Study: More Student Interns Finding Work

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The number of employers offering internships to high school students may be higher than previously anticipated, according to a study of school-to-work programs in five sites.

The study, by the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University, included a random sample of employers in the local labor markets in each site. The phone survey was conducted between May and August 1996. Among companies with 10 to 49 employees, 25.9 percent reported having student interns. For those with more than 50 employees, the figure jumped to 41.7 percent.

"I was surprised at the number that we found because I've been a well-known skeptic about that," said Thomas Bailey, the director of the institute and the primary author of the study.

Mr. Bailey said the figure might overestimate participation nationally. It could include employers who offer internships for postsecondary students. In addition, the study focused on sites in which at least 50 employers were participating in school-to-work efforts, so there was already a strong base of support in those communities.

"But taking all those things into account," Mr. Bailey argued, "there is a base of interest in participation that I think is stronger than many people thought."

Philanthropic Motives

The study also surveyed participating and nonparticipating employers in each site. It found that philanthropic motives continue to draw many employers to school-to-work programs. Among participating employers, more than half cited contributing to the community or improving public education as their primary motive.

But a strong minority of participating employers--41 percent--indicated they participated out of self-interest, such as access to a pool of qualified workers. And more than three-quarters of the nonparticipants said they would need more bottom-line arguments to persuade them to join up.

"We still need to do more work in trying to measure and convince employers that these kinds of programs can be in their self-interest," Mr. Bailey said.

The program also examined the quality of learning in the five sites. It found that most students were not engaged in traditional "youth jobs," such as those in the retail sector. Nearly half the internships were in entry-level jobs in office and business employment.

Interns also were overrepresented in technical occupations, positions that employers often have difficulty filling.

Researchers measured the quality of the internships based on their length, the amount of time that it took to learn the tasks the interns carried out, and the amount of the time spent learning those tasks in relation to the duration of the internship.

They also looked for such program characteristics as a customized training plan; a workplace mentor to counsel students and teach job-related skills; and efforts to document and assess students' learning at the work site.

In general, the quality of work-based learning was higher when companies expected to hire the interns after graduation.

"Internships appear to work best if they are tied more directly to work preparation," Mr. Bailey said. That may be a problem, he said, if school-to-work programs emphasize broader education reform and preparation for college at the expense of direct preparation for work.

The sites studied were City-as-School and the cooperative education program at LaGuardia Community College in New York City; the Kalamazoo Education for Employment Consortium in Kalamazoo, Mich.; the Greater Lehigh Valley Youth Apprenticeship program in Lehigh, Pa.; and the Philadelphia Education for Employment Schools-to-Careers system.

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