Teen internships look a lot different thanks to COVID, but more career-boosting opportunities for students are opening back up. Find out where teens have been gaining valuable experience in the Portland area.

Photo Courtesy Trackers Earth

Ava Houtman, a rising senior at St. Mary’s Academy, started her ongoing, two-hour per week, paid internship in March 2021 at Portland State University. Houtman, a 17-year-old, interns at the Futures Collaboratory, a campus-wide interdisciplinary group of faculty, staff and students looking at future-facing issues. Houtman says her specific project, which is conducted online, is researching and proposing a curriculum to engage female- identifying middle-school students to learn blockchain technology.

She says she is relishing the real-world research opportunity provided by her internship, which explores her interest in technology. Houtman says what excites her most about it is the “opportunity to work with women in the work world and be part of something that will educate people on this unique technology.” Plus, she has learned that she also has something to contribute: “I think my perspective brings a unique viewpoint that is valuable in this research.”

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Internships like Houtman’s offer teens real-world work experience, as well as additional training, support and enrichment. Students get to work in a wide range of fields, skill sets, and capacities, including in marketing, customer service, social media, research, operations, child care, programming and more.

Last year, like most activities, the vast majority of teen internships were cancelled, truncated, or turned virtual because of the pandemic. These necessary changes limited students’ opportunities to gain meaningful internships experience. 

As we emerge from COVID-19 restrictions, this time-honored teen tradition is making a comeback. Some internships will remain on pause or continue to be offered remotely, but many more are in-person.

This summer, high schoolers across the metro area are working in a variety of capacities, including in programs facilitated by local school districts. For example, Portland Public Schools (PPS) regularly shares internship opportunities with its students through the SummerWorks program, which is a paid internship program facilitated by PPS and funded in part by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“This program prepares interns with pre-job readiness training, a Trimet bus pass and job coaching during the experience,” says PPS spokesperson Karen Werstein. Students get paid $14 per hour for these internships, which they often access via their school’s career and counseling departments. And the fact that these programs pay, helps keep them inclusive; especially as we emerge from the pandemic, teens from lower-income households may need to earn income during the summer to help their families.

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Before the pandemic, in the summer of 2019, the program saw almost 250 participants with 149 placed into paying internships, says Werstein. In 2020, those numbers took a hit, but internships were still offered remotely. 

“Last year, these internships were all virtual and SummerWorks is having a combination of virtual and in-person experiences for students this year,” says Werstein. During the pandemic, 86 PPS teens did the program remotely; 65 students participated in a learning-opportunity internship path, while 21 did work-opportunity internships. 

“The biggest shift we made for COVID-19 was developing an option for students to complete online learning modules, complete a reflection and be paid a stipend instead of a wage,” says Werstein. “It allowed us to serve many more youth than we could have with jobs as most of our work sites shut down summer operations or went to remote environments where hosting a student worker was not feasible.”

As of press time, 135 teens were signed up for the 2021 program. Most of these internships are in person this year. Big-name organizations and businesses like The American Cancer Association and Ben and Jerry’s, justice nonprofits like the Black United Fund of Oregon, and local places like Cathedral Park Performing Arts, Feed the Mass and the Portland Pickles all offered summer internships this year. 

Summer internships are especially a win-win for small businesses: Teens get hands-on experience, and companies get additional support. Outdoor summer camp organization, Trackers Earth, has been offering its Teen Guild program since 2015. While they were unable to offer any internships last summer because of COVID, its paid internship program is back up and running and now serves 25 each summer. They did make some changes, though, such as doing some components online and following social distancing requirements to comply with public health regulations and safety protocols. 

“Participants get hands-on work experience in the field assisting in teaching kids at our camps. They learn outdoor skills and teaching methods through in-person shadowing and training,” says Esther Ikoro, who works at the company’s culture innovation department. 

Teens also participate in virtual professional development sessions to grow their interpersonal and leadership abilities. Another bonus, the internships may help participants see a future career in nature-related fields. “Our goal is to show interns that it is possible to connect the passion, love and curiosity they have for the outdoors world with a real, paying job,” says Ikoro.

Last summer, students in Parkrose School District were also offered virtual internships, which included training and projects that could be completed remotely. “We focused mostly on what we could provide,” says superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao. The district worked quickly with a variety of partners, including small businesses, nonprofits and industry-related workplaces, to create meaningful online experiences. 

This year, in addition to helping pair kids with internships via their college and career-elective classes, the district is offering opportunities for teens to work at a robust district-led summer camp that serves younger local students. 

Instead of relying solely on businesses and other organizations to provide internships for Parkrose teens, explains Lopes Serrao, the district decided to create opportunities itself. The end result is an in-person summer enrichment camp that offers the teens valuable work experience as well as dynamic in-person programming for younger kids, says Lopes Serrao, something many kids are craving after living through the pandemic-era restrictions.

High school students across Portland are loving these opportunities. Max Kobak, 18, who is a 2020 graduate of Lincoln High School, is doing an unpaid, volunteer internship with Legacy Health at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center this summer, for two and a half months. Because his internship is at a hospital, he and his fellow interns needed to be fully vaccinated. “This is a great opportunity for me to get some real research experience.” 

Some of his day-to-day work is virtual, in which he can log online from home, but he spends the bulk of his 10 hours each week in a lab. “I get to learn the methodology and see how it all works,” he says. 

 And that’s the beauty of a teen internship. Not only do high schoolers get work experience, and often a paycheck, but they also get to explore their potential and gifts they have to share with the world.

Photo Courtesy Deposit Photos

Where to Find Internships Next Year

There are many ways teens can find an internship, including web searches, contacting businesses or organizations of interest, and personal connections. However, one of the best ways is to contact their school’s college and career or counseling department. These offices often have dedicated staff whose job it is to be in-the-know about local internships — and to link up students with opportunities that match their interests.

SummerWorks offers summer internships and learning opportunities (as well as year-round offerings) for Portland Metro area youth ages 16-24.

Trackers Portland offers students age 16 and over the opportunity to work up to 10 weeks each summer as an assistant educator for their summer camps. Applications are due each April.

Legacy Health internship opportunities are offered through their volunteering office.

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