Uncovering the Value of Internships: An Exploratory Essay with a Homeschooling Perspective

by Kalsum Harun

Internships conjure multiple ideas and expectations in twenty-first-century education. From its basic descriptions of positions providing practical, hands-on experience or meeting qualification requirements, it has expanded to more vivid descriptors in today’s ever-changing educational landscape. Internships promise students valuable opportunities to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical situations, helping them acquire the skills and confidence required to excel in their careers and, in a competitive job market, gain an advantage by distinguishing themselves in their field of study. Yet, as Ross Perlin wrote in Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy,

“(e)ven the word intern is a kind of smokescreen, more brand than a job description, lumping together an explosion of intermittent and precarious roles we might otherwise call volunteer, temp, summer job, and so on.” 

What is the nature and potential of internships? To better understand this, we need to trace its origin and evolution.

From Apprenticeships to Modern-Day Training Grounds

Apprenticeships were the precursors to modern internships. Under the guild system in the 11th century, young people paid master artisans to teach them a trade. For approximately a decade, they lived with the master, who provided them with food, boarding and clothing, and worked for little or no pay as they learned under the guidance of a skilled mentor. With the Industrial Revolution, vocational training replaced the apprenticeship system in preparing workers for paid employment in factories. Employers, instead of master traders, revived apprenticeships for specific trades like carpentry, albeit with a much-reduced learning duration, as paid workers only learned parts of the job and not the entire trade.

Top (from left): Medieval bakers, circa 11th C (source); woodworkers, circa 1920 (source); and medical interns, early 20th C (source)
Bottom: High school interns of the Metropolitan Museum of the Arts (source)

The concept of internships took form in the early 20th century, mainly in the medical and legal fields. Internship often refers to professional, rather than trade, training. It was designed for aspiring professionals to acquire practical experience and mentorship following their academic training. During this period, interns, also known as “trainees” or “apprentices,” worked under the guidance of experienced practitioners to gain hands-on experience. Over time, internships grew beyond traditional professions, expanding to other industries, including finance, technology, and media. In the latter half of the 20th century, we saw a significant change in the nature of internships. 

“The key change was the rate of college attendance: by the 1970s, there were more students graduating college than ever before, and that trend continued. Moreover, those new college graduates in the 1970s were entering a tough labor market; increasing the number of internships available was seen as a positive step toward helping those graduates find work. The number of universities offering programs that let students split their time between interning and classwork increased from 200 in 1970 to 1,000 in 1983… Eventually, doing an internship as one’s entrée into many industries — rather than starting as an employee — came to seem normal.”1

Internships have evolved from their historical roots as apprenticeships to become integral components of modern-day education and workforce development. They play a vital role in preparing individuals for successful careers, bridging the gap between academic learning and professional practice. 

Benefits of an Internship

In the modern context, internships serve multiple purposes, including:

  1. Skills Development: Through hands-on experience, project-based work and mentorship, interns gain practical skills and insights into specific industry practices and expectations. They also can hone communication, problem-solving, and teamwork skills—critical attributes for academic success and beyond.
  2. Social and Emotional Development: By interacting with mentors, colleagues, and clients from different cultural backgrounds, interns learn to navigate diverse working environments, fostering cultural competence and adaptability—an invaluable asset in today’s interconnected world.
  3. Networking Opportunities: Access to professional networks and mentorship relationships facilitates career growth and future employment opportunities for interns.
  4. Career Exploration: Getting a firsthand glimpse into the day-to-day realities of various professions helps interns gain insights into different disciplines, identify their passions, and make informed decisions about their interests, preferences and career trajectories. 
  5. Employability Enhancement: With employers increasingly valuing internship experiences when evaluating job candidates, internships enhance employability by providing tangible work experience and demonstrating competency in a particular field.

We can conclude that internships are highly valued today as they are deemed to significantly affect employment opportunities. In a simulation exercise conducted in the United States2, researchers submitted fake résumés to employers in business-related fields. The results show that candidates with internships in their résumés were 14% more likely to receive an interview request than those who didn’t list such experience. Studies like this suggest that internships have become vital to professional development and talent acquisition strategies.  

Before hitting the Enter key on an internship, one must know its pros and cons. Would the internship deliver on its promise of allowing one to explore a career and enhance employability in the industry effectively, or will one’s expectations be mismatched as one is merely assigned menial tasks?

The Downside of Internship

While internships offer numerous benefits, concerns and potential downsides have been recorded.

  1. Mismatched Expectations: Interns and employers may have mismatched expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, and outcomes. Poorly managed internships or inadequate communication between stakeholders can result in dissatisfaction and misunderstandings, undermining the overall effectiveness of the internship experience.
  2. Limited Learning Opportunities: Despite the hubris, interns are sometimes merely assigned menial tasks and do not benefit from meaningful mentorship —these result in limited learning opportunities, leading to disillusionment among participants.
  3. Exploitative Practices: The rise of unpaid or underpaid internships has led to concerns about exploitation. Some internships may require extensive work hours and responsibilities without fair compensation, disproportionately impacting individuals from low-income backgrounds who may not be able to work for free.
  4. Inequality: Internships at prestigious companies or industries may prioritise candidates from elite educational backgrounds or with privileged connections, perpetuating social inequality. This exclusivity can limit opportunities for individuals from underrepresented or marginalised communities, exacerbating socioeconomic disparities.
  5. Credentialism: In competitive job markets, employers may prioritize internships over competency, disadvantaging those without access to internships.

To address the possible negative aspects of internships and ensure that they provide valuable and fair experiences, it is essential for various groups to work together. Employers, educational institutions, policymakers, and advocacy groups all have a role to play. However, interns themselves must also be aware of the challenges they may face and know their rights. If a young person is about to start an internship, their parents should research local labour regulations4 and policies on workplace harassment, diversity, and inclusion. This will help ensure the best possible experience for the intern.

A successful internship experience goes beyond just completing tasks; it involves actively engaging with the work, seeking learning opportunities, and building relationships with colleagues. By being proactive, asking questions, and taking on new challenges, interns can make the most of their time, leave a lasting impression and explore their potential in the professional world.

How should one view internships when navigating one’s academic journey?

Enriching One’s Educational Pathway with Internship

It is important first to understand the distinction between internships and work attachments or placements. Work placements are a part of the formal education process and offer students academic credits towards their degree or diploma. On the other hand, internships are typically self-driven initiatives by students or their parents and are not directly related to their academic coursework. However, both work placements and internships offer valuable opportunities for students to gain practical experience, develop essential skills, and explore diverse industries.

In Singapore, student enrollment patterns point to the increasing preference for schools that offer them the closest links to industry. In 2024, polytechnics are the first choice for slightly more than half of the cohort of students who sat for the GCE O-Level and N-Level examinations in 2023. 40 per cent of these students were also eligible for junior colleges(1). This trend is set to continue as the Ministry of Education committed the five polytechnics to “maintain close partnerships with industry partners through co-development of course content, internships, and work attachment opportunities, to ensure that our students are equipped with the most updated knowledge and skills to thrive in the future economy”.4 

Homeschoolers may not be part of traditional educational institutions that offer work attachment opportunities, but they still seek internships to develop technical and interpersonal skills valued by the industry. There are two main groups when we look at the global scenario. The first group consists of those who want to pursue higher education in academic institutions. Homeschoolers in the US and UK usually opt for internships during summer to add to their high school transcript to give them an edge in university admission. The second group comprises those who are pursuing a non-academic route in homeschooling. In the US, there is a growing community of people who describe themselves as “blue-collar homeschoolers” and aim to pursue trades, technical careers, and entrepreneurship. A subset of this group includes neurodiverse homeschoolers seeking meaningful employment, offering their unique skills, talents, and perspectives to the workforce. For both groups, internships provide excellent opportunities and advantages.

Internships can be extremely valuable for homeschoolers as they allow them to explore career pathways and secure future employment without access to industry links that academic institutions are increasingly trying to provide for their students. This is particularly important for the “blue-collar homeschoolers”. In the United Kingdom, initiatives like the National Apprenticeship Service offer apprenticeship programs specifically for homeschoolers, which provide hands-on experience and industry-specific training.

All images are for illustration purposes. Credits (in order of appearance, left to right): Kaitlyn Baker, Thayran Melo and True Agency on Unsplash, and Enabling Village.

Internship Challenges for Homeschoolers

Despite the benefits of internships, accessing them can be challenging for homeschoolers due to limited awareness, resources, and support networks. To address this issue, parents and organizations worldwide can take the following proactive measures.

  1. Research and Outreach: Parents and organisations can research internship opportunities from local businesses, educational institutions, and international organisations. They can advocate and foster collaboration for homeschool-friendly internship programs by contacting potential mentors and employers.
  2. Utilise Online Platforms: Intern Abroad HQ, GoAbroad, Asia Internship Program, InternSg, and global job boards like Indeed provide many internship listings and resources. Through platforms like LinkedIn, parents can assist homeschoolers in creating professional profiles and résumés tailored to global markets, enhancing their visibility and competitiveness in the international job market.
  3. Network and Advocate Internationally: Parents and organisations can leverage international networks and connections to develop customised internship experiences that transcend geographical boundaries. Such advocacy promotes inclusivity and diversity in educational and career development globally. For homeschoolers, embracing global perspectives and cultural diversity can maximise their internship experience and contribute to positive change on a global scale.

The proposals mentioned above may be challenging for homeschooling parents who are already busy, but they can potentially bring significant returns. Since homeschoolers are not tied to school institutions and have more flexible work arrangements, they have a better chance of pursuing challenging internships. Those fortunate enough to participate in transnational internships can benefit from establishing mentorship relationships and expanding their professional network beyond geographical boundaries. This can help them transition from education to employment across continents.

An internship with a wildlife preservation group while waiting for examination results or during the gap year allows one to pursue his passion while exploring deeper into the field as a career option.

Image credit: David Valentine on Unsplash

Nurturing Tomorrow’s Voices: Homeschool Singapore’s Inaugural Youth Internship Programme

With a commitment to fostering young talents, Homeschool Singapore introduced its Youth Internship Programme. The inaugural programme aims at empowering budding writers and social media enthusiasts to make their mark in the digital landscape. Homeschool Singapore’s Editor-in-Chief helms the project with the support of the website’s Digital Producer and homeschool community members, who responded enthusiastically to the project. Two of them, Mark Lim and Daphne Pang, agreed to help with mentoring and editing.

The programme offers a virtual internship that is entirely conducted via email, online chats, or phone calls. Also known as remote internships, these internships provide great flexibility and fit seamlessly into a busy high schooler’s schedule. Virtual internships are especially beneficial for homeschoolers based overseas or frequently travelling. They offer an opportunity for students to gain experience without the need to commute to a specific location at a particular time.

Working remotely has its downsides, one of which is that it can be difficult to establish strong mentoring relationships without face-to-face interactions and spontaneous conversations. Interns must be self-motivated and proactive in keeping their supervisors or mentors up-to-date on their progress, and meeting shared goals. Conversely, supervisors or mentors must provide adequate job training, guidance, and oversight without instituting too many administrative checkpoints that could be easily misinterpreted without the non-verbal cues of in-person communication. Additionally, technological issues can also disrupt communication, which can pose a significant challenge for teams working across different time zones, leading to delays in response times and coordination issues.

A Promising Start

In August 2023, we launched the Youth Internship Programme to empower the youth community and provide a platform to express their views. When we opened the application process in October, we received numerous queries from parents who wanted their children to seize the chance to enhance their skills and build their portfolios, which will help them stand out from the rest.

Six interns were selected after a thorough screening process from a pool of highly skilled applicants. These interns presented their passion and commitment through impressive work samples and personal interviews, displaying a keen interest in social commentary and digital media. 

Our first batch of interns from the programme.

We immediately got to work and conducted three intensive training sessions for the interns. These sessions introduced the interns to the intricacies of writing and social media communication. The interns participated in a two-day immersive exercise led by Nur Dianah Suhaimi, a former journalist from The Straits Times. During the session, she candidly shared her experience, providing us with an overview of the journalism scene in Singapore. Nur Dianah, who is also a homeschooling parent, covered reporting skills and taught us how to craft compelling stories and argumentative essays in a style that was engaging and self-led, keeping true to the homeschooler spirit. Subsequently, the editor and social media producer oriented the interns to the inner workings of content production at homeschoolsingapore.sg.

We conducted virtual and on-site interviews, training, and meetings to accommodate different time zones and globe-trotting parties. The work was challenging, but the outcome was satisfying.

Work for the interns’ personal projects went underway. Three writing interns embarked on a journey to craft thought-provoking articles on topics close to their hearts. Covering diverse topics such as “Rethinking Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examinations,” “Neurodivergence,” and “Setting up for Success,” these interns conducted research and interviews, culminating in the publication of their articles starting in March 2024. Simultaneously, the remaining three interns will leverage their creativity and digital talent to manage Homeschool Singapore’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. Paired with writing interns, they will spearhead promotional and engagement campaigns, amplifying the reach and impact of the thematic articles.

We are excited to announce the launch of our first engagement theme this month! We are proud of the achievements made by the interns within a short time period. We invite you to support and encourage the homeschooled youth by engaging with their content!

Check out previous thematic issues here!

Internships have a significant impact on shaping growth and development opportunities for homeschooled students. Our Youth Internship Programme at Homeschool Singapore is a testament to our commitment to nurturing talent and empowering the next generation of leaders in the alternative education landscape and beyond. While we have much to learn in implementing this initiative, we hope this inaugural experience will help us understand the gaps that need to be addressed in Singapore’s alternative education landscape. Therefore, we welcome your constructive feedback via editor@homeschoolsingapore.sg.

Selected Resources

1Waxman, 2018. How Internships Replaced the Entry-Level Job, TIME

2Nunley, Pugh, Romero and Alan Seals Jr., 2016. College major, internship experience, and employment opportunities: Estimates from a résumé audit, Journal of Labour Economics

3Employment Rights of Interns and Trainees in Singapore, Singapore Legal Advice

4Loraine Lee, 2024. The Big Read: No more an inferior option, polytechnics have come a long way. What’s needed to take them up another level, CNA