Back-To-School Report: Internships Critical

As the roughly 12 million students enrolled in four-year degree-granting colleges and universities prepare to begin their fall semester over the coming days and weeks, many will attempt to supplement their classroom education with real-world lessons gained through part-time internships. Internships have never been more important, according to one workplace authority, but he warns that landing one has never been more difficult.

“The job market will continue to be tough for college students graduating next spring. Chances are good that it will still be tough in four years for those entering their freshman year this fall. Getting on-the-job experience through internships will be critical. Unfortunately, the number of internships nationwide has not returned to pre-recession levels and competition for those spots are fierce,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

The latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the job market is beginning to make a comeback. While the government has shed tens of thousands of temporary Census workers over the last couple of months, payrolls in the private sector have seen seven consecutive months of net gains, adding a total of 630,000 new jobs to the economy.

While the employment statistics are trending in a positive direction, it could take years for the job market to fully recover. Following the relatively mild 2001 recession, it took nearly four years for the unemployment rate to fall below 5.0 percent and it never achieved its pre-recession level of 4.2 percent.

“Each new class of spring graduates should see some improvement in the job market, but it will remain extremely competitive for several years. In this environment it becomes necessary to set yourself apart from fellow classmates, not to mention their job-search competitors with a few years of experience. Internships are vital in this respect,” said Challenger.

A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that 42.3 percent of graduating seniors with internship experience received at least one job offer when applying for post-college employment. Meanwhile, only 30.7 percent of seniors without internship experience who applied for a job received an offer.

“As far as employers are concerned, what you learn in the classroom is not nearly as important as what you can learn on the job. When an employer sees an internship on an applicant’s resume, it immediately signals that this person has experience working in a professional environment with deadlines, objectives, expectations and with people of varying personalities, skill sets and at different levels of an organization,” said Challenger.

As the overall job market continues to improve, the internship market should also see gains. In fact, it already has. According to the NACE internship survey, employers plan to increase the number of internships by 2.9 percent in 2010. This follows a bleak 2009 internship market, which shrank by 20 percent.

“Unfortunately, the increase in internships may not be much help for underclassmen and seniors seeking positions during the fall or spring semester. Unlike a decade ago, when internships were reserved almost exclusively for those still in school, today’s college interns are competing with candidates who recently graduated. And, in this economy, they are just as likely to compete with professionals who graduated 10 years ago,” noted Challenger.

In a survey of 2,534 employers by online job-search site, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) said they are seeing seasoned veterans, those with more than 10 years of experience as well as mature workers, age 50 and older, apply for internships.

“College internship seekers can greatly improve their odds of success by going through their school’s career center or finding opportunities through professors. Many colleges and universities maintain close relationships with companies in their communities, so these will be natural targets for openings,” Challenger advised.

“Students seeking internships also should not hesitate to approach companies that are not officially seeking interns. Many smaller firms are so focused on day-to-day operations that establishing internship programs fall off the radar. However, if approached by an enthusiastic student about creating an internship position, many will acquiesce,” he added.

“Once an intern is on the job, it is critical to treat each day like a job interview. Internships frequently lead to full-time positions following graduation, but you must set yourself apart from your fellow interns. With the job market in recovery and employers slow to add new workers, it is critical that interns exceed expectations. Those who merely meet expectations probably will not get the full-time job offer,” said Challenger.

“Meeting the right people during your internship is also critical. It is likely that the person supervising the interns is relatively low on the corporate totem pole. In fact, he or she may be only a year or two out of college. The intern with full-time job aspirations should make a daily effort to meet the managers and executives who make the hiring decisions. The higher up the executive you impress, the greater the odds that a permanent position will be found for you,” he added.

“Students who do not receive an offer from the company where they interned can still benefit from the experience. Managers and executives in the company represent the beginning of your job-search network. Even if they cannot find a spot for you in their company, they may know executives in another company that may have openings.”

John Challenger provided the following advice for this school year’s crop of fall and spring interns to improve their chances of being offered a full-time job or the opportunity to return next summer, in the case of non-graduating college students:


Treat your internship as a real job.

The best way to prove you are qualified for a permanent position is through action. Think of your internship as a trial period or extended interview for obtaining the position you desire. Always be on time and meet deadlines. Maintain a positive attitude and show that you are eager to learn and succeed by seeking out feedback to improve your performance and develop new skills.

Take initiative and exceed expectations.

By taking initiative you can show management what you are capable of. Do not be afraid to voice your own ideas, offer solutions, and ask questions. Show interest in attending meetings and seek out extra work and new projects. When you go above and beyond the minimum, you demonstrate your commitment level and gain the attention of management.

Dress according to company dress codes.

While you want to stand out from the pack, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself for the wrong reasons. By dressing professionally you reinforce the impression that you can adapt to and fit in with the company’s culture.

Keep track of your contributions and accomplishments.

Keep track of the projects you worked on, your individual contributions, and the results achieved. Having a tangible record of your achievements with the company is a helpful tool in convincing a manager why you should be hired full time.

Network, network, network.

Developing contacts inside and outside of your department is extremely important. Schedule lunches or meetings with company managers and executives to give them a better understanding of who you are and what you plan on accomplishing. Find a mentor to teach you the ropes of the organization and offer advice on company politics. The contacts you make through your internship could prove invaluable throughout your time at the organization and throughout your career.

Ask about available entry-level positions.

Ask about what positions are available and express your interest in them. An employer will be more likely to consider you for a position if they know you are interested in it.

Stay in contact.

If you don’t get hired for a position immediately after your internship ends, stay in touch. Check-in with your contacts and provide updates on your progress. This will keep you in the forefront of the employer’s mind when a position becomes available.


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