Madison Brown scored her summer internship with GDIT through a moment of opportunity.
While attending a resume workshop, Brown caught a recruiter's attention, networked, applied and landed among a virtual cohort of 115 interns across the company. A junior studying technical writing at Louisiana Tech University, Brown won GDIT's Intern Leadership award for her job performance.
Her takeaway? "Go out and talk to people, even if you don't think you need it," Brown told CIO Dive. "Even if you walk away with one thing you didn't know: It was worth it."
As IT faces a growing skills shortage, organizations across all industries offer technical internships to enrich the next generation with job experience — even in a remote world. But for successful retention of potential candidates, responsibility falls on IT leadership to create a meaningful experience with long-lasting investments in upskilling folks from all backgrounds.
For example, Harvard Business School releases career and internship statistics about its Master of Business Administration students each year. Of the 930 class of 2020 students profiled, 20% landed internships in technology and 19% turned that into a technology career.
Across sectors, research shows a majority of students report internships as a tool that solidified career path decisions.
In uncertain times, starting with an element of human connection can go a long way for students graduating into a recession and businesses seeking top talent. Networking with leadership and trusting interns to apply their skills to on-the-job tasks builds the two-way street of communication and development.
And IT departments need the help. Facing a skills shortage, interns and apprentices are a moldable tool that, with dedicated leadership in place, fill the next generation of IT departments.
Upskilling interns to meet the gaps
Jobs in the tech sector has fared relatively well despite pandemic troubles, expanding IT hiring across sectors by 391,000 positions in December, according to a CompTIA report. Yet, the talent pipeline can't work fast enough to fill them.
As a field, "we're just not really that good at creating pipelines of talent," said Art Langer, chairman and founder of Workforce Opportunity Services and faculty member at Columbia University. "We're more used to people going out and getting that experience and talent and education on their own."
That's not sustainable, especially if businesses want to retain a more diverse workforce. Individuals without a college education, from non-technical backgrounds, or committed to caring for a family member bring valuable skills to the workplace but could be ignored by recruiters failing to look past the technical.
A diversity of people brings new perspectives. Companies realize the most success with emerging technologies such as AI when departments build interdisciplinary teams to deploy projects. "Don't be surprised how quickly people can come up to proficiency, particularly talented people," said Langer.
Internships, apprenticeships and other training programs fill in knowledge gaps and prepare a new influx of the workforce for IT roles. Plus, businesses can shape an intern's existing skills to fit company needs.
"Building talent for a job role is a good investment because you can build in what you want from it," said Amy Kardel, VP of strategic workforce relationships at CompTIA.
What makes a good manager?
While interns can be a tool to fill in a company's missing skills, effective managerial leadership molds new minds to take on the challenge.
"There are always going to be some skills gaps in IT because our industry grows so rapidly," said Desiree DePriest, faculty and CIO at the Purdue Global Internship Program. But "there are many skill gaps that can be filled."
It falls on leadership to understand what skills are needed now and build them into an internship program. Instead of sitting in the corner office to observe, leadership must take an active role for the program to be successful, according to DePriest.
Analysts also urge IT leadership to lean into human moments as offices continue navigating remote work and the pandemic. Watercooler chat may look different digitally, but it's still valuable for interns to feel included.
"We have to be very, very careful with ensuring that we leave room for mistakes," said Bertina Ceccarelli, CEO at NPower. "If failure is not allowed, you're gonna miss out on innovation."
By setting clear expectations and goals, including room to make mistakes, a multitude of ideas and perspectives flow, according to Ceccarelli.
Humanity, communication, clear expectations and a hands-on environment boosted Brown's internship success at GDIT. "They wanted to hear what we had to say. It was never just to sit in," Brown said.
Interns and apprentices can't read a manager's mind. Opportunities to connect with members of leadership, space for professional development and checklists outlining expectations act as tools to engage those new to the workforce.
But, Brown added, "You don't have to always be talking about work." Interns seek leadership acting as mentors to guide their career development and learn life skills, such as office etiquette.
Kardel recommends hiring a cohort of interns or apprentices because it "creates an opportunity for them to communicate among themselves and share a common experience and learn from each other and learn together."
Including interns and apprentices in workplace events, providing perspective on how their roles fit with the company and sharing stories about leaderships' career journeys help foster connections throughout the company, according to Kardel.
"I've never fired anybody for a hard skill, a technical skill," Kardel said. "It's always been a professional skill that was lacking."