Summer internships a growing option for Eastern Iowa high school students

Many glad for experience whether or not they're paid

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March 28, 2014 | 6:00 pm

A new job title is becoming a staple for the legions of high-school students spending the summer working as lifeguards, in retail or doing child care: intern.

This summer, 126 high school juniors and seniors are interning at area businesses, hospitals and other organizations through the Workplace Learning Connection.

“Our program is really about career exploration,” said Laurie Worden, internship program coordinator for the Workplace Learning Connection, a Kirkwood Community College initiative that provides career guidance and preparation opportunities to kindergarten through 12th grade students in Eastern Iowa’s seven-county area. “The overall goal is not the work, it’s the exposure for the students.”

Rockwell Collins, Iowa SourceMedia Group (the parent company of The Gazette) and the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts are just three of the more than 70 sites where Workplace Learning Connection-placed student interns this summer.

Learners can do internships, for which they receive elective school credit, during the school year as well. Participation in the academic year program has remained steady, Worden said, though she did not have specific data. But she said the summer session has “grown immensely” — at an estimated rate of 15 percent to 20 percent annually — in recent years.

“That’s where the real expansion is coming, because kids have so many choices during the school year with their academics — (Advanced Placement) courses, postsecondary courses — that oftentimes they may not have time (to intern) during the school year,” she said.

The Iowa Department of Education does not track the number of secondary-aged students who do internships for school credit.

Credits as compensation

The majority of Workplace Learning Connection internships — 95 percent, Worden said — are unpaid, bringing the young workers into what can be a tricky situation. Uncompensated and undercompensated interns have recently filed lawsuits against Gawker Media, NBCUniversal and Warner Music Group for labor law violations.

Worden maintained that the Workplace Learning Connection internships, which can range from 45 to 90 hours, comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act. The positions range from observation to hands-on training, but interns from across the spectrum said they see the benefit in their internships regardless of pay or level of involvement.

Shannon Mulcahey, a 17-year-old who will begin her senior year at Xavier High School this fall, has spent the last three weeks as a nursing intern for Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. She averages three four-hour shifts weekly, during which she has observed procedures and changed bed linens.

“There is no hands-on with our patients,” said Judy Shimek, Mercy’s volunteer coordinator. “They can do little things such as pass water or check to see if (patients) need something done, but there is no physical hands-on with their patients. It’s observation learning.”

That’s just fine for Mulcahey, who plans to pursue a career as a nurse practitioner.

“I think actually watching what you could potentially be doing as your career is more beneficial than sitting in a classroom and taking notes over it. It’s more interesting,” she said. “I think it’s pretty fair (that the internship is unpaid), because I’m not actually inserting an IV or anything. Most of the time I just stand in the corner, introduce myself and just watch what the nurse does.”

That experience is in many ways the opposite of Solon High School student Kaitlin Hatcher. She recently completed a lab internship in the University of Iowa’s biology department.

Hatcher, who will be a junior this fall, assisted researchers and is now volunteering to work on an experiment involving New Zealand snails and sexual reproduction. In her experiences as both a volunteer and an intern, she worked alongside college students who were being compensated even though Hatcher was not. She felt that the others in the lab have treated her both as a colleague and an intern.

“Working with the experiment that I’m helping to start, they definitely looked at me like a colleague,” Hatcher said. “Also, Maurine (Neiman, assistant biology professor and Hatcher’s supervisor) definitely made sure it was a learning experience, and that I was getting a lot out of it as an intern.”

Mutual benefit

In her almost five years at the university, Neiman has had a number of high school and college interns in her lab and described all of them as “great.” The amount and level of work the interns do, and whether it is comparable to the paid college students, depends partially on the individual, Neiman said.

Three of the lab’s high-schoolers have actually become co-authors on published peer-reviewed papers, a potential opportunity available to all of the students interning in the lab.

“I think it’s important that they get something out of it proportionate to what they’re putting in,” Neiman said of the high school interns, particularly of Hatcher. “I also believe that she’s getting a really unique hands-on experience along with getting high school credit.”

Hatcher said she sees no problem in not being paid.

“I feel completely fine with it because I think the experience itself is enough compensation for all the work that I’m putting in, because it is such a great experience to work with professionals in a job that I’m going into,” she said.

The law

The Fair Labor Standards Act includes a list of criteria that unpaid “?‘for-profit’ private sector internships” must meet in order to be legal, including that the “experience is for the benefit of the intern” and “the employer that (sic) provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.”

Aside from positive community perception and public relations, Worden said there isn’t a whole lot of incentive for organizations who host Workplace Learning Connection students. That’s the point, though. She said the internships are geared first and foremost to benefit students, though some organizations — such as Mercy and the University of Iowa — do find future volunteers and part-time staff through the internship program.

“It’s really a win-win situation,” Worden said.

Many area high schools, including Xavier and Solon, do not require students to do internships in order to graduate. Worden said she’d like to see school administrators consider making some sort of work-based learning required in order for students to earn their diplomas.

Nathan Wear, principal of Solon High School and a member of The Workplace Learning Connection Advisory Council, said he is working to expand students’ participation in the internship and job shadow programs.

“That’s something we’re really trying to do encourage more students to do at the high school level because of the job-embedded experience they get and the things we can’t teach within the school walls,” he said. “We’re not going to make it a graduation requirement ... We’re just going to do everything we can to make sure every kid has an opportunity to (participate).”

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