Why do internships and work experience remain so important?

Dr Saima Rana

This article is by Dr Saima Rana, who is Principal/ CEO of GEMS World Academy Dubai and Chief Education Ambassador for the Varkey Foundation.

Internships and work experience are crucial features of a student’s education. They reveal how education and the world beyond are explicitly connected. They offer opportunities for each young person to cross the threshold for a limited while and experience the vocational world for perhaps the first time.

An internship is one of those rites of passage whereby a person awakens and changes in the light of new possibilities and horizons being made visible and tangible. It’s an existential moment of great significance.

For many students it’s the time when they are able to explore a possible career path that may become a significant and enduring part of who they become. It’s that important. And it is especially important for students who may have no network or connection with the career that interests them.

Many children don’t have any access or understanding of what certain jobs entail. An internship gives a student the chance to see what actually goes on and test aspirations with reality.

It also allows them to understand a part of themselves that they perhaps haven’t fully understood until then. And it gives them insights into education too by showing them a new way of thinking about what their lessons are really about.

Schools, colleges and Universities across the educational sector know that they must build enduring and rich relationships with employers in order to help students as they negotiate these next steps. All good relationships require give and take, and a mutual trust that is built upon care and time.

Educationalists must always try and understand employers and their needs and constraints but it’s also important to see internships in the light of educational as well as career aspirations. Oddly, these experiences work to show that not everything students do and are is tied to the work they do or will do in the future. It shows that people are multi-dimensional, broader and deeper than any single strand of identity within them. We are multitudes, as Bob Dylan recently wrote.

People being multitudes, it is absurd to ask whether a person studying higher mathematics and surrealist art whilst doing an internship in a doctor’s surgery is a mathematician, a surrealist or a student medic. The question is absurd because it assumes that we have to prioritize one over the others. Identity doesn’t work like that.

Identity is relational, so that we might reveal and conceal different parts of our identity depending on who we are with and what we are trying to achieve. An internship supports the learning back in the college or school because there need be no direct link between everything being learned and the work-place.

In fact, one of the great benefits of an internship is that it adds a new experience, a new set of understandings and a new body of knowledge to the repertoire of each individual taking part in it. It expands identities, expands experiences and expands knowledge.

Carefully designed and integrated within a vision of education that is about educating the whole person, an internship is a wonderful and life-enhancing opportunity for our multitudinous beings.

Disruption because of Covid-19

Covid 19 is disrupting many good things and it is threatening internships. As the pandemic progresses internships and work experience placements are being cancelled across the globe.

For example, it has been estimated that half the internships in the USA have been cancelled since the Spring of this year. Some sectors have been particularly hard hit: for example, the travel and tourism sector has cancelled 92% of internships since March and although other sectors have not been hit so hard, such as accounting and legal firms, the situation is not good. And it’s taking a terrible toll on student lives.

When a large sample of older students in 57 Universities and Colleges in the USA were asked whether losing an internship had knocked their confidence of finding a career in their field of study, 71% said their opportunities had diminished and 4% had had to drop out of college, or change courses or couldn’t graduate on time. If a rich country like the USA is in trouble, we know this is happening everywhere.

What can be done? Just as schools have had to adjust to the pandemic, so too must internship programs. Virtual schooling has successfully averted the full impact of an educational shut-down, and although normal physical schooling is preferable, schools that have managed to continue their work on-line have ensured that students have not lost precious opportunities.

Virtual internships 

Virtual internships should be developed. An article in Forbes magazine recently reports that ‘Google, Twitter, IBM, Microsoft and SAP are offering virtual internships … as are other major employers like Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, AIG, Liberty Mutual and Northwestern Mutual.’

Michael T Nietzel, the author of that piece, suggests that this trend may well reflect deeper changes happening within the job market where remote working is likely to become a much more important part of the work landscape than it has been before. This is important.

The world is shifting. It is changing rapidly and swiftly. It is likely that our familiar landscape of work and leisure is disappearing and what is replacing it is going to be very different from anything we’ve seen before. How we prepare ourselves for this new world, and how we induct our precious young people into it so that they negotiate all the new challenges and opportunities, is going to take imagination, courage, intelligence and tenacity. It is important that we all wake up to this existential sea change. Education is going to be immensely important, but it’s going to be an education that helps people thrive in this context of change and disruption.

It is going to be an education that helps people calculate risks, manage unknowns and be comfortable with change. This is going to be an education for cognitive, emotional and ethical explorers as these new vistas of existence unfold. And the world of work will need to understand this as well, and adapt. The mutually supportive networks of educational and vocational expertise must continue to grow because in these challenging times these two domains are crucial for the futures of all our young people everywhere.