Calling All Interns!

By Christopher Adamson CTW Features

Today, starting a new career might seem like an uphill battle. Recent college grads, ready and eager to enter the work world, are finding the work force less willing to take them on. Taking a paid summer internship, however, could be just the “in” they need.

“Internships are a valuable step in any career path,” says Carolyn Wise, a senior editor for Vault.com, which offers career-building advice. “They’re an opportunity to test-drive a potential career and industry, and learn whether they’re right for you.”

Plus, internships are a vital recruiting tool for employers. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found in a 2009 survey that about 77 percent of top employers use internship programs as their primary tool for recruiting new full-time talent. Nearly 35 of their entry-level hires from the college class of 2008 were former interns.

The question is, how do recent, or even not-so-recent, college grads land that coveted internship? It isn’t as easy as it might sound.

The recession has hit young workers hardest. The labor force participation rate for workers age 16 through 24 decreased from 59 percent to 54 percent in the 25 months since the recession started in December 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for this group is nearly 19 percent.

Against the backdrop of a tough economy, students’ lack of focus can make the search for an internship difficult. “I see a lot of students who start with the statement, ‘I want an internship this summer,’ without a really clear understanding of what that means to them,” says Geni Harclerode, a career counselor and internship coordinator at the University of Michigan. To help young adults make that first leap into a new career, Harclerode and other experts share some essential tips.

1. Do some career soul-searching. “I think too often students don’t do enough reflection about what type of an internship they are looking for, what they are hoping to gain from the experience, what skills they want to develop and what they feel like they can contribute before jumping right into the search phase,” Harclerode said. She suggests spending time before you begin your search listing potential companies you’d like to work for, keeping in mind office size, geographic location and industry.

2. Start your search early. Wise says many of the top internships start recruiting during the fall and winter, and ideally that’s when the search should start. She also suggests that current students take full advantage of their university’s career services.

“For any job search, career centers offer extremely helpful advice on resumés, cover letters and interviews,” she says. “They can often also put you in touch with alumni who work at the company or organization for whom you would like to intern.”

3. Get creative with networking. Consider nontraditional ways of getting job experience. “Look for shorter-term volunteer opportunities or job shadowing, all experiences that still connect you to the industry, environment and people you are seeking post-graduation,” Harclerode says.

Stressing the importance of networking, Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, Vault.com’s career services expert, suggests talking to parents, professors and even peers to find the perfect internship opportunity. “Some people feel that they are entitled to an internship – that is just not the case,” she says. “Meet as many people as possible and follow up with them.”

4. Consider unpaid opportunities. Although it may be hard to afford, all experts agree that where internships are concerned, experience is more important than pay. Often, especially now that the job market is shaky, interns sacrifice monetary security for invaluable job experience.

“Students should remember to select the program that will make them the happiest and where they will learn the most – that will be the most valuable in the long run,” Wise says. “A great unpaid internship that offers lots of hands-on work will look better than a paid internship during which you made copies and got coffee.”

Harclerode suggests looking for a flexible unpaid internship that allows time for a part-time job to pay the bills. Some universities also offer fellowships or grants to help unpaid interns.

5. Don’t give up. After perfecting your resumé and practicing your interviewing skills, don’t give up. Most would-be interns fail because they lack the stamina to keep trying. “Be resilient,” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says. “It’s not easy and not everything will work out. But you need to keep the momentum up. Your chances are better if you have 10 targets instead of two!”