SCHOOL PREPARATION AND PLANNING
This area of the Internship Toolkit addresses the role the school plays in the preparation of the students for the paid internship. It also addresses the timing of such things as identifying and developing prospective internship providers, holding a pre-internship student summit, infusing “soft skills” into the curriculum and a host of other preparatory items. Significant time must be invested into the preparation and planning process if students are to be successful in their internships. Since the students are probably experiencing the workplace for the first time (other than as a minimum wage earner in a retail environment), basic workplace skills must be taught, so students understand how to dress for the experience, how to act, what to do when they aren’t busy, how to speak with their work supervisor, etc. In comment after comment, employers stress the necessity for basic “soft skills” in entry-level workers; analytical skills, creative thinking skills, problem solving skills, ability to work in teams, ethics, dressing for success, comportment, etc. They indicate that job-related technical skills can be taught by their training and professional development departments, but it’s the basic soft, workplace skills that prospective employers can’t successfully teach, and are starving for.
In the “Preparation and Planning” phase, the director is responsible for overseeing the development of internship positions and ensuring that students are available and prepared to work successfully. This is not a linear process. The skillful director will need to multitask throughout the students’ junior year. Depending on the size of the NAF program, which may involve only a single class in a single school or a large program housed in many schools, this may indeed be a formidable undertaking. For purposes of this discussion, it is presumed that the director will be looking to place students in summer internships, which usually provide the best opportunities for sustained experiential learning. Of course, internships held at other times after the junior year are acceptable if they meet the proscribed minimum number of hours.
The director’s first task is to establish internship eligibility requirements to determine the actual number of viable candidates and the concomitant number of slots that will be required. Internships must be regarded not as a right, but as a privilege to be earned. Eligibility criteria should be consistent in multi-site programs where there is a single director. In all situations the school Academy coordinator is responsible for gathering data and assessing eligibility. Possible criteria include a minimum GPA, passing of all Academy classes, satisfactory attendance and punctuality, a clean school citizenship record, and possession of relevant documents such as a Social Security card, working papers in those states that require them, and proof of U.S. citizenship or a green card or valid INS work permit. Setting deadlines for acquiring and presenting documents is another possible eligibility criterion. A midyear deadline of January 31, for example, certainly provides adequate time for Academy juniors to gather these documents. Students who miss a deadline imposed four months earlier certainly have not demonstrated any burning desire to work. A key value directors seek to inculcate is that one is responsible for one’s actions and for the consequences of those actions.
Internship candidates must also be available for an unbroken period of time during the summer of their junior year. The parameters are governed by the school district calendar. For those districts where school reopens after Labor Day, internships may last until the second or third week in August. Employers should not be put in a position of having to accommodate the vacation schedule of their interns’ families. It is therefore vital that parental cooperation be secured long before the summer via a Memo of Understanding signed in September by the student and parent as well as by direct school-parent communication (letters, flyers, and newsletters) throughout the year. A school-based evening tea held early in the year can bring together school officials, Academy juniors, and their parents to learn about the program in general and the internship process in particular. This forum provides an ideal setting for the director to explain the benefits of the internship and how parents can help.
Assuming the prospective intern has met all requirements to be included in the pool of candidates, the next task is for the student to prepare a resume that will be presented to employers. Here the school NAF coordinator plays a critical role as coach and mentor. There are numerous websites and software programs that offer instruction in crafting resumes, especially those suitable for high-schoolers. Before submitting a resume for private sector consideration, it is incumbent upon the school representative (teacher, NAF coordinator, principal, director—the responsible adult) to be sure it meets professional standards. Some NAF programs use classroom time for resume preparation; others bring in industry trainers; and some develop workshop opportunities for students. Multi-site directors may wish to share with their site coordinators model resumes and simple lists of do’s and don’ts to ensure that the final product enhances the candidate’s chance of employment.
Resume writing is just one of the skills students must master as part of the preparation process. Classroom instruction models that emphasize project-based learning, cooperative grouping, and even socialized recitation help prepare students for workplace success. Teamwork, technology and communication skills are critical areas for NAF teachers to include in their classroom activities. Any internship preparation program whose goal is excellent performance will also provide instruction in the ABC’s of dressing for success and interviewing effectively. Mock interviews, student conferences, guest speakers—these are but a few of the strategies that will empower your students to succeed. And don’t forget how influential the teacher/coordinator can be if he or she is a suitable role model in terms of dress, attitude toward authority, interpersonal skills and the entire panoply of workplace readiness behaviors.
Whether your Academy is large or small, the next step is recommended as a quintessential element in the planning process. A pre-internship interview conducted by the director in a private setting at the school tests the mettle of prospective interns. A 15-minute one-on-one session provides an excellent vehicle for the director to assess the workplace potential of student candidates. Interview questions may deal with process as well as content. It doesn’t take too long to determine if the candidate needs additional help or if he or she has outstanding qualities. The pre-interview enables the director to identify particular strengths that may assist in the placement process. Students with excellent computer ability or speaking skills or that sparkling personality are always in demand, and, in some cases, employers are interested in hiring students with one or more of these desirable traits. The pre-interview can also serve as another benchmark: students who fail the interview egregiously may be removed, at the director’s discretion, from the internship pool.
By the time students have gathered their documents, written their resumes, and mastered workplace readiness skills, the director will be heavily involved in developing internship positions. This is surely the most challenging task facing your program leadership. In most programs, it is the Academy’s Advisory Board that will provide the lion’s share of slots. Once companies have hired NAF students, it becomes much easier to approach them in subsequent years. Cold-calling usually yields meager results, but you can get mileage out of your network connections. Always have a supply of business cards available, be sure to return phone calls and e-mail messages promptly, and always follow up. Once you’ve developed enough positions to meet the program’s commitment to the juniors, the next step is matching up the students and employers. In this connection, it is absolutely essential that the director have the most current and accurate home contact information for each candidate. It may be necessary to reach out to students when school is not in session, and often very little turnaround time is available to convey information to the student about an impending interview appointment.
Students may be sent on placement or competitive interviews in the final months of the school year. Permission should be secured in advance from school administrators for students to leave early if that is necessary. Once students have been hired by a sponsor firm, the youngster must accept the position. To do otherwise would be to alienate employer support. That is why is makes sense to send students to one firm at a time. Interns should also understand they may be required to undergo drug abuse screening as part of the normal hiring process.
Before the end of the school year, many NAF directors conduct pre-internship orientations for all the students about to begin work. This orientation allows the director to disseminate information, communicate expectations, and address questions students may have. Many companies will provide such orientations the first day on the job, but the school orientation allows the director to remind the students that they are ambassadors for the school, for the program, and, above all, for themselves.