Students increasingly find internships pave way to employment

Bloomberg NewsSeptember 28, 2013 

— Annelise Madison arrived on the campus of Washington and Lee University in 2010 looking for the best way to leverage studies in history and political science into post-college plans. The first stop on that path was an early internship, followed by more.

Now a senior at the Lexington, Va., liberal arts college, Madison has completed three internships, from researching a book on an early U.S. president to teaching in Ghana. The most recent was at the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution in Orange, which offered her a staff position after she finishes school in May.

“People are really utilizing their summers to gain experience,” said Madison, 21, whose faculty adviser helped her find internships she was interested in. “Not only do they have more options in terms of people that will hire them, but they also know more what they want to do.”

Internships have transitioned into a 10-week litmus test for a full-time job, with employers flocking to America’s college campuses ever earlier to scoop top talent. Demand for such positions has soared as students, haunted by memories of the recession and the rising cost of college, recognize the potential payoff.

“There’s a race for the top students, and once it gets started, it perpetuates itself,” said Joanne Murray, executive director of the Center for Work and Service at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “Students absolutely understand how valuable internships are.”

Some 63 percent of 2013’s graduating seniors have participated in internships or cooperative-education programs while pursuing a bachelor’s degree, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That’s the highest since the Bethlehem, Penn.-based association began tracking the data six years ago.

The increased interest is fueled mostly by the heightened stakes, Murray said. Students can’t afford to miss out on such experiences, as an improving economy allows companies to funnel interns into full-time positions.

If the economic recovery continues, 10.7 million new jobs for college graduates will be created alongside 8.7 million openings to replace retiring baby boomers in the next decade, according to the center.

“Seeing relatives, friends, neighbors, whoever had been affected by the recession, it hits home” that internships are critical to build a resume, said Tim Stiles, an associate director of University Career Services at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We’re seeing a lot more students come in as first-years already aware of what an internship is.”

Fall recruitment at UNC-Chapel Hill starts around the fourth week of school for industries such as banking and consulting, Stiles said. Many employers conduct interviews for internships and full-time jobs in the same visit, he said. The process would start even earlier if the school allowed it.

“Employers would be here first day of fall semester if they could,” said Stiles, who has worked at UNC for 13 years. “They’re literally climbing over each other to get here.”

Because that kind of environment can put pressure on students, UNC’s career center is working to better prepare undergraduates. Each first-year student meets with a career-services officer during orientation, Stiles said.

“They really are facing a much different reality than even my generation, and we want to prepare them mentally for that,” he said. “It can be daunting, but it’s manageable.”

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