In Today’s Economy, Internships Provide a Competitive Edge

In Today's Economy, Internships Are Real Competitive Edge

College is not just about the degree, it’s an investment of time and money in your future  — whether you want to find a job, work toward a promotion, or seek to explore new industries. Whatever your field of interest, building skill sets to support your degree will improve your marketability.

There is renewed hope for college graduates who are looking for work as noted in the ABC News report, Job Prospects For New Grads Best Since Recession. However, as Dan Schawbel of the Boston research company Millennial Branding states, “the most successful candidates are those who, as undergrads, pulled out all the stops: You've got to get as many internships as you possibly can.” Completion of a degree signifies the subject matter expertise acquired and the experience gained from an internship demonstrates real world application of what you’ve learned. An internship can give you a competitive advantage over applicants who also have a degree but do not have relevant work experience.
 
Finding an internship is especially important for undergraduate students, according to Lauren Berger, founder of Internqueen.com. Berger utilized her internship experience to launch this website and now visits colleges and universities worldwide to talk about the benefits of internship opportunities. She also has stated that “70% of college students participate in internships prior to graduation and current undergraduates need to be completing at least 2-3 internships just to stay competitive.” This means that you shouldn’t wait until after graduation to start looking for opportunities. There are positions available while you are still attending college.

Paid vs. Unpaid Internships

One of the most discussed issues by educators and career counselors concerning internships for college students involves paid and unpaid opportunities. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an employer is not required to pay an intern if the work is “structured around a classroom or academic experience,” which is of benefit to the intern who can use the skills acquired in multiple employment settings. In contrast, if an intern performs work either as a substitute for a regular employee or in any other capacity that the employer benefits from and is dependent upon for their business operations, then the employer is required to provide compensation.

A recent New York Times article, Jobs Few, Grads Flock to Unpaid Internships, indicates that college graduates are taking advantage of any opportunity to gain a footing in an employer they are interested in working for, even if this means working without compensation. There are two distinct arguments made about unpaid internships. In the post, Opinion: Unpaid Internships Hurt Students, there is a discussion about the menial office work interns may be required to do, which could include collecting mail or making copies, and this type of work offers no real world advantage for the intern.

The opposing post, Opinion: Unpaid Internships are Worthwhile, discussed the most important aspect of accepting an internship opportunity, even if it is unpaid, and that is the ability to network with employees and industry leaders. You will gain an inside perspective of business operations and connect with employees who may be able to offer insight and advice. If you accept an unpaid position and decide it is not a good match for your career or the conditions are unacceptable, you can leave to pursue other positions.

Internship Resources

Before you begin to search for internships, be sure you have developed a plan of action or general strategy. Consider what your ultimate career goal is, what skills you have and the skills you need to acquire as a means of developing a competitive advantage, and the industries or job markets that are related to your goals. You don’t want to accept an intern position just to gain experience; you want it to further your career development plans.

You should also develop a resume that summarizes the skills, qualities, and talents you currently possess – even if your background and experience is limited. My post, A Winning Resume for Online Students, can be utilized by any student – especially students that have few jobs to list. The approach I’ve provided is for the development of a skill set based resume, which puts a focus on the skills you’ve gained and that is a method of overcoming employment deficits. Regardless of the job(s) you’ve held, you have gained transferrable skills and a skill set based resume format helps highlight them.

1. School Resources
One of the first resources you should get in contact with is the career center at your school as there may be job postings, leads, or information. Many schools also offer other services such as tools and techniques for developing your resume, interviewing, and obtaining background information about potential employers. Once you graduate you will have access to alumni resources, which are often similar in nature.
 
2. Networking
You can network with classmates, your school, and employers to find an internship and then develop career connections once you have secured a position. Timothy Diehl, director of career planning at Bowdoin College, says that “once you've identified someone in a company with whom you have a connection, you can turn that person into an ally and advocate.” This is true for either situation. If you target a particular company and find someone to approach by cold calling or through an email that expresses your interest, and they are receptive to you, it is possible they will serve as a mentor even if there isn’t a position currently open. If you secure an internship, use that opportunity to make as many connections as possible within the company.

Another method for developing career related leads is through the use of social networking, which expands your potential reach to companies that might be difficult to contact by phone or email. You can post a profile that resembles a resume on LinkedIn and search for internships. You can utilize Twitter to follow companies as a means of looking for current openings and other leads. Facebook is another resource and recently an application was introduced, CareerAmp, which allows you to see what positions your friends hold and if there are openings at the companies they work for now.

3. Virtual Internships
This is an option that students often overlook and it is an opportunity to expand your possibilities further as it may be possible to work remotely for companies that are physically located in other cities. In Virtual Internships in Rising Demand, it was indicated that there has been an increase in the number of virtual internships with firms of all sizes, from small businesses and startups to larger companies. While many of these positions are unpaid you have flexible work hours, no commute time, and this allows you to better manage your time while completing your classwork.

4. Internship Databases
There are several databases you can search for possible opportunities, including:
Internships.com – you can search by degree major or industry.
Monster.com College – registered users can search for current openings.
Lauren Berger, founder and owner of Internqueen.com, has a page with Internship Listings.
CareerBuilder Internships – this website provides a list of current internship opportunities.
CampusCareerCenter – this resource provides students and graduates with current internship opportunities.

An internship may not be the best fit for students who are already working and have significant career experience. However, for students who need additional skills to give them a competitive advantage in a challenging job market, an internship – paid or unpaid – may offer tangible benefits (skills) and intangible benefits (industry-related connections and leads). Start with a strategy or plan, analyze your potential strengths and areas of development, and then look for opportunities that will help increase your marketability.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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