08/24/2015  |  By Gretchen Koch

Jobs in the field of information technology are readily available. Indeed, tech is a growth industry in the United States, with employers recently reporting they had more than 850,000 IT job vacancies. 

Moreover, IT jobs are accessible — and without the bachelor’s degree many people automatically assume is necessary.

Research backs this claim up. A groundbreaking study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Pathways to Prosperity found that many well-paying jobs didn’t require a four-year degree or even an associate’s degree — and that such degrees weren’t necessarily key to one’s financial and career success.

But students need help from parents and teachers to help them envision themselves in an IT career. The Creating IT Futures Foundation developed a series of short videos to show students what different IT careers are like at The videos demonstrate how a customer service-friendly attitude, problem-solving skills and an aptitude for continual learning are paramount for an IT career.

But students also need access to develop personal experiences with employers to truly envision their career possibilities.

A number of public high schools throughout the country are modeling new curricula allowing students to graduate with an associate’s degree in addition to a traditional diploma and giving them connections to employers. Creating IT Futures is working closely with one such program in Chicago called the Early College STEM Schools. Students in the five high schools can complete grades nine through 14, earn recognized IT certifications and graduate with practical work experience — positioning them well to pursue upwardly mobile IT careers.

Each school has an employer partner to help students and teachers connect curriculum with real business needs. At full capacity, the Early College STEM Schools could provide local and regional employers with several hundred trained and credentialed hires for IT positions each year.

The schools have established three work-based learning outcomes for each student:

  1. Connection with a caring adult through a mentorship.
  2. Exposure to a range of available IT careers to help inspire them.
  3. Substantive work experiences to develop critical skills for school and work and ultimately prepare them for meaningful employment.

In order for high school students to successfully embark upon IT careers after graduation, they need internships to gain the real life work experience employers seek when hiring.

Creating IT Futures recommends that successful internships offer students four Ps:

  • A project that is valued and challenging,
  • A place in which to work,
  • Personnel who care about and supervise the student, and
  • Payment, preferably money, for the work students do.

Historically, companies have established internships so these four Ps take place at the same time under the same roof; we call this the traditional model. Fortunately, the same tech advances that have offered professionals more flexibility and freedom in working environments now can be extended to interns, too — such that many companies now are thinking beyond the traditional model to create new learning opportunities for students. 

For example, in Chicago and New York City, IBM offers internships that follow the shared managed model, wherein part of the internship experience is handled virtually in cooperation with the employer’s remote offices. The interns work in a local IBM office, but in some cases, the IBM manager supervising their projects does so virtually, not on site. The interns work with their managers and specific projects using phone, email and video conferencing. While on-site, they have access to a supervisor who helps them with essential professional and technical skills.

IBM has identified several best practices to making the shared managed internship model work for employers, including:

  1. Identify one employee to be responsible for infrastructure tools an intern needs, such as a desk, an ID badge and a computer.
  2. Encourage managers to think about their “wish list” projects early in the year — projects they haven’t necessarily had manpower to complete.
  3. Make a supervisor who has worked with students available on-site as a familiar point of contact.
  4. Give interns meaningful projects, not just busy work.
  5. Have a key executive champion the overall cause of the program. In IBM’s case, it is Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM. 

Other schools may look to the consultant model for helping their students to intern at small businesses that often lack the budget, staff or space — in any combination — to host a summer intern. In Chicago, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Foundation is offering students work experience while providing small business owners with IT, web and social media assistance they likely couldn’t support otherwise.

Participating small businesses receive 120 hours of free internship IT support, most of which will take shape as new websites, a social media presence or online marketing — which, in turn, helps the small businesses prosper.

In some cases the interns will work on site at the small business locations. In others they will work out of the foundation’s office. Businesses submit detailed work plans in advance, so everyone has a clear understanding of what work is expected.

The students should emerge from the internship having earned much-needed income and having gained much-needed work experience — making it likely for them to secure positions representing the next step up in their careers.

In the partner model, some large corporations can’t supervise an intern on location, but they can coordinate with their local channel partners to offer internships. In these situations, the corporation funds the internship, and the local channel partner provides daily oversight. Some schools are even developing a variation on the partner model wherein the employer can provide three of the four Ps, but not the payment, so the school taps into corporate and government grants to pay the students for their work.

As someone who has spent the last decade in workforce development, I find it truly exciting to see school districts and employers collaborating to create new models of internships that benefit both students and sponsors alike. That kind of innovation is exactly what’s needed to position students for success as they pursue long and satisfactory life-careers. 

As executive director of workforce development strategies at the Creating IT Futures Foundation, the philanthropic arm of CompTIA, Gretchen Koch creates workforce programs to help populations under-represented in IT — as well as individuals who have lacked opportunity — prepare for and secure IT careers.
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