Summer internships are a proven gateway to employment. But this gateway is not equally open to students from different backgrounds. Low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students have lower internship participation rates than their wealthier white peers. Additionally, access to paid internships, which are associated with long-term salary benefits, remain unequal by race and class.
Any organization offering an internship program should ask themselves: Are your company’s internships a cause or remedy for inequality in the workplace? The answer depends not only on who gets internships, but also what those interns get in return for their time.
By now, it is widely recognized that paying interns is an essential first step in removing barriers to access for historically underrepresented students who otherwise could not afford to spend their summers at work for free. But just paying an intern isn’t enough to start a career. In a labor market where it is estimated that half of jobs go through networks, social capital remains the other key currency for progress. It is also essential to diversify access to internships as a foray into not only compensation, but also connections.
Based on my research and that of my colleagues on innovative strategies to expand and diversify youth networks, we have unearthed practical, research-based approaches that can connect interns more equitably across your company. and harness the full potential of a diverse talent pool. Here’s where you should start:
Think beyond the hourly wage.
Paid internships, along with relocation and housing allowances, can address real barriers to entry for interns from low-income families. But there can still be barriers to building networks and connections. After all, even casual lunches and coffees, where employees build relationships and swap tips, aren’t cheap.
This has led some advocates to ensure that interns receive daily meal allowances. “We provide all of our students with a lunch stipend of $20 a day,” said Kevin Davis, founder and president of the nonprofit First Workings, which provides internships for underrepresented high school students in New York City. In a recent interview with AEI researcher Brent Orrell, Davis explained that the purpose of these stipends is to help trainees save time getting online. “The idea is to build social capital [and] create relationships,” says Davis. “So if a colleague says, ‘Hey, we’re all going for coffee after work,’ or ‘We’re all having a lunch sandwich,’ [they] can participate. He adds, “It’s those interactions at work that allow you to acquire a mentor.
Don’t just assign a manager – create a support network.
Employers often assign supervisors or even mentors to interns. Although this may be enough to manage day-to-day work, research from the CERES Institute has shown that canvases supportive relationships are essential to prosperity. For example, Old Navy’s This Way ONward program aims to place 16-24 year olds facing barriers to employment by providing them with a first job that will serve as the foundation for a successful career. Participants have access not only to an in-store supervisor, but also to a job coach (from a local non-profit organization the company partners with), a “big sib” (a young employee) and associated peers. This support network seems to be paying off. According to a survey of former students, 72% of participants have secured stable employment, compared to 55% of their peers.
Businesses need to pay close attention to the often overlooked benefits that a “big brother” can provide. Although your younger employees may have less wisdom and experience, they can offer expertise and a relationship that other mentors cannot. In fact, in a recent Search Institute study of organizations aimed at expanding the career prospects of low-income students and students of color, close peers (those close in age and experience) emerged as the relationship that provided program participants with the most resources. , including connections to others and useful skills and ideas to achieve education or employment goals.
Make comments real with connections.
Your interns need feedback, in addition to networking opportunities. Creating opportunities for interns to get constructive and useful feedback can not only improve their job performance, but also their relationships within the office. Numerous studies on the quality of internships have shown that well-structured projects, as well as feedback on said projects, are essential to intern satisfaction and productivity. Research from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, however, suggests that supervisors tend to offer general support for trainees’ well-being, but are less likely to provide the rich, task-specific feedback that trainees want.
To get started, invite more people to review an intern’s work. Colleagues can offer not only fresh perspective, but also broader context about how tasks intersect with organizational goals. According to Jeffrey Moss, founder and CEO of Parker Dewey, a company that matches college students with paid micro-internships, diversifying sources of feedback can strengthen interns’ sense of purpose and belonging. “It’s invaluable to show interns where their work fits into the larger company effort, [such as] how the case study created by a marketing intern aligns with a need within sales, or the competitive analysis is used by the product development team,” Moss said. “It demonstrates that the intern’s work is valued, a key element in ensuring he or she feels like part of the team.”
Seize the risk of chance encounters, including online.
For employers still navigating between virtual and in-person work, ensuring interns foster relationships can seem daunting. Spontaneous meetings in an office environment are the kind of things that could have been left to chance before the pandemic. But there are great benefits to taking the time to facilitate these connections.
In their 2021 report on ‘virtual water coolers’, Harvard Business School researchers found that even brief online, synchronous and informal interactions between remote interns and senior executives increased performance, attitudes and the potential likelihood of receiving full-time job offers. Yields were even higher among interns who were matched with demographically similar senior managers, as defined by gender and ethnicity.
For businesses still operating in a virtual or hybrid capacity, be sure to provide opportunities for casual online conversations, including with senior executives. Not only will this help create a culture of belonging and achievement for interns in general, but data also suggests that entry-level employees and employees of color are particularly likely to report feeling lonely at work. Building informal relationships won’t solve all of this, but it can boost employee engagement.
Invest in lasting relationships and measure them.
The value of a network is rarely unique. A colleague can offer episodic support on projects. Ultimately, that same colleague might offer referrals to new jobs or opportunities. While it’s hard to perfectly predict if and how a relationship might open doors, professionals, especially those operating in industries that prioritize social skills, have an incentive to invest in their networks.
Interns who are just testing the waters of the working world may not share this understanding of how to build or mobilize networks. And according to a study by America’s Promise Alliance, young people of color and from low-income families think relationships and social capital are key to navigating their careers, but report struggling to build them.
Arming interns with the skills, mindset, and confidence to forge connections within your company can unlock valuable social capital that will outlast the summer. Investing in targeted training on building networks and relationships can help. For example, Social Capital Builders Inc., a social enterprise, offers a program called Foundations in Social Capital Literacy – a cousin of financial literacy – to young adults entering the workforce. Another organization, MENTOR, has created a program called Connect Focus Grow that can help interns and their supervisors deepen their relationship-building and networking skills.
From there, you can take proactive steps to understand how connected your trainees really are. Collecting data and disaggregating it by trainee background is key to testing assumptions about what works and what doesn’t work for your trainees. There are some pretty easy ways to understand which interns build relationships and how those relationships in turn provide them with resources like support, advice, and feedback. A weekly pulse check on who interns have interacted with can offer supervisors insight into how their interns are connected or isolated. Employers who want to go further can ask interns to maintain network maps throughout their experience to track and reflect on new connections. If they’re already rolling out an intern survey, they can also incorporate survey elements that use what sociologists call name and job title generators to measure how connected interns are before and after their work experience. of summer.
Now more than ever, companies are turning to internships – and even “pre-internships” – as a strategy to diversify their pipeline. If internships are to function as engines that promote inclusion rather than perpetuating inequalities in the labor market, rewarding interns with financial and social capital matters. Calls to expand access to internships, especially paid internships, are well-intentioned. But they won’t reach their full potential without a keen eye for the people students get to know along the way.