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Structured but Flexible: Developing Internship Programs for Gen Z

This summer, my colleagues Janine Corea and Adrienne Schleigh wrote blogs with a focus on the youngest work-eligible generation entering the workforce, Gen Z.  What is important to them in the workplace? As employers, how can we effectively engage this generation?  Several points addressing these topics came from a mini survey focused on Recruiting Gen Z. Combining their collective insights, tapping into the excitement/frenzy of the annual back-to-school season, and my previous professional life in higher education, it’s time to give some thought to the topic of workplace learning, specifically Internships, when talking about Gen Z.   

First things first, what is an internship?  As defined by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), “an internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional workplace setting (across in-person, remote, or hybrid modalities).”  This definition probably resonates with many as the standard definition of an internship, although the last part “across in-person, remote, or hybrid modalities” is a more recent addition.  For our Gen Z students, the key to success for internships mirrors the full internship definition – it’s all about structured flexibility. Oxymoron, technically yes, but applicable in the Gen Z internship context.  So, let’s explore the “structured but flexible” idea in terms of three pillars of the internship experience: requirements, modality, and tasks.

Structured but Flexible Posting Requirements

When thinking about traditional internships, you might tie the position requirements to a specific class year (i.e. requirements section: Junior or Senior) – and rightly so.  Many internships are based on the collegiate semester schedule, with a current upper-level student, and connected to a course for academic credit. Continuing along the theme of flexibility, let’s think about flexing the internship timeline.  Articles posted on U.S. News and Symplicity.com noted a rise in high school students taking internships. Gen Z high school students are eagerly exploring careers, starting earlier in their education with not only internships, but also taking on higher level coursework such as International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) courses, with approximately 34% of high school students taking college courses.  What this means is that many students are entering college with several courses under their belt, allowing them to enroll in higher level courses earlier in their collegiate careers.  Consider that Sophomores might be the new Juniors. 

Suggestions

Rather than structure your posting requirements by class year eligibility, flex it by listing skill sets.  For example, if your position requires an advanced use of graphic design software or intermediate functions in Excel, don’t assume only Juniors and Seniors have those skills; rather, specify “demonstrated ability in XYZ design software” or “ability to conduct XYZ functions in Excel”.  For those students who might not have followed the traditional high school to college path, job skills may have been learned along the way.  When they enter a formal collegiate program, they might have a few years of skill development to tout but are considered Freshman or Sophomore status.  With a focus on skills, not class years, it sends a message that you value what the candidate brings to the table, not just semesters completed.  As a side note: keep in mind, internships are meant to introduce students to the workplace.  Citing a need for expert status in any skill set will severely limit your talent pool.  A thorough consideration of the range of skills you are looking for might not only expose your internship to more candidates, but also might appeal to candidates with diverse academic backgrounds and skill sets.

Structured but Flexible Modality

Hailed as digital natives, an article from Ernst and Young cited that Gen Z have a unique trait of combining both physical and virtual realities.  While prior to 2020, internships were mostly in-person, post-2020, valuable remote internship experiences were created.  This increase in remote internships might be viewed as a dream scenario for our screen-savvy Gen Z workers, but not necessarily.  A study conducted by Symplicity found a 23% decrease from 2022 to 2023, of Gen Z respondents seeking opportunities that allowed remote and/or flexible work, demonstrating an interest in a return to the physical workplace.  Our Recruiting Gen Z survey found similar results with every respondent placing importance on flexibility, but not all respondents said specifically that remote experience was important.  Anecdotally, my own experience with internship interviews over the last two years aligns with these findings as just about every candidate eagerly wanted to be on-site to complete the internship experience, but also mentioned some type of flexibility occasionally would be ideal.  What can that tell us about the preference in modality for Gen Z internships?  Flexibility and hybrid models are the blend Gen Z student workers are looking for.

Suggestions

If your company/team/department has a hybrid work schedule, consider the same for your intern.  Add in a dash of structure by providing your intern set days for remote work and set days for in-person (of course, flexing when life happens).  This suggestion is important to note because from my experience with internships in higher education, when too much flexibility is given at the start, it can be challenging for the intern to develop consistency week to week.  They might take it as indifference to when they are actually working and/or lack of planning.  You will also want to take time to ensure that your intern is in the office when their mentor, supervisor and/or team lead are in the office as well.  Working with other team members allows your intern to learn different work styles, how to effectively network, and how situations and challenges are managed with the variety of techniques demonstrated from individuals on your team.

Taking the time to come up with a flexible schedule with your intern, especially during the semester, can be incredibly helpful as your intern balances the internship along with campus responsibilities. Additionally, with a generation that values authenticity and bringing their whole selves to the workplace, understanding what other courses or clubs the student is in, outside of the internship, might help to shape the overall learning experience and provide some great networking with other members of the team.  It is exciting to see the intern thrive with their responsibilities remotely but do allow your intern to experience in-person cultural norms, the ability to meet professionals from other areas of the department and company, and the organic development of shared experiences with their co-workers by being in the physical workplace.

Structured but Flexible Tasks

If you take a look at NACE’s Best Practices for an Internship Program, this is not a list that is created overnight.  An internship takes a lot of planning, especially if you think about the learning objectives to be accomplished in a short time period (a semester is approximately three months and for summer experiences, you may be able to stretch it to three and a half).  This planning is most likely not new information.  What you might not know is that a recent survey conducted by NACE for members of the Class of 2023, 87% of respondents are looking for the opportunity to develop job related skills with 86% looking to apply those skills.  What does this information mean for Gen Z internships?  No more busy work.  No more webinars to fill up time.  No more LMS trainings to fill schedules.  Gen Z interns are looking for opportunities for hands on learning that is an impactful demonstration of their existing and/or newly acquired skills.

Suggestions

A structured internship includes a plan of tasks and activities that enable the intern to get first-hand experience with the work you do and to understand why it is important.  A structured internship includes lining up meetings with team members, knowing what projects are on the horizon that are intern-appropriate and allowing the intern the challenge of trying it themselves.  A structured internship might even include a variety of tasks similar in nature to an entry-level position in your department (hint-hint).  With all this planning and structure, how do you add flexibility?  You need to think even further ahead, have additional activities and team members ready to share their expertise based on the interns’ needs and interests.  Know your company and the departments within it, as well as subject matter experts that your intern could meet.  Our Recruitment Gen Z survey found that Growth and Development was the second highest ranked factor for what Gen Z workers are looking for in a job and 88% of respondents from the Symplicity survey ranked Jobs/Projects I Would be Working On in the top five of what’s most important when looking for employment.  Bottom line: start with a plan, a really good plan, because those plans, projects and tasks matter to Gen Z.  Next, get to know your intern, what work they enjoy, what they have excelled at, and what they might have an interest in learning.  Then take that really good plan and flex it.  Bend it.  Shape it to match your intern’s increasing interest (if articulated) to what your company has to offer. The more exposure interns get to your company, the more questions they might have, the more areas they will be eager to explore, and the more value they can not only get but give throughout their internship.

One final thought:

According to NACE, the conversion rate for interns to full time employees was over 50% between 2021-2022.  As Gen Z begin looking for their next career step, and (if) you are ready to host an intern, consider the Structured but Flexible approach in your design, especially with respect to requirements, modality and tasks.  Gen Z’s transparency into what they are seeking from the workplace and what they value is a blueprint for employers, especially those whose recruitment strategy includes engagement of early career talent.  And in the spirit of this article, flex and bend these suggestions to what works best for your company and internship program!


Written By:


Laurie Valentino
HR Strategic Placements Administrator

HR Works, headquartered in Upstate New York, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States for over thirty years. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.