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Expert: Internships for Students with Disabilities Benefit Companies

A number of programs exist to connect students who have disabilities to internship opportunities. Such services offer companies the promise of a pipeline for future talent needs, but they can also help those resistant to applicants with disabilities to take the first step.

Internships provide students with opportunities to get a foot in the door, explore various industries, gain new skills, apply knowledge to real-world situations, learn about their own strengths and weaknesses and build a network, said Barbara Haight, a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and senior manager for community relations, during a Job Accommodation Network (JAN) webcast on internships for students with disabilities.

The Jan. 8, 2008, event, sponsored by the U.S. Business Leadership Network (USBLN), introduced participants to Booz Allen’s Emerging Leaders Program as well as other internship program opportunities for students with disabilities.

Booz Allen won the U.S. Department of Labor’s New Freedom Initiative Award for development of the Emerging Leaders Program, an internship program for college students with disabilities. The program, which was launched in 2001, is highly competitive, according to Haight: “This is not a set-aside at any of the companies. The applicants are up against all the applicants a company receives for their summer programs,” she said. “We’ve been able to attract high-quality, high-performing students regardless of the fact that they have a disability.”

The growth of the Emerging Leaders Program led Booz Allen to seek help from the National Business & Disability Council (NBDC), which now manages the program. NBDC reviews applications and conducts telephone interviews with applicants to ensure that applicants meet program requirements and to find out if they can relocate and what type of careers they are interested in. “If they send a resume on to a business, there’s a reasonable expectation that they’re a good match,” Haight said.

The organization acts as a liaison between employers and interns before, during and after the internship, including offering technical assistance on disability etiquette, accommodations and how to help integrate the intern into the work team.

How Interns Benefit Companies

There are significant benefits for companies to use interns, according to Haight. “When an intern comes in, they often have innovative ideas from their academic experience,” she said. “They are energetic and fresh in their thinking and can bring ideas in that you thought were not possible.” In addition, interns can free full-time staff for more strategic efforts.

“Everybody wins from internships,” Haight continued, as long as companies take the time to “do them right.” For example, she said, companies should not think of interns as cheap, clerical labor. Instead, each intern should have a clear position description, their own work area, exposure to professional staff and clients, a variety of mentors and plenty of feedback.

Haight said companies should seek feedback from their interns in order to learn how to be more successful as an employer offering internships.

“By using internships effectively, companies can identify people in advance and build a pipeline of future talent,” Haight said, adding that she and her peers who offer internships have found that summer interns are one of the best pools of applicants for future positions.

Twenty percent of the interns employed at Booz Allen under this program since 2001 are now full-time employees of the firm, according to Haight. “That number will now go up since we have just welcomed another emerging leader back to Booz Allen,” she added. “We consider that a really good business return on the investment.”

Internship programs can help a company strengthen bonds with specific universities.

“Schools are difficult to penetrate because they have career services offices and disability services offices and sometimes they don’t talk to each other or collaborate,” Haight said.

Such relationships are important to help prompt students to consider internships early enough to be able to secure an opportunity for the summer. “In the fall, many students are not thinking about what they are going to do next summer,” Haight said. “They need to understand there is a value to being in an internship and really ought to make the effort. They need to think about what they want to do after they get out of college.”

Opportunities To Explore

Participation in an external, established internship program allows an employer to benefit from the relationships such groups have already built, such as those with colleges and universities, eliminating the need for a company to invest time and energy to build new connections.

For example, the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars places students in internships at for-profit, nonprofit, governmental and international organizations in the Washington, D.C., area. Students participate in a 15-week semester, 10-week quarter or summer term and earn academic credit from their home institutions.

“Over the past 32 years, the Washington Center has developed strong relationships with a number of area employers and regularly places interns in certain offices,” Sara Clement, program manager, institutional relations at the Washington Center told SHRM Online. “However, the number of host organizations continues to grow, and we routinely explore new positions on behalf of the individual students with which we work.”

In addition to their full-time work, students take an academic course and attend Leadership Forum events, such as lectures, embassy visits, panel discussions and tours, Clement says. Students compile a portfolio of assignments and work samples by the end of the program and take advantage of civic engagement opportunities during their internship. “We ask that those who host our interns provide them with substantive work that is worthy of the academic credit that is granted by our affiliated institutions,” Clement added.

Employers seeking candidates in scientific and mathematical fields may wish to explore a program used by IBM, NASA, Google and Lockheed Martin, among others. The Entry Point! initiative is a 10-week paid, summer internship program for undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities majoring in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science and, in some cases, business.

Managed by the Project on Science, Technology and Disability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the program arranges internships with companies and government agencies who agree to provide competitive salaries, any needed accommodations and mentors who advise the students on future coursework and career plans.

Approximately 90 percent of past internship participants in the program are now working in science, technology, engineering or business positions, via conversions, or are pursuing graduate degrees in relevant fields, according to Laureen Summers, program associate at AAAS.

Another option is the Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities (WRP), a free resource for federal agencies and private businesses nationwide to identify qualified temporary and permanent employees from a variety of fields. Coordinated by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), WRP provides employers with:

    • Job candidates screened through face-to-face interviews.
    • Information about each applicant's qualifications.
    • Referral pools tailored to specific job requirements.
    • Access to candidates across the nation, by state or job category.
    • Flexibility in hiring for summer internships or permanent positions.
    • Opportunity to identify outstanding interns for permanent staffing needs.
    • Freedom to conduct independent interviews after referrals are made.

WRP recruiters conduct personal interviews with interested students on college and university campuses and funnel details from those interviews into a database containing information on more than 1,500 college students and recent graduates seeking temporary or permanent jobs. The WRP database is available to hiring officials in federal agencies at the WRP federal website. Employers in the private and non-profit sectors can gain access to the WRP's pool of candidates through the Employer Assistance and Recruiting Network (EARN), another free service of ODEP.

Employers that have internship programs in place can advertise internship opportunities through the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).

“All of us are trying to do the same thing; to get more people with disabilities into employment as well as into the pipeline,” Haight said, adding that those companies that overcame hesitation to participate in the Emerging Leaders Program say their environment was enriched by having an intern. “Most wonder later why they thought it would be such a challenge,” she said.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is manager of SHRM’s Diversity Focus Area.


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