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Study: How Employers Can Recruit More Black Students as Interns

Recommendations for improving equity in recruiting

A group of students walking down stairs.

​Employers looking to recruit and retain interns from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly Black institutions (PBIs) would be well served by forging relationships with these schools, according to a study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

That was among the recommendations from NACE's report, Recruiting for Equity at HBCUs and Beyond: Current Practices and Pitfalls, based on interviews the association conducted over 18 months with 17 senior recruiters and leaders from 17 NACE-member employers. All respondents were HR professionals or senior staffers working in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

The study was released during the NACE HBCU Summit in March.

The research was done as a case study in partnership with the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University, an HBCU in Richmond, Va. Researchers focused on internships as a way to recruit for equity—employers' current strategies and practices, where HBCUs and PBIs fit into those strategies and practices, and employers' understanding of the impact that recruiting for equity has on the company's vision, mission and goals.

Internships are one of the main ways that employers recruit entry-level college graduates, NACE noted.

"If internship programs are diverse and equitably developed, then they can be an effective way of directly influencing the diversity of the company's incoming cohort of early career individuals," the organization said in a summary.

What Researchers Found

Partnering with HBCUs and PBIs can create sustainable pathways for recruiting Black students as interns.

Campus career centers may often be one- or two-person shops. With an employer partnership, "centers can focus more of their time on that employer and make sure their students are getting great service and the employers are getting great service," explained Josh Kahn, NACE associate director of research and public policy and co-leader of the research.

Additionally, former interns may bring in other students from their schools, and those whom the employer hires post-internship can serve as mentors to fellow alumni.

"You're building momentum, you're building trust, you're building your brand on campus. It seems [to be] a really strong way to build a bench" of future employees, Kahn said.

Organizations' designated leaders lack clarity about basic concepts such as diversity, equity and inclusion—and the difference between equity and equality.

"Equality is making sure everyone is treated the same," Kahn explained. Equity means "making sure people have what they need to be successful," such as workplace accommodations.

Employers can provide professional development so leaders have a clearer understanding of these terms, he advised. An organization also needs to be united around its internship goals.

"We found some folks thought equality was the goal, and other folks said equity was the goal," Kahn said. Without that clarity, people in those organizations were pulling in different directions.

"Whoever is leading these [internship] efforts should be included in the C-suite … so a comprehensive plan can be developed that considers the entire organization," Kahn said. "As they're embedded in the C-suite, these plans will be given more resources, more time, more priority" in overall organizational planning.

There is a lack of trust among students from HBCUs and PBIs toward predominately white organizations.

"There's the question [of] whether the work setting will be inclusive and welcoming and if I [as a student from an HBCU or PBI] will have a sense of belonging," Kahn said.

"If I don't trust the company to provide that type of setting, I may not want to become an intern there. This aspect is critical in building positive relationships" and is one area where having a strong relationship with the campus career center can be an advantage.

Additional resources are needed to help employers connect with HBCUs and PBIs.

"We heard a lot of talk about how it's important to recruit a diverse workforce, but [organizations] don't know how to find the HBCUs in their area," Kahn said. He shared the following resources:

A list of 107 HBCUs identified by the U.S. Department of Education.

A list of PBIs, which are educational institutions whose student population is at least 40 percent Black. The list is from the Office of Inclusive Excellence at University of California, Irvine, and can change as the percentage of Black students shifts from year to year.

Going Beyond the Basics

Employers can also attract students from HBCUs and PBIs by doing the following:

Foster a sense of belonging.

Convey to interns "that they are valued, their work is valued, that their contributions are valued and they're not here just to get tasks done," Kahn said. Invite them to meetings they would not otherwise attend, give them a chance to speak up at those meetings and don't have them attend "just to take notes."

And while social activities are important, be thoughtful about the ones provided.

"Golf may not be a social experience that students from HBCUs feel welcomed at, or feel like they belong at," Kahn pointed out as an example.

Assess your program to learn what did and didn't work. Be intentional, scientific and use data to drive change.

Kahn recalled one company in the case study that analyzed its hiring data to discern any racial disparities during hiring and onboarding.

It found that few Black students applied for its internships online. And while in-person fairs were popular with these students, they often did not complete the pen-and-ink or PDF application while there or have their resume with them as required.

"The online system requires the resume to be uploaded and all the necessary fields to complete the application, but in person, sometimes small errors like this could slip through," Kahn explained. "To help standardize the whole process and put the online fail-safes in place, the company began requiring its recruiters to bring laptops/tablets to their career fairs."

The organization only knew to make this adjustment, he said, from doing an audit of their data. 


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