For years, studies have shown that people who participate in college internships-where they have opportunities to be exposed to the professional workplace, enhance their networking skills, and build their résumés-become more viable candidates, increasing the likelihood they’ll get and keep a job.
Surveys conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) have indicated that employers draw 40 percent of their new hires from their own internship programs. This is also true when the intern happens to have a disability. In fact, a recent Cornell University study revealed a significant finding; employers who have internships for people with disabilities are 4.5 times more likely to hire someone with a disability than employers who don’t provide such opportunities. Internship programs targeted toward specific groups can provide positive outcomes to the jobseeker, while broadening the recruitment pool of the employer.
More and more companies and organizations are expanding their diversity recruitment and retention efforts to include workers with disabilities. By attracting students with disabilities into their internship programs, these employers have the opportunity to leverage talent and meet diversity goals; they also get a chance to “try out” a potential employee before hiring them for a full-time position, while jobseekers with disabilities get an opportunity to showcase their capabilities and long-range potential. That can be difficult to do through a conventional job application or interview. In fact, an internship can be utilized as a more in-depth job interview that gives the participant the opportunity to demonstrate skills, effectiveness and suitability for a position in ways that a brief interview simply cannot.
Employers can create programs that access potential interns through local colleges and universities by contacting the school’s career services office and inquiring about how to market internship opportunities to students. A more specific, and often more successful, strategy toward attracting interns who have disabilities is to partner with the schools’ student disability services office, and advertise these opportunities to the students who receive their services.
Attending campus and community hiring fairs and events, posting internship positions on disability-specific online job boards, and forming relationships with local disability employment service providers, are other ways to conduct effective outreach to targeted student populations.
Federal and private employers can participate in and be matched with potential interns through numerous existing regional and national internship programs for students with disabilities, including:
• Workforce Recruitment Program
• Lime Connect
• Emerging Leaders
• Entry Point
• American Association of People with Disabilities Internship Program
• Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities.
Equally important to these recruitment and retention efforts is to provide mentoring in the workplace after an intern or employee arrives. Dedicated mentoring programs or, minimally, informal mentoring opportunities, can go a long way toward improving and sustaining employee satisfaction, productivity, and morale for both mentees and mentors. Mentorship programs also help employees feel that they, and their professional development, are valued and supported by both co-workers and management.
Mentoring for historically underrepresented groups in the workplace, such as people of color, women, and individuals with disabilities, can be particularly effective towards fulfilling diversity recruitment and retention goals. An intern or new employee will also find it enormously helpful to have people in the workplace to identify with and seek out for advice, guidance, feedback and assistance with goal setting.
While recruiting and hiring qualified individuals with disabilities is essential, what happens after the point of hire is just as important. Mentoring can play a critical role in ensuring that individuals with disabilities have access to opportunities for professional growth and advancement, and for receiving objective performance appraisals and constructive guidance. Mentors can connect mentees to individuals, opportunities, and networks—both internal and external to the workplace—that the mentee may not be aware of or have access to otherwise. These supportive leaders can advise mentees on how to navigate and negotiate the workplace environment, including the accommodations process; provide a safe space for mentees to share concerns or challenges; and provide an outlet for problem solving.
Additionally, giving employees the opportunity to serve as mentors will likely increase their job satisfaction, productivity and cultural competence. Mentor programs, especially in concert with targeted internships, help to establish more inclusive and diverse workplaces that promote retention, assist in an organization’s succession planning efforts, and increase job satisfaction for all employees.
Creating internships for individuals with disabilities, and providing them professional mentoring and support from a peer or seasoned professional, will allow employers to recruit, develop, and retain valued employees that represent many talents, skills, and identities, thereby helping to achieve organizational goals and recognition as an employer of choice for individuals of diverse backgrounds.
For more guidance on how to implement internship and mentoring programs in your workplace, consider the following resources:
• Employer Assistance and Resource Network
• Federal Workplace Mentoring Primer (tips for federal and private sector employers on how to mentor an intern with a disability).
• University of Washington Disabilities, Opportunities, Internet working and Technology (DO-IT) Center
• National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth
• Think Beyond the Label public-private partnership (resources to employers and jobseekers with disabilities)
• National Resource Directory (mentoring and internship/employ- ment resources to wounded warriors, service members, veterans).
Remember: Taking time to invest in interns with disabilities can pay great dividends.
by Erin Sember-Chase