These High School Internships Are Transforming the GenZ Work Experience

By Lisa Wirthman, Contributor

In a rapidly changing workforce, where humans and machines will work as integrated teams within their organizations, students will have to learn new skill sets to prepare for future jobs. In fact, about 85 percent of the jobs that will be available in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.

Understandably, many Generation Z students don’t yet feel equipped to enter these new jobs. In a recent survey of Gen Z students, one in three females and one in four males said they felt unprepared for their future careers. “In the absence of concrete information, we can equip Gen Z with the evergreen skills we know will always be necessary,” Matthew Glotzbach, CEO of Quizlet, wrote in Observer earlier this year. “One of the most important [skills]?” he went on, “[is] learning how to learn and continuing to foster a sense of inquiry.”

Almost six in ten business leaders agree—to prepare Gen Z for the workforce, schools need to start teaching students how, rather than what, to learn. And many organizations are applying this concept in the workplace through high school internships, where Gen Z students can learn on the job.

A Blueprint for the Future

Corlis Murray is at the forefront of a growing corporate trend to teach Gen Z students lifelong learning skills. The senior vice president, Quality Assurance, Regulatory and Engineering Services at Abbott Laboratories, she has a blueprint for restructuring internships once reserved for college students to attract and engage high school students.

Murray launched Abbott’s High School STEM internship program in 2012. As of this year, about 100 students have completed it. The eight-week program is structured to teach students a combination of STEM skills and so-called soft skills—problem solving, critical thinking, logic, communication, and collaboration—necessary to excel in the undefined jobs of tomorrow.

“Problem solving will always remain first and foremost in almost every job,” said Murray. “One of the things that we strive to teach current generations is an ability to connect the dots.”

Abbott’s high school internship initiative is a win-win for students and companies, Murray said. It teaches students critical, future job skills while creating a pipeline of talent for companies like Abbott. The internships also enable companies to get to know Gen Z before they enter the workforce.

As post-millennials, these students are digital natives, hard workers, and competitive learners, studies show. They are also ambitious and eager to learn new skills. Some 80 percent of Gen Z students want to pursue an internship while they’re still in high school, which is perhaps part of why Murray has found initial success.

While a primary goal of the program was to increase the number of students pursuing related STEM careers in general, there’s been an added benefit: High school intern alumni tend to come back to Abbott. In fact, about 25 percent of the company’s college-level operations interns are former high school interns.

No Busy Work

Abbott’s high school STEM internship provides hands-on technical work, including the opportunity to work side-by-side with scientists on testing and prototypes for some of Abbott’s newer technologies, such as diabetic sensors and new diagnostic laboratory instruments. Interns also receive technical assignments that allow them to get yellow belt certified for the Lean Six Sigma process improvement method—a tool to identify defects and reduce variability in business processes.

To become well-rounded professionals, Abbott’s interns learn interviewing and resume writing skills, practice business dining etiquette, and participate in a philanthropic event. “As much as all of us try to achieve success, we always have an obligation to help make a difference in the lives of others,” Murray said.

The program also prioritizes accountability. Abbott’s interns regularly report to assignment managers and complete end-of-summer reviews.

So far, the accountability and hands-on internship program have been a welcome change for the students who are often glued to their phones for social purposes. (Nearly half of GenZ digital natives are online more than 10 hours each day.) Once in Abbott’s program, interns often discover that, while they know how to play on computers or browse their social feeds, they are unfamiliar with how to use a computer as a work tool, Murray said.

According to Carolyn O’Boyle, managing director of Deloitte’s Talent Strategy and Innovation agenda, digital social media feeds make it easy for teens to consume curated streams of data without actively seeking new information. Her research on the Future of Work includes challenges facing Gen Z in workforce and the changing nature of entry-level jobs.

Yet hands-on high school internships, like the ones provided by Abbott, provide important future job skills that digital savvy Gen Z teens may lack, O’Boyle said.

“There is something about the analog world that encourages curiosity and exploration,” O’Boyle said. “You’re never quite sure that you’re finding exactly what you need, so you broaden your perspective and you look at things that may be adjacent or tandem to get a fuller picture of the problem that you are tackling.”

A New Cognitive Paradigm

High school internship programs like Abbott’s recognize that entry-level jobs are already changing. “We are asking entry-level workers to deploy much more critical thinking or cognitive skills earlier in their career,” O’Boyle said. “They are not expected to crunch numbers and build a model as much as they are expected to interpret the model and derive insights.”

With a focus on developing a broader range of skills, high school internships are including more rotations and providing opportunities for students to see as many different parts of the businesses as possible. “The more exposure we can give people, the better it accelerates their development and makes them ready to enter the workforce,” O’Boyle added.

Abbott found that its high school internships also increased diversity—a continuing challenge in STEM fields—by reaching out to girls and students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds at an early age.

Murray said she is proud that some 60 percent of Abbott’s high school interns are female. “I don’t think parents or educators actually discourage girls from going into math and science. What happens is that they’re not necessarily encouraged,” she said. “They know they’re smart; they’re very good at math and science. But sometimes they just need someone to help them see it.”

For Murray, the internship program is also personal. At the age of 17, when there were few black women engineers in the field, Murray won a high school internship with IBM that demystified engineering and taught her to develop critical-thinking skills. “I always had a knack for solving problems, but I did not necessarily understand the thought process that goes with that,” she said.

At Abbott, Murray wanted to create a similar opportunity for Gen Z students. “I fundamentally believe that the probability that these young people’s ability to be successful is increased by giving these experiences early in life,” she said.

Murray created the blueprint for Abbott’s high school STEM internship program, which is already in talks with potential adopters in other companies.

“I would love to see other companies embrace the concept of bringing young people into their environments and exposing them to specific, detailed assignments,” she said. “By exposing them early, you increase their probability of success, which ultimately means you increase the probability of long-term success for your corporation.”

“I would love to see other companies embrace the concept of bringing young people into their environments and exposing them to specific, detailed assignments. By exposing them early, you increase their probability of success, which ultimately means you increase the probability of long-term success for your corporation.”

— Corlis Murray, Senior Vice President of Quality Assurance, Regulatory and Engineering Services at Abbott Laboratories