Internships are temporary positions that offer on-the-job training. They are offered by a wide variety of companies in many industries, and they operate off the premise that businesses can benefit from a young, inexpensive labor pool and the workers can benefit by gaining valuable experience in a chosen field. The jobs can require part-time or full-time work. Although internships are traditionally offered during the summer months, when students are not in school, many are offered year-round.

    The concept of internships is growing in popularity. U.S. News & World Report gathered data from 330 ranked colleges and universities, finding that among 2011 graduates, 36.9 percent reported having had at least one internship. In addition, internships often pave the way to a full-time job, as shown by the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) 2012 Student Survey of the class of 2012, where 60 percent of paid interns received job offers at the completion of their internships.

    Many students and graduates navigate their way into the marketplace by taking advantage of the different types of internships out there, from paid and unpaid to those that earn college credit. This hands-on experience can give students the opportunity to learn skills, possibly find a job and avoid additional student loans in the meantime.Most employers who offer internships accept students who are either in school or who recently graduated, although some programs embrace nontraditional applicants who may be switching fields later in their career.

    Paid Internships

    At least half of the 1.5 million internships in the United States are paid, according to Time magazine. Paid internships provide valuable work experience and a paycheck. Getting a paid internship can be difficult, as many more people are seeking these positions.

    They are more likely to be found in the financial sector, federal and local government, social media and accounting. The average undergraduate intern hourly rate ranges from $13.91 to $17.57, according to the 2012 NACE survey. However, if students snag an internship  with Google, Yahoo, Apple or another tech company they could be making $4,500 per month or more.

    The NACE survey found that paid internships are more likely to lead to job offers and higher starting salaries than unpaid internships. Paid interns also spend more time completing tasks that provide real-world training. For example, 42 percent of their time is spent on analysis and project management, while only 25 percent of time is spent completing clerical tasks, according to the survey.

    Unpaid (Volunteer) Internships

    Unpaid internships are not as glamorous as paid internships, but they can still provide valuable work experience. Sometimes the only way to break into fields like fashion, entertainment and politics is by making contacts through unpaid internships. Nonprofit organizations, think tanks and large, international organizations are also known for offering unpaid internships. With all of these, interns have the opportunity to network and make an impression. Additionally, since these positions are unpaid, there is less competition, making it easier to find open positions.

    Up to half of all internships are unpaid. Unfortunately, this can mean going for months without a paycheck and possible racking up more student debt.

    Employers who do not pay their interns are required to follow guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Labor, including:
    • The internship must be similar to training that is given in an educational environment.
    • The experience must be for the benefit of the intern.
    • The intern cannot displace regular employees.
    • The employer cannot derive an immediate advantage from the intern.
    • The intern is not entitled to a job after the internship.
    • The intern understands that he or she is not entitled to wages.

    Companies that violate the rules and exploit interns can face lawsuits.

    If students find only unpaid internships available in their field, they should recognize the financial struggles they are likely to face and consider whether the experience is vital to their career. As an alternative, they may want to look at part-time jobs that offer real-world experience and help them avoid student loans that can be difficult to pay back.

    Internships for College Credit

    Some colleges award course credit for internships. They are typically supervised by a professor and may be paid or unpaid. At the end of these internships, students may be required to create a journal, presentation or essay to demonstrate the knowledge they’ve gained.

    Colleges sometimes require students to pay tuition for these internships. If the internship is unpaid and students are paying for tuition, the internship may not be a realistic for students already struggling with debt.

    Benefits of Internships

    Whether it’s a paycheck, work experience or academic credit, internships have a lot to offer. On a resume, a good internship can outrank the name of the college, a GPA and even the chosen major. Additionally, internships can bring textbook explanations to life and provide a unique window into a career field.

    Students who accept internships may have the opportunity to:

    • Make a good impression
    • Build confidence
    • Take responsibility
    • Learn to adapt
    • Develop new skills
    • Learn to solve complex problems
    • Develop analytical skills
    • Learn to construct arguments
    • Develop good written and oral communication skills
    • Practice good work habits, like showing up on time and dressing professionally
    • Learn how to handle workplace pressure
    • Navigate workplace relationships
    • Examine company culture and how day-to-day decisions are made
    • Break into industries
    • Build their resume
    • Network with people in the field
    • Earn money
    • Land a full-time job

    To reap the most benefit, it’s important for students to research the job and type of work they will be completing as they look for suitable internships. Some students will find out their dream company isn’t what they expected, but at least they will be able to cross that employer off their list and move on to the next goal.

    Job skills are helpful, but perhaps the greatest benefit from internships is the possibility of ending an internship with a job offer — especially in a  difficult economic climate, where the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was 13.3 percent in March 2013.

    In the 2012 NACE survey, 63 percent of paid interns in the class of 2012 had at least one job offer when they graduated, while just 37 percent of students without internships landed jobs . That same year, employers hired 31 percent of employees from their own internship programs, and 62 percent of their employees had had external internships. The bottom line: An internship can give students a competitive edge in a cutthroat job market.

    Finding an Internship

    Internships are everywhere, and even companies without advertised positions may be hiring. Bold students in search of specific jobs have successfully approached companies without established internship programs and offered to be the guinea pig. By tenaciously pursuing an internship position that provides experience and gets them a foot in the door, many students are able to jumpstart their careers.

    Start looking at your internship options early, and don’t just stick to one resource.

    You can find information on internships by:
    • Attending career fairs
    • Visiting on-campus recruiting events
    • Taking part in career information sessions
    • Talking to professors
    • Contacting people working in your field of interest
    • Checking online career postings
    • Investigating internship search engines and placement companies
    • Going to company websites

    Another valuable resource in the search for the perfect internship is Forbes magazine’s list of the best internships available. It rates Google as the top place to snag an internship in Fall 2013—partially due to the average monthly base intern pay of $5,787.

    Based on the 2012 Internships and Co-op Survey, here is a breakdown of the types of employers offering internships.

    Preparing to apply for an internship isn’t always easy. Applicants may need to gather letters of recommendation and may face multiple interviews with difficult questions. For many, the arduous process pays off. And employers expect to raise the number of available internships by 9 percent in 2013.

    Cecillia Barr

    Cecillia Barr is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. She blogs about her extensive knowledge on student loans in order to help others reduce their debt and live financially independent lives.

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