Achieving Scale and Quality in School-to-Work Internships: Findings from an Employer Survey

Publication March 1998

Work-based learning is a central component of the school-to-work strategy. Yet this component is particularly difficult to build and institutionalize because it requires that educators and program organizers find appropriate settings where students can have work-based learning experiences. A widespread system of work-based learning in the form of internships or apprenticeships will need to involve thousands of employers willing to provide placements. Furthermore, those employers need to be willing to work with schools to see that those placements have educational value. Reluctant employers are not likely to cooperate enthusiastically in creating a positive learning environment on the job. Thus, the process of employer recruitment also has a strong bearing on the quality of internship placements.

This report examines the issue of employer involvement in the school-to-work strategy by comparing the characteristics of participating employers to a comparison sample of nonparticipating employers. A multilevel research design was used, combining case studies of specific programs with a survey of employers participating in those programs and a survey of a comparison group of nonparticipating employers in those same labor markets. The motivations of employer participants are identified. We also explore the quality of work-based learning placements to try to identify the relationship between the characteristics and motivations of employer participants and the quality of the internships that they provide. By better understanding the process of employer recruitment and the motivations of participants and how those relate to the quality of placements, we hope to help program operators find an adequate number of good-quality placements. Finally, our survey of nonparticipating employers provides information that allows us to estimate the rate of employer participation in internship programs in the cities that we surveyed.

Existing research on employer participation in work-based learning falls into two broad categories. The first includes theoretical discussions about employer participation and for the most part these tend to be somewhat pessimistic, failing to find any strong incentives for employers to participate, although noting potential reasons for them to do so. The theoretical arguments include a useful framework of three types of motivation which may affect employers’ decisions to participate in school-to-work programs. These three types of motivation are philanthropic, individual, and collective.

The second type of research consists of empirical studies, most of which are case studies of school-to-work programs which include some attention to the problems of employer recruitment. These tend to be somewhat more optimistic, reporting that employers are happy with the experiences and indeed that the student interns usually have exceeded the employers’ expectations. A small number of the empirical studies comprise surveys of participating employers and these have mixed conclusions about the feasibility of widespread participation. Yet other recent studies are highlighting programs that are experiencing success in retaining and recruiting increasing numbers of employer partners.

This report expands our knowledge of the issue in two primary ways. First, our methodology allows a comparison between participating and nonparticipating employers. Any attempt to understand why firms participate, what the characteristics of participating firms are, and how nonparticipants might be recruited requires an investigation of both participating and nonparticipating firms. Second, previous studies have not explored the relationship between employer recruitment and program quality.

Sample and Methodology

The school-to-work programs chosen for this study were ones in which students were spending a significant amount of time in work-based learning outside of the classroom, as we believed that these would be the programs which require the most commitment from employer partners. In total, twelve programs at nine sites, both long-running and newly established, were selected as research sites; however, only five of these are survey sites. The five survey site programs are City-as-School in New York City, Kalamazoo Education for Employment in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the cooperative education program at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, the Greater Lehigh Valley Youth Apprenticeship program in Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Education for Employment School-to-Careers system.

Each program contributed a list of employers participating in the program. A matching sample of nonparticipating establishments in the program areas was created. The final survey was conducted by telephone from May to August of 1996. Complete responses were gathered from 334 participating employers and 323 nonparticipants. For participants, the survey asked for information about the firm’s involvement in the program, and was answered by the person supervising the interns or coordinating the firm’s participation. In the nonparticipant version, the first section asked about hypothetical concerns that firms might have about participating in a school-to-work program. The second section (for both samples) asked for general characteristics of the establishment–employee demographics and turnover, human resources policies, and so on–and was answered by a human resources manager.

Participation Rates

Many firms in the United States have been providing internships, apprenticeships, and other forms of work-based learning for many years. For example, there are several hundred thousand students in cooperative education programs. It is important to know how many employers are now participating in some form of internship. Our survey of nonparticipants provides information that would allow us to make an estimate of the participation rate in the cities that we surveyed. Before interviewing respondents, we asked them if they were providing or had provided internships. According to our data, almost 25% of employers already provide internships, although this estimate is probably higher than a national participation rate would be, given that we selected these cities because they already had large and well-established internship programs. Still, a substantial minority of employers in these areas, especially the larger employers, are already participating in work-based learning programs.

Motivations for Participation

Why do these firms participate in school-to-work programs? We suggest three broad motivations: (1) philanthropic, (2) individual, and (3) collective. The data does suggest that the most important motivation for participation remains philanthropic, although a strong minority of firms do report that bottom-line oriented reasons are the most important motivations for their participation. The importance of a philanthropic emphasis is supported both by answers to direct questions as well as the pattern of characteristics in the comparison of participating and nonparticipating firms. One interpretation might be that these programs have so far been able to recruit organizations that are philosophically oriented towards public service. There is some evidence in our study that such motivations could support a reasonably large school-to-work system. Some of the programs we studied have been able to sustain large programs for many years, even though the employers report a primacy of philanthropic motivations.

While these motivations have clearly carried these programs a long way, firms in the nonparticipating sample indicate that they would need more bottom-line oriented arguments to convince them to join up. Public sector and not-for-profit organizations have been the mainstay of the participant pool. In order to penetrate the for-profit world more successfully, program operators will have to convince employers that participation will be in their firms’ interests.
On a more optimistic note, our data indicates that this problem may be less difficult if there is a strong general trend towards more progressive human resource practices. Participation in these programs does seem to be associated with a cluster of progressive human resource practices. This suggests that employer recruitment may become easier if these practices spread, even if participation itself is not necessarily in the direct short-term interest of employers.

Quality of Work-Based Learning

Our survey allows some measurements of the quality of work-based learning experiences. One of these measures is the occupation of the placement. We find that students’ work-based learning experiences are for the most part not in the traditional youth employing sectors and occupations–that is, service occupations in the retail sector. Nearly one-half of all of the internships are in administrative support positions–that is, entry-level jobs in office and business employment. Interns are also overrepresented in technical occupations, while relatively few are in production machine operative positions–an area of youth concentration. Thus, it does not appear that programs are relying on the typical youth jobs. The overrepresentation in technical jobs is encouraging since these are the positions that employers often have difficulty filling; therefore, this may represent an effort on the part of some employers to strengthen their pool of available labor.

We also used four additional quality measures: (1) some characteristics of the programs, (2) the length of the internship, (3) the amount of time that it takes to learn the tasks that the interns carry out, and (4) the percentage of the time on the job in which the interns are learning. There is some evidence, according to one of these four measures, that firms tend to provide higher quality placements when they expect the interns to stay at the firm. There is also weak evidence, according to one of the other measures, that paid internships tend to be of higher quality. Still, these factors did not seem to promote internship quality according to three of the four measures. The program characteristics suggested higher quality for internships in not-for-profit and government organizations than in private, for-profit firms, but the internships in the for-profits provided somewhat more opportunity to learn. Just as participants have more training and human resources programs than nonparticipants, so also, it seems, the stronger programs have more of them than the weaker programs, though this is not uniformly true for all measures. It also seems roughly true that these policies matter more for firms that hire than for firms that do not, indicating that firms with strong workforce quality programs may be more motivated by self-interest than philanthropy or collective interest.

This analysis has several implications for future research and program development. We clearly need more comprehensive analyses of the costs and benefits of participation in school-to-work internship programs. It will become increasingly important to have good data and arguments to support the claim that participation is in the interest of the firm. As programs grow, appeals to community service will be less and less effective. It also follows that program policies that reduce the cost to employers and facilitate participation will become increasingly important. But this runs the risk of promoting excess selectivity for interns and barring many students who might particularly benefit from internships from higher quality opportunities.

The growth of these programs and the wide variation in the educational value of work-based learning experiences suggest that it is time that program developers pay more attention to the quality of internships. First, we need better measures of quality. A fundamental problem is a lack of good conceptualizations of what an internship should provide. Our analysis provides some evidence that firms that take the interns more seriously (through expecting them to stay with the firm) do provide higher quality experiences. Internships appear to work best, at least according to these measures, if they are tied more directly to work preparation rather than educational preparation. To the extent that school-to-work programs at the secondary school level de-emphasize direct preparation for work and increase their emphasis on preparation for postsecondary education, our data indicates that the quality of the programs will be an increasing problem.

Nevertheless, the school-to-work community has only started to confront the issue of work-based learning quality. Program operators have been reluctant to push the issue of quality because of difficulties in recruiting employers, but our data suggests that already a substantial number of employers are providing internships. Given the current levels of participation, program operators appear to have an opportunity to shift some of their focus from recruitment to quality. Moreover, there is no reason to conclude yet that research and experimentation with work-based learning will not lead to the development of approaches that will have both strong educational value and be practical in a variety of different employment environments.

Bailey, T., Hughes, K., & Barr, T. (1998, March). Achieving scale and quality in School-to-Work internships: Findings from an employer survey. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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