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Panel Explores How to Build Cultural Competence & Equity in Youth Work-Based Learning


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» 2020
FEBRUARY 5, 2021

For many students younger than 18, experiential work-based learning (WBL), such as internships, youth apprenticeships and summer jobs, is a lifechanging opportunity that can help them better prepare for the ever-changing world of work. But it can also be an intimidating experience that heightens students’ insecurity about their ability to fit into a workplace when many professionals they meet do not share their race, ethnicity, background, or experiences. WBL providers must work to build a more diverse, equitable and culturally inclusive environment for the interns and apprentices who will make up tomorrow’s workforce.

ASA recently hosted an online panel discussion with several community-based organizations and their corporate partners on how WBL experiences can be intentionally designed to ensure a more welcoming workplace for youth of all backgrounds. Throughout the discussion, several themes and best practices emerged:

Make students comfortable. An internship is often not only students’ first time in a corporate atmosphere, but also their first trip into other parts of the city. “For many of our students, this is the first time they’ve been to midtown Manhattan,” explained Barbara Chang, Executive Vice President, Employer Partnerships, for CareerWise New York, a first of its kind, modern youth apprenticeship based in New York City. “We have hard conversations with our employers about what that means, and we work with them to make sure that our young people are as comfortable as possible.” Helen Russell, founder and Executive Director of Apprentice Learning, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides real-world work experiences for eighth graders, said their goal was to “expand a young person’s toolkit so that when they walk into an organization, they may not be familiar with the work or the organization but they have a set of skills they know they can tap into that help them feel comfortable in the environment.” She noted the example of NorthStar Asset Management, an Apprentice Learning corporate partner, where all interns are provided with a set of slippers, mimicking the onboarding process for NorthStar regular employees. “It instantly puts our interns at ease.”

Relationships, relationships, relationships. Panelists emphasized that employers should strive to form deeper connections with interns. “The lessons we are teaching need to be not just about our industries but about our humanity,” confirmed Cynthia Harmon, Chief Operating Officer of NorthStar Asset Management. Panelists suggested sparking conversations with interns about sports or other shared interests like food and animals, and they continually stressed the importance of pronouncing interns’ names correctly. “How you are to be called is really personal and really public,” explained Harmon. Employers must also impart to interns that, regardless of their age or level of experience, they have value to add and something to contribute.  “What’s key is how the employer communicates to a young person not just that they matter and they belong, but that we need you,” added Sarah Hemminger, Co-founder and CEO of Thread, a Baltimore organization that “weaves a new social fabric” by harnessing the power of relationships to support exceptional young people who face significant opportunity and achievement gaps. “We need to see our young people as future talent and recognize their role as an investment, not a charity,” noted Russell.

Diversity can mean different things. “Sometimes when you focus heavily on diversity, it’s hard to say inclusion comes hand in hand,” pointed out Ali Marano, Managing Director, Global Head of Tech for Social Good and Firmwide Emerging Talent Programs for JP Morgan Chase, which partners with CareerWise New York. “Some people focus on representative diversity, or what you can see, but there’s also cognitive experiential diversity, socioeconomic diversity, educational diversity . . . everyone wants to redefine diversity, but I don’t think anyone knows how to do it right yet, so we ‘re learning and doing as we go along the way.”

Recognize implicit bias. Panelists emphasized the obligation lies with the adults to examine their own social and cultural norms and identify any inconsistencies in their actions, both individually and organizationally. “Building relationships across lines of difference, whether that’s age, race, gender or class, can help us remove our blind spots,” said Hemminger. “The onus is on the adult employer to meet the young person where they’re at.”

Conversations need to be authentic and relevant. Harmon of NorthStar explained how they had to acknowledge current events during last summer’s social unrest. NorthStar’s programming focuses on financial literacy lessons for the student interns, but before they could dive into that content, they had to take a step back to ask where the kids were mentally, socially, and emotionally. “We knew it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that was part of their lived context and consciousness.” Patty Lattin, Senior Vice President, Human Resources for Franklin Templeton, Thread’s corporate partner, agreed: “The young people are watching so it is critical we walk the talk and not shy away from difficult conversations. Kids need to see the courage and they need to see that conviction.” She gave the example of Franklin Templeton’s dismissal of its white employee who called the police on a black man in Central Park last year.

Rethink the ways we prepare and assess the 21st-Century workforce. “Work and the way we do work is changing, so we need to remove the traditional mindset and approach things with a different point of view,” observed Lattin. She gave the example of how Franklin Templeton has removed a license requirement from some of its feeder positions to open opportunity to more diverse candidates. “We now need to do that same kind of analysis for roles for young people . . . If we do that, it will create unexpected opportunities for young people and those who may not want to go the traditional education route.” Chang pointed to JP Morgan Chase as a real leader in reimagining ways to intertwine education and workforce training, leading a delegation to Switzerland last year to examine their youth internship system. Marano added: “We’re totally rethinking the way we do talent. We have to reimagine and retrain individuals at a big company like ours, who have been doing things in a very traditional way. We know it makes people uncomfortable but the more we do it, the more we showcase the amazing talent that comes through different pipelines.”

Remote internships bring both advantages and disadvantages. Some panelists noted an uptick in internship participation after a switch to a remote environment. “We experienced a 90 percent increase in engagement in the first few months of COVID,” said Hemminger, thanks to a mobile app the organization had launched earlier. Of course, the pivot to virtual also brought hardships; CareerWise New York, for example, did lose a few apprentices during the crisis. “It was a very tough transition, trying to work at home while your siblings are jumping on the bed and wi-fi bandwidth is limited – some of the challenges were too hard to overcome,” confirmed Chang. But she has been pleasantly surprised by the employer response during the current crisis. “Employers didn’t leave during the transition to virtual,” she said. “Instead, they doubled down on their commitment.” Russell, whose Apprentice Learning program is entirely virtual this year, did say they were fighting kids’ disengagement from school and isolation, but agreed there were bright spots: “In some ways employers have been more accessible in a remote environment.” She gave the example of Baker Hughes, which sent a kit to build Personal Protective Equipment to eighth-graders for a tactile, concrete learning experience. “This was a shared experience for employees and kids,” explained Russell.  “We had delightful moments of learning where young people gained a sense of comfort over the five-week program, leaving their cameras on, chatting in small intimate groups.”

Ultimately, building a diverse workforce starts early by giving young people a sense that they are welcomed, and their skills are valued in an organization. This is what ignites purpose and career passions. ASA looks forward to working together with community-based organizations, employers and more to help actualize more robust and diverse talent pipelines to a wide range of careers and companies – which will lead to a more equitable future workforce. For more ASA resources on youth WBL, check out our Spotlight on High School Internships, our forum with MENTOR on virtual work-based learning, and our policy recommendations for internship expansion.

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