Internships

    Student Internship Desk and ComputerAn internship is a temporary position that provides on-the-job training in a student’s major or career goal. The student generally works in professional settings while being supervised and monitored by practicing professionals.

    Internships can be paid or unpaid. Some of them carry academic credit. In most cases, it’s a win-win situation for students and employers.

    Lisa Brock, the principal at a full-service public relations and communications firm in Tampa, Fla., said she believes in the power of internships.

    “I’ve been hiring people my whole career and what I started to see was we just don’t have a good formal mentoring process in the business world,’’ said Brock, who owns Brock Communications. “Internships are important. We don’t just bring these kids in and turn them loose. In a very real sense, we’re invested in them.

    “If we do our part and teach them — and they do their part, working hard and learning the right way to do things — then we don’t have to worry about them going into the community and being good professionals and ambassadors. That’s going to happen and everyone is better for it.’’

    Some of Brock’s former interns are good examples of that.

    Lauren Fielder had “no real idea of what I was doing’’ when she arrived at Brock Communications in 2012 while a junior at the University of South Florida. But she listened and learned how to write well. She parlayed that internship into another at AARP, where she became part of an award-winning social media team, and has since landed two high-level communications positions in Washington.

    “What I experienced through my internships, they have pretty much made my career,’’ Fielder said. “I was set up for success.’’

    Jaclyn O’Connor, a former University of Tampa student, said she benefitted from “real work’’ during her internship at Brock Communications, whether it was writing press releases, dealing with media outlets or developing a social media strategy. Today, O’Connor is a communications specialist with Coca-Cola Beverages Florida.

    “The classroom gave me theory,’’ O’Connor said. “My internship gave me reality. I got so much out of it and it totally prepared me for my first job.’’

    Internship Primer

    There are many types of internships, offered by a wide variety of companies in various industries, giving businesses the benefit of a young, inexpensive labor pool. In turn, the interns get real-world experience in their field.

    There are also cooperative education programs (known as co-ops) that provide students with multiple periods of work in their major or career goal. Typically, the student alternates semesters between full-time classroom study and full-time work experience. Most positions are paid and carry academic credit. By graduation, students can have a year or more experience in their field.

    According to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 56% of college graduates from the class of 2016 said they had some internship experience.

    More than 56% of former interns received at least one job offer in their field within nine months of graduation, while only 36.5% of non-interns reported a job offer during the same time frame.

    There’s a growing gap in the salary offer for initial jobs with interns and non-interns. In 2011, interns were offered 12.6% more. In 2015, that figure had risen to 20% more.

    Paid Internships

    There’s often a huge difference when you’re talking about paid vs. unpaid internships. About half of the internships in the United States are paid, but those positions are highly competitive.

    According to a 2016 NACE survey, the average hourly wage for an intern at the bachelor’s degree level is $17.69. Most of the paid internship positions are found in the financial sector, federal and local government, social media and accounting. There are lucrative opportunities with technology companies — such as Google, Yahoo or Apple — that sometimes pay around $5,000 per month.

    According to the NACE survey, paid interns get a job offer 72% of the time, compared to just 44% for unpaid interns.

    Paid interns also say they have more tasks that provide real-world training. According to the survey, 42% of their time is spent on analysis and project management, while only 25% of time is spent completing clerical tasks.

    Students who had paid internships with private, for-profit companies received a median starting salary of $53,521 when they were hired permanently. Students who had unpaid internships with private, for-profit companies received a median starting salary of $34,375.

    The salary levels remained fairly consistent across industry sectors — nonprofit ($41,876 vs. $31,443), state/local government ($42,693 vs. $32,969) and federal government ($48,750 vs. $42,501).

    Unpaid (Volunteer) Internships

    Obviously, unpaid internships don’t have the same glamour as paid internships, but they can still provide valuable work experience in nonprofit organizations, think tanks and large, international companies or groups.

    Sometimes, taking an unpaid internship is the only way to break into highly-sought fields such as fashion, entertainment and politics.

    The intangible benefits? Perhaps it’s the chance to network. It’s the opportunity to learn from the ground up. Opportunistic interns find ways to make themselves invaluable, sometimes leading to a paid position.

    Students should recognize the potential financial struggles — particularly if they are grappling with student loan debt — and think hard about alternatives. On some occasions, they can find a part-time job in their field that also offers real-world experience.

    In recent years, unpaid internships have drawn attention in a wave of lawsuits filed by groups that said they deserved minimum wages while working for companies such as Fox Searchlight Pictures, the Hearst Corporation and Rolling Stone magazine. In 2014, NBC Universal settled a lawsuit brought by former unpaid interns of “Saturday Night Live’’ and other shows for $6.4-million.

    The U.S. Department of Labor has established six guidelines for employers who do not pay their interns. (Companies can face lawsuits by violating the rules or exploiting interns).
    • 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 they are not entitled to wages.

    Internships For College Credit

    Some colleges award course credit for internships. They are typically supervised by a professor. They can be paid or unpaid. Sometimes, colleges require students to pay tuition for the internships, perhaps providing a deeper hardship for anyone struggling with student loan debt.

    When the internship is completed, students are often required to create a journal, presentation or essay that details the knowledge they have gained.

    Benefits Of Internships

    The right internship could be gold for a resume, outranking even the name of a college, a grade-point average or the student’s major.

    After studying textbook theory, interns can experience real-life applications while getting a day-to-day window into their chosen career field.

    “We talk to interns about wearing professional attire,’’ Brock said. “Companies have different cultures and you hear about the tech jobs where you wear jeans to work. In our firm, we are representing the brand and it’s an important thing for them to know and realize.’’

    Each year, Bank of America coordinates a Student Leader contest in the Tampa Bay area. Five high school students are selected to attend a summit in Washington. They also receive eight-week paid internships at the Boys and Girls Clubs, working with executives in the corporate office, then with children at an individual club.

    “The idea is to give a 360-degree view from how policies are decided upon to how they are actually implemented as the grassroots level,’’ Bank of America senior vice president Ann Shaler said. “We think that’s how an internship should work and how it’s beneficial.’’

    There are tons of other internship advantages, many of which bring intangibles for the students:

    Students who accept internships may have the opportunity to
    • Making a good impression.
    • Building confidence.
    • Taking responsibility.
    • Learning to adapt.
    • Developing new skills.
    • Learning to solve complex problems.
    • Developing analytical skills.
    • Learning to construct arguments.
    • Developing good written and oral communication skills.
    • Learning good work habits, such as showing up on time and dressing professionally.
    • Learning how to handle workplace pressure.
    • Navigating workplace relationships.
    • Experiencing a company’s culture and learning how day-to-day decisions are made. Building a good resume.
    • Getting your foot in the door of a competitive industry.

    The biggest benefit of all could be landing a full-time job. The NACE survey said employers offered jobs to 72% of their interns with an 85% acceptance rate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was 7.5% in June 2017 (compared to 4.4% of the general population).

    Sometimes, it’s a way to learn about a company or a profession, then realizing they actually aren’t what’s desired for your career.

    “We’re A-OK with somebody serving an internship, then deciding they want to do something else with their life,’’ Brock said. “And sometimes, every student doesn’t fit into a cookie-cutter mold. They might have a skill-set that lends itself to other things that the company hadn’t even considered.’’

    Finding An Internship

    Every year, about two million Americans work as interns. How do they get there?

    “We say it all the time: If you want something, you have to go out and get it,’’ Brock said. “The world is not going to knock on your door. You have to go get it.’’

    Brock said every college senior should have a well-developed network, whether it’s mentors, college professors, civic leaders and people in your chosen industry, that can be utilized.

    “Start early, build your network, never stop building your network,’’ Brock said.

    Be bold. Be tenacious. Sometimes, companies without advertised positions could be hiring. Some students have successfully approached companies without established internship programs and offered to be the guinea pig. From that, careers have been launched.

    How do you get started?
    • Contact people already working in your field of interest.
    • Attend career fairs. 
    • Visit on-campus recruiting events.
    • Talk to your professors.
    • Check online career postings.
    • Visit company websites.
    • Take part in career information sessions.

    Prepare now. It’s best to gather letters of recommendation. There could be multiple interviews with difficult questions. But the process can pay off.

    Tips During An Internship

    The tasks of an intern can vary. Sometimes, you can be saddled with administrative tasks or be asked to run errands. Other times, interns can become an important part of the team, even making substantial contributions to the company.

    Treat it all like a learning experience. Express your own vision to the employer, telling them some goals you have for the internship. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

    “Speak up,’’ O’Connor said. “If they bring you in as an intern, they’re acknowledging your talent. The company wants a productive experience, too, so don’t be afraid to let them know your ideas.’’

    Whether you are paid or not, it’s an opportunity to gain valuable work experience, build a portfolio and establish a network of professional contacts. After you graduate, those things will be at least as important as your degree.

    “I think you have to be incredibly well-researched and willing to do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door for an internship,’’ Fielder said. “But once you’re in that door, you’ve got to work really, really hard. Forget about (the pay or lack of pay). It’s about the experience and what you get out of it.’’

    To make a good impression and give yourself the best opportunity at remaining with the company, here are guidelines that always help.
    • Be proactive in your work. 
    • Pay attention to detail. 
    • Be willing to listen. 
    • Take criticism and learn from it. 
    • Volunteer for special projects.

    If you are not hired when the internship ends, it may not be a reflection of your work. Timing is everything. Sometimes, there just isn’t an open position. The company likely will give you a good reference, which could be crucial when applying for other jobs. Having a series of successful internships throughout college is often a wonderful selling point for any job candidate.

    That diversity of experience can teach communication skills, personal effectiveness, presentation skills, creative problem solving and influencing skills. Internships can also give you clarity on your future path, helping you gain practical skills that will sharpen your resume and make you more employable.

    Apprenticeship Vs. Internship

    Many times, an apprenticeship is a better fit than an internship. Many people might think they are the same. They are not.

    Both help potential workers get some hands-on training. But an internship is a way to get your foot in the door, an exploratory process both for the intern and the company. An apprenticeship, more common in Europe than America, practically guarantees you a job upon its completion.

    Apprenticeships are often found in highly skilled technical jobs, such as engineering or construction, or popular trades, such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical and telecommunications.

    Internships might last a summer or semester, but apprenticeships require a full-time commitment and can take years to complete. You get paid good wages while you learn. It’s a combination of classroom and on-the-job training.

    While an internship could lead to a full-time job, it sometimes does not. Plus, in an apprenticeship, you are being sponsored by an employer that is spending time to teach and train you. When the apprenticeship is complete, you will have earned the certificate that says you are ready to do the job. It’s not theory. It’s reality.

    Research Internships

    In a more specialized approach, research internships are sometimes undertaken by students in their final year of academic study. The student will undertake a research project for a company — either in an area where the company feels it needs to improve or a subject selected by the student.

    The results will be made into a formal report, which is presented to the company and the student’s university.

    Cooperative Education

    In cooperative education (co-ops), students alternate semesters between full-time work during the academic term and full-time academic study. It’s an applied learning experience that often directly leads to full-time employment.

    Along with a college degree and good grades, the prospective employee will have full-time experience going into their first position, something that could set them apart.

    Some schools don’t have structured co-op programs, so students should always look for the school that best supports their education and career goals. The trade-off of leaving campus could help to offset college costs because the student is working full time and should have more money to contribute to college expenses.

    Bill Fay

    Bill Fay is a journalism veteran with a nearly four-decade career in reporting and writing for daily newspapers, magazines and public officials. His focus at Debt.org is on frugal living, veterans' finances, retirement and tax advice. Bill can be reached at bfay@debt.org.

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