Officer of InternWorks


Unemployment rate: tradingeconomics.com/united-states/unemployment-rate

NACE Job Outlook 2021: link.IECAonline.com/NACE-job-outlook-2021