When our generation graduated high school, college was the place to figure out what to do with our professional lives. It was meant for exploration. Today most young people do not have the luxury of exploring different subjects or switching majors. College is too expensive and there is too much risk of taking courses that do not lead to a degree, racking up debt along the way.
High school is now the time for young people to explore, so that they know what fields interest them before attending college. Too many high school graduates are uncertain about their future and are expected to commit to a career without exploring their options. Teachers report high schoolers are overwhelmed and stressed about college and career decisions, and a majority of students in the United States believe they would have benefited from more career exploration in middle or high school.
As parents and policy makers, it is our job to guide young people toward successful, fulfilling careers — many of which exist in STEM industries, which employ 40 percent of the Massachusetts workforce. The key to that is to rapidly expand opportunities for career exploration through hands-on applied learning and internships.
Internships are essential to providing students with engaging experiences in the classroom and the workforce, but not enough of these opportunities exist. In fact, just 2 percent of US high school students have completed internships, according to a 2020 study by American Student Assistance. Giving students a head start in deciding what career they want to pursue after high school or college could prevent costly graduation delays.
We know the STEM workforce and its talent pipeline are not meeting the needs of our population, and increasing internship opportunities for young people will help close the gender, economic, and racial gaps that persist in these industries. We know that people of color aren’t adequately represented in STEM, and 2020 data estimated that just 27 percent of STEM workers are non-white, while women hold just 29 percent of STEM occupations.
The state has made strides to expand career exploration and create a more diverse workforce. It launched Innovation Pathway programs at 49 high schools — most of which are in urban communities — to give thousands of students technical courses and internships in STEM fields. It invested $105 million in equipment and increased enrollment capacity at vocational-technical high schools, and developed the Career Technical Initiative, turning vocational schools into three-shifts-a-day educational operations so more young people gain career experience and credentials. It launched the early college program in 2017 to provide students, particularly in underserved communities, access to college courses at no charge to them, and put them on a path to college that might not have otherwise existed.
Yet internships — a critical component of our efforts — remain a challenge. Often employers are not interested in short-term employment and liability issues associated with hiring interns — especially high school students. But we need employers’ help and partnership.
The state recently rolled out a new STEM internship program that will eliminate those concerns. To make it easier for employers to bring in interns, the Commonwealth will pay students’ salaries and act as the employer of record through local career centers and regional MassHire Workforce boards. Millions in grant funding will pay student stipends and connect 2,300 additional students statewide with internships this year. These internships are targeted to students in urban communities — with priority given to those in communities hardest hit by COVID-19.
Companies can continue to grow in the Commonwealth only if there is a diverse talent pool embedded in our communities, engaging with students early and often through internships to create a more diverse pipeline of future talent. Research shows internships motivate students to choose STEM, with 97 percent of former interns surveyed reporting they were pursuing a STEM career.
Massachusetts needs to harness the drive and curiosity of its students — particularly those who might need the extra support — and expose them to STEM careers early so that they will be set on a path toward success, providing them with the chance to learn what they love while establishing educational and professional networks. But we can’t do it unless companies are willing to take the chance and hire interns.
Karyn Polito is lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. James Peyser is state secretary of education.