Making Work Matter for Youth

I recently interviewed a health care provider who had mentored high school students in paid summer internships over the summer holidays. The internships, coordinated through CAREERS the Next Generation, are opportunities for students who have completed Grade 11 to work in health care settings to gain work experience, and learn about potential career paths in health services. The kids earn money and receive high school credits. It’s a great program. The only significant criticism we encountered – if you could call it a criticism – was that the program was not accessible to more students.

So I asked this mentor – “What do you believe is the most valuable learning for students in this program?” Hands down, he said, it was “people skills.” Providing patient/client care exposes these young adults to people of all ages, from all walks of life. The mentor – I’ll call him Hal – compared his high school students’ learning experiences to post-secondary students he’d worked with. This latter group, he noted, had more formal education, but were often sorely lacking in their ability to interact with colleagues and patients.

His comments got me thinking about what is arguably the ghetto-ization of our youth.1 It is now common rhetoric in the world of work that the days of the “linear career” are long gone. It’s expected we’ll cycle through different stages of work and learning throughout our adult lives. No more “jobs for life.” So here’s my thinking: Given this back and forth between work and learning as the new norm for grown-ups, why are so many youth isolated from meaningful work experience, in many cases, until their mid-twenties? The McJobs occupied by youth throughout high school and post-sec rarely provide opportunities to problem solve, practice good communication skills, interact collegially with other adults, and otherwise engage in meaningful, productive work.

Is it any wonder that employers complain that youth stare at their shoes, consider “RU availible for a Mtg?” an appropriate e-mail heading, and become paralyzed when asked to “take initiative?” We blame schools, parents, and kids themselves for these travesties of “employability,” yet we rarely ask how, our society – including grumbling prospective employers – can better engage youth and appreciate what they can contribute.

In an earlier posting, I discussed the “dark side” of internships. Where they are unpaid or almost unpaid, and provide little meaningful on-the-job learning, they can indeed be exploitive.2 On the other hand, well-structured and well-timed (as the CAREERS internships are), they may also help youth to build adult competencies and confidence, plus give them something more real than a glossy university or college brochure on which to hang their career planning.

The student interns I have interviewed had meaningful work experiences. They sought career advice from practitioners in their field. They engaged in authentic care-giving relationships, worked with the public in health promotion, designed and researched programming, and shadowed a range of health care professionals. Almost universally, they appreciated the opportunity to act, and be treated like adults. The experiences sometimes confirmed their early career plans, or in other instances, surprised them with choices they would never have otherwise known about, and considered.

What might be gained if we could provide such rich early workplace learning experiences to more kids? To all kids? And what would it take for us to do this?

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Notes and References

1I’ve enjoyed sharing Robert Epstein’s “Test of Adultness” with my undergrads as an entry point into discussions about how schools and other social institutions may work to infantilize youth. Epstein offers an interesting perspective on the largely taken-for-granted phenomenon of adolescence.

2For an editorial on internships that suck:  No Wage-Slaves: The Peculiar Economics of Internships

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