Carefully Designed Internships Create Benefits for Everyone

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While we often hear about the challenges in every area of juvenile justice, how often do we hear about the rewards? Perhaps nowhere within “the system” can we find a greater win-win situation for everyone involved than in internship opportunities for post-secondary students.

Internships offer exceptional rewards for employers, students and instructors alike, whether in conjunction with two-year or four-year institutions, undergrad or graduate levels. Done correctly, the internship experience benefits and enriches both individuals and the respective professions alike. While this series will focus on internships in the juvenile justice field, there are takeaways that could be applicable to many other social services venues.

What’s in a name?

To start with, it’s important to understand what an internship is and is not. This type of internship is unique. And, whether in governmental or community-based settings, it has universal characteristics that dictate the inputs, structure and outcomes necessary for success.

Perhaps most importantly, internships are not “free labor.” While both internships and volunteer positions are unpaid, the former should be considered a practicum, where classroom education meets real-world application. While volunteers may seek a similar type of experience, they are bound by the agency’s expectations. Interns bring their own expectations, and internships demand specific inputs to achieve tangible outcomes. Likewise, post-secondary interns are not temps, LTEs (limited-term employees) or on-the-job trainees, although internships can be a gateway to that all-important first-job experience upon graduation.

It takes 3 to tango

To begin with, employers, students and instructors each need to be accurately informed about their respective responsibilities and benefits. Each also needs to be clear as to their anticipated commitments, respective activities and realized outcomes. This enables each person to structure their time commitments and articulate their expectations. Once this is established, they can talk and devise a master plan, which leads to mutual accommodation and support.

Taken in its totality, this master plan should produce a rich and fulfilling experience for all involved. It is mandatory to remember that there is no hierarchy in this arrangement. All participants are equally obligated and equally benefit as part of their participation. Executed properly, a well-planned internship will result in innovative activities, creative learning and sustained quality over time.

This is, of course, the ideal. In reality, stakeholders may or may not faithfully fulfill their necessary functions, resulting in lost opportunities, misunderstandings and even friction. A mutual knowledge of each party’s function enables a counterpart to step into the breach, if necessary, and shore up the support system.

While there are individual responsibilities, which will be detailed shortly, there are also commonalities that apply to all concerned. This is where a strong structure can weather the tempests of unintended human failings, which will arise from time to time, yet need not be taken to the crisis level.

Drawing from the collective toolbox

Yes, it takes time and resources to properly structure and execute a quality internship, but today’s investment will reap years of rewarding and satisfying dividends. Taking shortcuts, on the other hand, will only rob everyone of the full rewards from their respective investments. Shortcuts may also doom the long-term viability of the program.

Perhaps no tool is more important than quality communications, both verbal and written. Clear and timely interface is paramount and indispensable. Try not to be a media snob. If your counterpart prefers emails over text or vice versa, there may be a legitimate reason for this, so be accommodating wherever possible. Make it a rule to return communications within 24 hours, with complete and accurate details.

Structure regularly scheduled check-ins into the program, primarily face-to-face. Anticipate deadlines and potential schedule conflicts (holiday breaks, final exams, personal obligations), and then give counterparts reminders well in advance. This type of cross-support helps build cordial relationships. Never adopt an attitude of “it’s not my job/role.”

Put summaries of meetings and discussions in writing, sharing them in a timely manner. This avoids later misinterpretations and misunderstandings resulting from “he said, she said” memory lapses. Specific types of written programmatic documentation will be detailed later in this series.

Accommodate, don’t dictate

Each party knows its own specific role best, which is both good and bad. A strong knowledge base about one’s own needs and contributions is essential. But combined with an insular mentality, this can lead to inflexibility and tunnel vision, which often results in baseless assumptions.

Developing a true collaborative mentality takes flexibility, innovation and accommodation. It may necessitate unusual or even exceptional policy or procedural modifications. Distinguish needs from wants, and even then don’t use needs as “make-or-break” bargaining chips. Practice looking at the internship collectively from the other partners’ perspectives. Seek the win-win solution over individual or organizational dominance. When in doubt, ask questions.

What’s in it for me?

Are internships really worth the time and effort? Doing a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis will quickly provide a resounding yes.

Lowering the acquisition cost for new employees has been a driving factor behind the recent explosion in the temp-to-hire labor market. Yet this channel can still be costly and provides no guarantees for reducing turnover. Establishing an in-house vetting process through internships is a smart way to recruit, develop and place entry-level employees. It’s a proven way to acculturate potential candidates to an employer’s particular policies and procedures. It may even reduce the cost of in-house training.

Community goodwill might also see an uptick. Mentoring opportunities for supervisors provide a rewarding qualitative experience in an otherwise demanding and stressful profession. Adding younger staff may help agencies bridge the generational divide when trying to effectively connect with challenged youth.

Students would be wise to seek out courses that offer internships. Yes, it’s extra work, but there are numerous short- and long-term benefits. Being able to access real-world lab experiences will enrich classroom participation and discussion, plus multiply the learning retention many times.

Getting that first entry-level job upon graduation can be a real challenge, glowing grade-point averages and snappy resumes notwithstanding. According to Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., “A staggering 95 percent of employers said candidate experience is a factor in hiring decisions.”1

Strong professional references, the ability to knowledgeably use professional terminology and jargon, and an insider’s savvy on the specializations and dynamics within the juvenile justice system will make future job-hunting far more efficient, productive and rewarding. “Employers reported that nearly 36 percent of the new college graduates they hired … came from their own internship programs,” Hansen wrote.

If this trend continues at its current pace, it will not be long before the majority of employers demand this kind of qualification in their new hires.

Instructors who incorporate internships into their curriculum will not only enrich the educational experience, but may well boost course enrollments. At a time when the cost of higher education and student tuition debt is being assailed from all sides, regents and department chairs are closely scrutinizing budgets, using enrollment numbers, drop-out and graduation rates, plus graduate job-placement stats, as justifications for course retention or termination.

Recently the University of Wisconsin-Superior cut 25 courses from their 2018 offerings. Although no faculty were laid off, and cost-savings were not the primary goal of the cuts, “Programs were targeted for suspension based on low enrollment and poor completion rates, [said an official] … citing the university’s desire to streamline its offerings in an effort to reduce dropouts and get more students to graduate in a timely fashion.” Although adding internships may not avoid these kinds of cuts, they are a good investment that enhance the qualitative and quantitative stature of any syllabus.

May the synergy be with you

Properly structured and executed, post-secondary student internships can create and sustain qualitative and quantitative benefits for all participants. Approaching internships as an essential not auxiliary endeavor heralds a paradigm shift for the juvenile system and post-secondary education alike. With the proper attitude, flexibility and commitment, structuring an internship can be tailor-made to the particular needs of each party. The nuts and bolts of structuring internships will be covered in the next installment in this series.

Michael Mitchell has worked with more than 30 post-secondary interns from both four-year and two-year institutions who have worked with juvenile court-supervised, at-risk, special-ed teens, plus adolescents with clinical mental health issues. He is a first vice president, online publications editor and membership services chair for the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice. Write to him at

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