For some teenagers, the road to a lucrative first job may not involve flipping burgers or bagging groceries but rather getting an internship in their career of choice. Even if the pay is poor or non-existent, the payoff in terms of professional development may outweigh the benefits of a typical teen summer job.
As a high school sophomore, Uma Krishnan of Burlingame clinched a spot at Girls Who Code summer immersion program held at Twitter. Uma not only gained 350 hours coding experience, but she put it to practical use during the unpaid internship by helping program robots and create a healthcare app. She also learned about the realities and complexities of the workplace.
"I learned what engineers really do," says Uma, now 19 and a computer science major at UC Berkeley. "I learned how all the areas of Twitter and a company work."
The internship gave her the opportunity to speak to and present to industry leaders like Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, which built her confidence and provided contacts for future internships. Girls Who Code "opened a half a billion doors for me," Uma says.
While internships are common among college students, fewer high school students know that they’re a possibility for them, said Carly Keller, former career services manager for Santa Clara-based Chegg, which provides many online student services. A quick look through an internship matching website like Chegg’s www.internships.com shows there are indeed many internships for high school teens.
Keller says key reasons to get internships include that they enhance teens’ college applications and resumes, propelling them to the next job.
While teens won’t turn their internships into jobs immediately, Keller says "having an internship early on can be a great way to jumpstart your career."
It also can help you decide what to major in -- and what not to, says Chegg Principal Product Leader Leon Kitain. Chegg officials have heard from many students who "ended up changing their majors after an internship because it made them realize their passion lay elsewhere," he says.
Kevin Nelson, a high school economics teacher, has pushed several students to apply for internships.
One student made video games for Sony PlayStation, while another was the first-ever student intern at Tesla Motors in Palo Alto. His own son Bryce held a high school internship doing digital photography for the startup Romotive.com.
A key perk of interning for all of them was that it led to future internships and better paying jobs, Nelson says. One of his students, Sebastian Shanus,
took his skills at building apps and clinched a $10 per hour internship as a high school junior revamping the Iphone app used by wikihow.com. His time at wikihow.com helped him qualify after his first year at UC Berkeley for a $32 per hour internship at Intuit in San Francisco.
"The Intuit internship was fantastic and allowed me to learn not only from experienced veterans, but also my intern peers," Sebastian says.
The next summer he interned as a software engineer at Square, which makes programs allowing individuals to take payments on their smartphones, and he has since accepted a full-time job for Square when he graduates in June.
Besides the hard cash, the advantages of internships include the "soft skills" that interns develop, Keller and Nelson say. Interns build professional communication and teamwork skills, gain a grasp of office politics and make contacts.
"Internships are a powerful networking tool," Keller says. "(Teens) can use an internship to find a mentor who can help them hone their professional skills and goals in the long run."
The benefits of the internship far outweigh the minimum wage they’d earn in fast food or retail "because of what they get to do and who they get to meet," Nelson says.
But what does it take to find an internship? While internships are available in many fields, it helps to have desirable high-tech skills like computer programming, film and post production, Nelson says.
To build those skills, expose kids at a young age to high-tech, taking them to venues like the Maker Faire in San Mateo (this year on May 19 to 21) or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s digital art section. If they show an interest, check out free online training like www.codeacademy.com and www.udacity.com and send them to a (not so free) techie summer camp. Encourage them to follow their passions and don’t force your own dream career on them, Nelson says, or they’ll likely resist.
Regardless of their career interests, most high schoolers intent on getting internships need to network, Nelson says. So while on field trips, your teens should talk to company employees, ask for business cards and inquire about internships. They can reach out to family friends, coaches, ministers and so on and ask if they can shadow them at work or if an internship can be created for them. Startups can be a great place to look because they often hire interns to keep costs low, Nelson says.
When personal contacts aren’t enough, students can search sites like internships.com. By searching the "high school" category, users can find more than a dozen stints, many of them paid, around the country as well as "virtual" positions that can be filled from anywhere.
Recent examples have included internships with the SPORTalk app, a paid editor for an alternative rock magazine, a video production intern in San Francisco at $13 an hour for a high school grad and virtual finance and social media interns at ChangingThePresent.org, which the New York Times recently called the "Amazon.com of the nonprofit world."
Teens serious about landing a stint should compile a portfolio of their work and create a profile and make connections on LinkedIn, Nelson says. They can find help with cover letters, resumes and interviews on internships.com.
Before accepting an internship, make sure the company is legitimate. Ask for a job description. There’s no point working for a glitzy employer if you’re making coffee all summer. Try to talk with employees or former interns and, Nelson says, make sure the company’s insurance covers you in the event of an accident on the job.
Once they garner that internship, teens should take full advantage and learn as much as they can. They’ll have more freedom now than later in their career to ask for guidance, and their bosses and co-workers are usually willing to assist a young newbie.
Uma Krishnan reached out to her instructors and expert speakers often during that first internship with Girls Who Code. One speaker Uma found inspiring was neuroscientist Vivienne Ming. Uma contacted her afterward, asking if she could intern for her the next summer.
Uma has since completed two unpaid internships with Ming, carrying out data science research projects that track trends in employment and childhood development. She worked side by side with Ming, learning analytical tools in the Python computer language from her. The stint greatly expanded Uma’s skills and led to a paid software engineering internship this coming summer at Facebook.
Nelson urges kids to be bold like Uma and go for it, not only once they’ve got the internship but while searching for it.
"Don't look at the … requirements. If you think you can do the job, even if you are in high school, you should apply," Nelson says. Some companies will take a risk on teens, "realizing that these kids are the market of the future and they have insight into the products that will be purchased. Companies are pretty amazed at what ‘kids’ can do once they see them in action."
- Angela Geiser is a frequent contributor to Bay Area Parent and the mother of two teens.