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Relevant Learning Experiences Are Key for Successful Adult Learners: a Model for Flexible Internships for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership (NEIRP)

Completing a credential is an important goal for adult learners — but a credential is just the first step for many graduates. For many students, the whole point of the credential is to lead to a good job and stable, long-term employability in the graduate’s chosen industry. For traditional-aged populations, a ticket to a good job often lies in internships where students can learn about the industry, try out their new skills, enhance their professional network, and sometimes even “audition” for employment. However, the structure of the traditional internship can be at odds with the schedule of a working adult learner. New models are needed to provide different kinds of students with similar opportunities for experiential learning and exposure to industries and jobs.

CAEL was recently engaged by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership (NEIRP) to generate a playbook for employers to reimagine internships specifically for adults. The intention was to supplement their previous Indiana INTERNet Guide to target recommendations specifically distinct from “youth” or traditional high school- or college-age students.

We approached this task with the idea that internship challenges aren’t limited to a single type of learner. Many students, regardless of age, may conclude that traditional internship models aren’t a good fit for their personal circumstances. Therefore, we need to envision models for internships that are built with flexibility, creativity, customization, and responsiveness to the needs and situations of diverse learners.

Critical Components of Internships for Adult Learners
The new Internship Playbook includes guidance for employers on developing their internship program that does not presume full-time, or open availability, for the intern because the intern may be working other jobs or have multiple family responsibilities. This might include decreasing the overall hours required at the internship, minimizing the duration of the internship, creating more modular or “chunkable” internships, or simply allowing for more variation in an intern’s schedule.

It’s important to recommend that work assignments be made thoughtfully, with attention to what the student will learn. Internships should focus on projects with discernable beginning/planning, middle/implementation, and end/outcomes. Another key component is compensation -- the recommendation in this playbook is to strive to pay a wage commensurate with the level of work, time, and expertise expected of an intern.

Additional Recommendations for Mentors and Supervisors
Further, there is specific guidance on mentors and supervisors. Specifically:

  • Level of Engagement: In some cases, an experienced adult intern could require less intensive supervision and mentoring than a traditional youth intern, but for both parties to get the most out of an adult internship, the model suggests that supervisors should be more deeply engaged in the planning process for an internship and supervision. On a project-based internship, the engagement may be more sporadic and limited, so the critical element is availability and accessibility for interaction as needed.
  • Level of Commitment: In order to customize content and challenge adult interns, supervisors should provide additional oversight – roughly three to six hours per week working directly with the intern. The work of a supervisor is to 1) understand the goals of the internship, 2) create an avenue to achieve the goals for the worker, and 3) assess the mastery of the goals.
  • Flexibility and Availability: Supervisor time and availability are a greater concern with the “flexible” internship model.

The playbook also goes into detail about selecting appropriate mentors for adult learners as well as thriving in a multi-generational workplace.

The model proposed is titled the Flexible Learning Internship Program or FLIP. This model focuses heavily on the competencies and skills that the internship helps to develop, with careful planning of the work’s intended outcomes for the employer and learning objectives for the student. The playbook provides useful resources such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers’s (NACE) Eight Career Readiness Competencies, which are also known as “foundational,” “human,” or “soft” skills, to learn and develop throughout the course of the internship. Formal evaluation of the outcomes and learner competencies is recommended, through a range of possible assessment tools, such as:

  • Skills Validation in the form of essential skills, technical skills, and internship course KSAs, or knowledge, skills, and abilities.
  • Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) examples such as test-out exams, national exams, portfolio assessments, and certification mapping — all of which could be used to award college credit for what the student learns during the internship.
  • Project-Based Assessment options such as business plans, project plans, research papers, and capstone projects.

When appropriate, there is consideration for whether an internship could be created at the student’s current workplace.

These new ideas about how to provide novel experiential learning opportunities are vital for helping working adults supplement their formal learning to make successful transitions in their careers. CAEL is excited to see the progress being made in regions like northeast Indiana, and we hope to replicate and augment this work in other communities.


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