In today’s lexicon, “dog days” conjure dreamy images of lazy canines and humans alike, basking under the summer sun. But it turns out that the phrase originated in ancient Greece, where it referred not to actual Mediterranean dogs but to the particular moment—at the height of summer—that the “dog star,” Sirius, rose before the sun. Contrary to its modern lethargic connotations, these days meant just the opposite: a period that could bring fever, catastrophe, disaster, and even war.
This summer, young people are facing a reality closer to the Greek variety. To many, disaster looms as a bloody battle over budget cuts and fears of a worsening pandemic threaten to rob them not of a summer idling away, but of an opportunity to work.
New York City was one of the first large systems to cut summer youth employment programs, calling out both safety and efficiency concerns for its 75,000 young people ready to be put to work. Others around the country are scrambling to figure out what to do with businesses downsizing and online infrastructure uneven at best and absent at worst. That leaves many motivated students, particularly those from low-income families, hanging during this critical moment.
Real-world work experience and income aren’t the only things on the line for young people. Summer opportunities also offer students a unique window beyond the classroom to expand their professional networks and build social capital.
Yet workarounds exist. As it turns out, educators and technology companies began experimenting with internship alternatives long before the current crisis. These bright spots should inspire summer programs and budget-conscious policymakers, that even in an era of social distancing and dwindling coffers, our young people can—and should—still get the chance to participate in the world of work.
Lessons from Work-based Learning Alternatives
A number of online tools and programs can mitigate safety concerns while still providing the assets young people stand to gain with summer work—income, academic credits and access to professional networks. There is a caveat: They all hinge on some internet connectivity, a challenge that both public and private efforts are moving quickly to try to solve.
Some tools match postsecondary students with online “gig” work opportunities. For example, a company called Parker Dewey operates an online micro-internship marketplace where college students get paired with companies offering paid virtual project work. Another, Riipen, sources industry projects not for pay, but for academic credit. For colleges scrambling to offer summer learning options, weaving real-world work projects into the classroom can help students stay on track with their academics without sacrificing the chance to work alongside professionals in careers that interest them.
Lower-tech, homegrown solutions have also emerged from school systems in recent years. California-based DaVinci Extension, a public charter school that serves students transitioning from high school to college, offers short-term projects with employers that they dub “project consults.” Students work in groups to consult with employers on projects for 6 to 8 weeks, primarily checking in over email or short weekly calls.
This model grew out of the school’s realization that it couldn’t offer enough full-semester, on-site paid internships to serve all of its students. Under that previous approach, the school was only able to secure partnerships with 3 to 5 local companies.
This smaller-scoped approach helped scale the program on several fronts. The school found over 20 companies willing to partner on consults. It also meant employees didn’t always have to seek approval from higher-ups to embark on a consultancy with students—something they previously had to do.
If online marketplaces or project consults still feel like too heavy of a lift, there are lighter-touch ways to keep students connected to working professionals. Nepris has spent years building up a reservoir of volunteers who offer online “industry chats” with students. In response to COVID-19, the company is also releasing a job shadow functionality. Another site, Career Village, lets students craft questions about their career interests to crowdsource answers from its community of over 50,000 volunteer professionals.
In the past few weeks, both companies have seen a surge in volunteers, suggesting that professionals are eager to engage with young people amidst social distancing mandates. Since March 15, weekly volunteer signups on Career Village jumped 150 percent over the previous three weeks. Company officials say they are adding up to 250 professionals every day who are willing to lend students their advice.
Cities looking to preserve some modicum of youth employment efforts, but facing shrinking budgets, shouldn’t ignore that untapped volunteer will. And even those cities unable to pay in full could still offer students modest cash stipends for building up career know-how and connections through tools like these.
Although these alternatives may sound paltry compared to a 9-to-5 internship in an office, done right, they actually stand to shore up some of the intangibles that traditional internships might lack: the opportunity to quickly explore a wide range of career paths and interact with seasoned professionals.
Such tools and technologies predated COVID-19. Now these models may be the linchpin to ensuring that summer work experiences can continue. As a season of catastrophe unfolds, let’s not allow this pandemic to needlessly rob a season of opportunities for students, too.