Intern IQ

In a tough job market, an internship may give job-seekers an edge in experience necessary for a full-time position.

“Internships are always important, but especially now, just to get your foot in the door,” said Suzanne McFarlin, career advisor at the University of Arizona’s Eller School of Management. If you’re looking for a full-time position but have no professional experience, it’s going to be a lot harder to angle yourself as a prime candidate, she said.

According to the Job Outlook 2010 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), more than three-quarters of responding employers said they prefer candidates with the kind of relevant work experience gained through an internship. Internships act as a springboard toward knowledge of a company and an industry, and they are a chance to form influential relationships. While not all internships automatically lead to job offers, they can position job-seekers for future career success.

Cynthia Funk, director of the Vanderbilt University Career Center in Nashville, Tenn., says 70 percent of Vanderbilt students held internships during college.

“Internships are essential because they show an employer you have a sense of the business,” Funk said. “They show you can successfully bring value to a company.”

In past years, she estimates 50 percent of those internships resulted in job offers; this year, she says the number would be closer to 30 percent. That rate, however, depends on more than the job market – it’s also influenced by how well an intern invests in the experience. To use an internship to benefit you, Funk says, the first step is to stop thinking about yourself.

“A student going into an internship thinks, ‘What am I going to get from this,’” she said. “But it’s really about changing your mindset to asking yourself what you can offer.”

Funk recommends approaching an internship with a sense of ethics, responsibility and honesty. Take notes on the company’s culture, its structure and how you can fit within its frame. Also volunteer to take on tasks, even if they seem uninteresting. The more you take the initiative to offer a hand in things, the more you will put yourself in front of individuals who make company decisions.

In addition, McFarlin says, seek out people with similar career goals in order to start networking with colleagues and peers. Connecting with those people can help you learn where to contribute immediately, and how to position yourself for an offer later.

While some larger companies have structured internship programs designed to funnel directly into the company, smaller companies may not. Regardless, once you realize you have interest in working for a company and have made an effort to bring value, Funk says it’s important and appropriate to address the subject early in the internship.

“The hiring manager isn’t going to come to you or assume you’re interested. You have to come forward and communicate that in a respectful way,” she said.

Before you leave an internship, make sure to set up meetings with key people to express your interest. Funk recommends communicating how you could add value to certain areas and asking their thoughts regarding your business potential. Also, don’t be afraid to ask about the outlook in future months. Even if they can’t hire someone now, they might be looking later, so you want to be on their radar.

“I don’t think a student can expect an internship to turn into a full-time job at a specific company, but that doesn’t mean it won’t open doors for them,” McFarlin said. “If they have a positive experience and develop relationships with supervisors, peers and colleagues who can then act as sounding boards for career pursuits, then it is likely to turn into a job somewhere else.”

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