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Externship Program Offers HR Students a Career Preview

Chapter's program to go virtual in 2021 because of pandemic

A woman is on a video call on her laptop.
​This is the third in a four-part series of articles about creative approaches employers are taking to prepare young adults and emerging professionals for the workplace.

Members of the Texas A&M University-San Antonio student chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) had tired of the steady diet of career fairs supplemented by faculty members talking about job and resume preparation, mentorships, and scholarships. They wanted a change in the menu.

They got it. In 2018, the chapter piloted Inscape, an externship that took student members to local businesses for two days to see for themselves how HR is practiced in the real world.

"Externship was a new concept to me," said Adrian B. Guardia, SHRM-SCP, associate professor of management and the chapter's founder and faculty advisor. He learned about the concept during a chapter roundtable discussion. Shorter than an internship, an externship is a way for students to make the campus-to-career connection by getting behind-the-scenes views of employer operations, meeting corporate officers and participating in hands-on learning opportunities that bring classroom lessons to life. 

Guardia pitched the idea to an alum working for the city of San Antonio who had contacted Guardia about visiting campus to talk to students. The alum was interested, and the city reshaped its high school job-shadowing experience into a "show, tell, do" format for college students. It incorporated onboarding components, job previews and interactive activities for students attending Inscape. 

For example, students interested in working in compensation and benefits had an opportunity to study the city's database of health care claims and identify the leading cause of those claims, which required knowing how to use an Excel spreadsheet. The exercise gave students insight into the kinds of work the city's HR professionals deal with, Guardia said.

Advance Work

The chapter uses SHRM materials to introduce students to the SHRM Competency Model and HR expertise proficiency standards for early- and midcareer HR professionals. 

In addition, students are encouraged to take a free, personal assessment that is available through the university's Mays Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement before participating in Inscape. Students can use the assessment to see how their skills, interests and values fit with the employers they will visit. 

The chapter also sends weekly e-mail briefings prior to the externship, advising students to research the employers they will visit and to be ready with thoughtful questions such as:

  • *What type of education and training prepared you for this career field?
  • What types of skills are necessary for succeeding in this career?
  • How did you know this was the right career for you? Did you consider any other careers?
  • Can you describe a typical day at your job?
  • What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your job?
  • What is the most important advice you have for someone just starting out in this career?
  • What types of summer jobs or internships should I seek out as I continue my education?

The students' questions have been profound, Guardia said. 

"Senior leaders would look at each other and say, 'No one ever asked those questions before.' " 

The advance work, he added, "has resulted in an enriched student experience when making higher-order connections with employers."

The Nuts and Bolts 

The chapter underwrote about half of the pilot program, and the Mays Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement funded the other half of the $4,000, two-day event during spring break. The Mays Center also handled much of the logistics, including registration and bus transportation, and provided lunch, backpacks and Inscape T-shirts. Student cost was $10 per day. 

The pilot, which focused on HR business acumen, was successful and caught the attention of the university's College of Business. The College of Business now partners with the chapter and the Mays Center and adapted the externship to a one-credit-hour course while continuing to make it available for a daily $10 fee to students who do not seek college credit. The chapter funds part of the externship with money generated from its HR Certification Study Course

"Our chapter is one [that the College of Business] singles out as being one of the premier groups on campus," Guardia said. The chapter won a 2019-20 Superior Merit award from SHRM as well. 

By opening the externship to business students in general, "we widened the lens on the experience itself" to students of other disciplines, said Guardia, who co-authored a case study about the program in the 2019 issue of the Journal of Human Resources Education.

Broadening the participation base, he said, "satisfies the whole purpose for everyone to see the business operations behind the scenes [and gives students] a chance to speak to senior officers of the organization, to get a look at what each organization believes, what they do best, and also talk about their future" and the kinds of projects they are working on. 

The program has undergone other tweaks since its inception. Students said they wanted more time in each department and to engage in real work experiences, so the program now offers a visit to a different employer on each of the two days instead of devoting the first day to a welcome reception, lunch and panel discussion with the city's HR staff.

More tweaks are in store. While the 2020 externship tours of VIA Transit and CPS Energy, the city's utility company, occurred in March before the pandemic hit, preparations are underway to create a virtual experience in 2021. 

"One of the hospital systems had already developed [virtual] tour content to take students through its trauma center, critical care, research" and other areas, Guardia said, "with the idea of introducing students to the work that's done and the people that do the work. It serves as a recruiting tool and gives the employer an opportunity to open its doors." 

The externship also is a recruiting tool for the chapter and university. Four new members joined the chapter after participating in the pilot program. 

In 2020, Evelyn Garcia of San Antonio joined the chapter and attended the Inscape tour of CPS Energy. In May 2021, she will receive her degree in business management with an HR concentration. 

The experience taught her, she said, that "you definitely have to know all the departments that are within the organization" in order to serve the employer, along with "where your employees are at [and] what type of benefits are being offered." 

Articles in this series:

Pandemic Forces Organizations to Get Creative in Prepping Young Employees for the WorkplaceSHRM Online, September 2020

Employers Engage Interns with Zoom Lunch-and-Learns, Speed Mentoring, SHRM Online, October 2020

Externship Program Offers HR Students a Career PreviewSHRM Online, October 2020 

Modern Apprenticeships Offer Young Adults On-the-Job Training with Pay, SHRM Online, October 2020


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