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Internships: Why you need one and how they help your career


Internships: Why you need one and how they help your career

Education is the best path to a higher paying and personally fulfilling career. College classes and quality programs are essential steps to gaining the knowledge and skills you need to succeed. For many students, getting a complete education also involves taking advantage of programs like internships and apprenticeships. These special “jobs” are part of a long tradition of trading time for valuable experience or even a full-time position after graduation. Thousands of internships still exist for this very purpose, and students who want to get an edge in the workplace often take advantage of them while in school.

The Latest Numbers

The latest data show internships are a good way to increase your chances of employment right out of college.  Companies are hiring 62 percent of eligible interns for full-time jobs, a 13-year high, according to a recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And internships are becoming more popular. About 73 percent of companies are now offering internships, up significantly since the pre-recession market of 2006. Also, about 85 percent of students are working an internship during their college career.  More importantly for students, the conversion rate is at a 13-year high with employers reporting they’re converting 62 percent of eligible interns into full-time hires.

Between Textbooks and Real Life

College is designed to help students prepare for their careers, whether it’s acquiring technical knowledge in class or honing social skills through campus organizations. Yet, even with the best college programs, moving from classroom to workplace can still be a jarring experience. Internships can serve as valuable transitional experiences that help students understand work cultures, gain practical experience, and get to know themselves.

One person who understands the power of internships is Daniel Maloney, CEO of Tailwind. Maloney spent many a summer learning value on the job skills as an intern. Aside from hopefully scoring a job, he believes internships give students unique insights into their likes and dislikes.  

“First, you learn what you are or are not interested in,” Maloney says. “I had three summer internships during college, all in the finance industry. I learned a ton from those experiences — including that I did not want to go into finance right out of school.”

Everyone knows college isn’t cheap. Internships can save students money by helping them decide whether their declared major is really for them. There’s no sense in spending time and money on a degree you’ll never use because you suddenly found out it wasn’t for you. Financially speaking, it’s better to change career paths sooner rather than later.

“Second,” Maloney continues, “internships expose you to what the working world is like — to the cultures and rhythms of specific companies. Picking the right company for you could make a huge difference in your early career trajectory.”

Increasingly, companies are looking to hire workers who are a good “culture fit.” Soft skills like communication, creativity and stewardship are increasingly important to the selection process and can aid upward mobility within a company.

Businesses like to see internships on your resume because they signal you have practical job experience and you know what you’re getting into. Employers also know they mean you’re likely to stay around awhile, especially if you’re working for the company where you interned. Higher retention rates save companies money on time and training. All of these factors make you an attractive candidate.

woman reading the newspaper

Finding a good program

Many businesses and organizations offer internships, but not all are created equal. A little upfront research on the company can pay dividends down the road for students.

An easy way to learn more about a specific intern position is to find someone who’s already experienced it. Pick their brains about the work hours, whether it was paid, what training they received and their overall impression of the program.

If you don’t have anyone available, you can always ask the company’s representative running the program. Alex Allen, regional sales collegiate recruiter at Paycom, believes finding the right internship program means answering these five critical questions:

  1. What are the outcomes of the internship?
  2. How will my performance be measured?
  3. What type of training programs does the company have in place?
  4. Does the company invest in its employees and promote lifetime learning?
  5. What is the placement ratio of hiring after interning?

Allen’s questions are a great way to gauge the program and what’s expected of you. You need to get a feel of the company’s culture. If it doesn’t promote lifelong learning, it may turn out to be an environment that doesn’t adequately foster your professional growth.

student sitting in a chair

Getting an internship

Internship applications usually require you to write a cover letter, build a resume, and complete an application. Even if you don’t ultimately get the position, you’ll have practiced the important steps of obtaining a job. Probably the skill you’ll get the most benefit from is learning to interview well.

Much of the advice for scoring a full-time job position also applies to an internship:

  • Research the company thoroughly before the interview.
  • Identify specific skills required.
  • Know the company’s mission statement, history, and executive team.

During the interview, you should take the opportunity to show your entrepreneurial spirit. Maloney suggests keeping the company’s needs as a focal point. Make it about them, not you.

“Ask them, ‘What’s the biggest problem I can help you solve during my internship?’ Then, clarify and dig into the details until you really understand their answer,” he says. “Focusing on where you can add value is a critical way to show that you care about making an impact.” 

Man mountain climbing

How to get an edge

Maloney is a strong believer in completely immersing yourself in an internship after you’ve gotten it. The point is to show the company you’re outgoing, inquisitive, and passionate. If you work with other interns at the same company, you may be in competition for the same job. Here’s a few of Maloney’s tips to help you stand out from the pack:

  • Read about the company and its industry in your spare time.
  • Get coffee or lunch with everyone at the company who's willing to sit down with you.
  • Ask questions, raise ideas, and make yourself available for any task, big or small.

Ironically, one thing an internship can teach you is what you don’t know. You may discover you have a skills or knowledge gap. The experience could affect your graduation plan and future course choices. For example, if your intended industry demands skills with a particular type of software, you may want to supplement your graduation plan with a course on that software.

Cayla Lewis has overseen many internships as executive director of the Plaza District Association in Oklahoma City. She knows the impact the experiences can have on student skills. “A lot of organizations and companies have multiple systems in place or use valuable programs and other resources that add to someone's skill set,” she explains. “Students should work on mastering these because they will give an intern an edge when job searching.”

Maloney agrees: “The more learning you cram into your limited time as an intern the better you'll be at gauging the right next step for you after school.”

man in a maze

Common Challenges

One thing you may struggle with at a new internship is confidence. It’s understandable. New situations, unknown variables and unfamiliar faces tend to chip away at our assurance and tenacity.

“Workplace confidence is one of the biggest challenges,” Maloney explains. “All interns and new grads face it early in their career. They’re often not sure how to handle certain situations.”

The Tailwind CEO lists several questions interns often have about their new positions:

  • “I finished my task, but will I be interrupting if I ask for a new one?”
  • “I see something wrong. Should I speak up, or will that upset people?”
  • “I want to get to know people, but how do I approach them and invite them to lunch?”

It’s important to continually remind yourself that an internship is still a “student” position. Sure, you’re working in a real world setting, but your program managers understand (or should) that you’re there, first and foremost, to learn.

If you see something wrong, it would be in your best interests to point it out to your supervisor. You can do this discretely, rather than accusatory. Simply ask in an inquiring tone: “Hey, I saw X happening the other day and was wondering what the function of X was.” Remember, you’ve got an excuse for not knowing; you’re learning. Even if what you point out proves not to be wrong after all, at least you’re showing your supervisors that you’re paying attention, critically observing the workplace. Chances are they’ll appreciate the extra eye.

Inviting others to lunch is a great way to network and get to know your fellow workers. There are thousands of ways to subtly drop a lunch invite. You can ask learn more from them over lunch sometime.

In short, dealing with your anxiety means putting yourself in uncomfortable positions until you’ve learn to deal with them.

Dealing effectively with anxiety can show a company your value as a potential employee. Internships are a great place to practice how to react to uncomfortable situations. “You need to push your personal boundaries of what may feel comfortable,” Maloney suggests. “Let people tell you, verbally or through subtle cues, if you go too far. This is what leaders expect of their team members. By demonstrating a proactive attitude, you'll set yourself apart from your classmates in a huge way.”

It’s also essential you have realistic expectations. Internships can sometimes feel lonely. The idea of “the intern” usually conjures images of Ryan from “The Office” — a poor schmuck carefully maneuvering the intricacies of office politics while hopelessly waiting for a full time position. Lewis admits the real world of internships can sometimes feel this way, but it shouldn’t be a source for despair.

“Let's be real: sometimes intern tasks are not fun,” Lewis says. “It’s sometimes hard for the employer to make the intern feel valuable, but ultimately there wouldn't be an intern position unless it was needed. Know that even the little tasks are helpful and make a difference. Just focus on adding tools to your toolbox.”

For some students, another challenge can be fitting in an internship with a full class load. Most programs understand the need to be flexible around a student’s schedule, but make sure you and the company have a clear understanding and realistic expectations of how many hours you’ll be able to devote to your work. It’s easy to overlook your limitations when you’re only seeing the end game.

children counting money

Paid vs. Unpaid

Most people agree internships and apprenticeships are meant to be a trade of labor for experience. However, there has been some debate recently about whether most, if not all, internships should be paid. In 2010 the Department of Labor released its Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which, among other things, helped define the term “employ” and suggested the criteria for determining whether an internship should be paid.

Currently, there seems to be some consensus among employers that the law requires them to pay all interns. However, there is still debate going on as to the outcome of such a policy.

“I believe it is important to do your best to pay any talent that is doing a service for you, interns included,” Lewis explains. “I know it is hard for a lot of smaller organizations, including nonprofits, to be able to do this, but I would encourage businesses, if at all possible, to offer some kind of stipend or incentive.”

However, employers like Maloney are reducing their internship offers because of the payment requirements.

“The truth is, most interns — even the great ones — get a lot more out of their internships than they contribute to the company. And that's OK. Everyone needs to learn first before they can add significant value. But now that we have to pay interns, it's often a better use of our budget and time to focus on full-time hires instead of interns.”

Regardless of how you feel about the issue, you need to factor paid vs. non-paid it into your decision. If you’re looking for a full-time internship, being paid might be something that’s important. For example, reducing your class load to part-time might affect your eligibility for loans and grants.

When it comes down to it, deciding whether you need payment depends on the company, the experience, and your individual situation. You wouldn’t want to give up a golden opportunity to work for a successful company just because of a lack of pay if you can survive without it. However, you also don’t want to go hungry for a mediocre experience that won’t benefit your career in the long run.

A foot about to stomp a pinterest symbol

Beware the Dangers of Social Media

Many employers now check an applicant’s LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media profiles as part of the evaluation process. The dangers of losing a chance at a job because of your social online presence are real; this also extends to internships. Allen relates the story of a college friend’s ill-fated internship:

“I once had a friend who was interning for one of the nation’s leading oil and gas companies. A specific department within the company was hosting an event. They were short-staffed, so they asked him to help by holding a sign that showed people where to park. He agreed. The day of the event, he posted this status on Facebook:

‘I feel like I’m a human billboard out here.’

“Twenty minutes later he was called into the office and informed he no longer had an internship. He was only 5 clock hours away from completing a 350 hour internship, and it was his last requirement to graduate!”

People in a circle on a beach holding their hands up

Networking Jackpot

Networking is simply creating personal and professional connections. It’s the art of identifying a symbiotic relationship between you and another professional — finding a way where you both benefit from one another’s expertise.

Conferences, trade organizations, and the like are all great places to network with people, but they’re usually short-lived experiences with minimal chance to impress. However, internships offer you an opportunity to establish long-lasting, working relationships with people in your industry.

Maloney recalls one of his internship connections that went on to have a profound impact on his career:

“A wonderful woman named Alison Parrin ran the analyst intern program at Citigroup Private Bank, where I interned the summer before my senior year. Everyone in the program loved Alison, and she became a true friend and mentor to us. We kept in touch following my internship, even after I declined the opportunity to join Citigroup after school.

“A few years later, I got an email from her sharing that she'd just joined a hot tech company named Google. As luck would have it, I was interviewing with Google at that time and faced a difficult decision as to whether I should join the company over other, safer options. Alison gave me some candid and amazing counsel and ultimately helped me realize that joining Google was the right move for me. That was a pivotal moment in my career, and I could have made the wrong decision if we hadn't kept in touch through the years.”

Campus Resources

The Center for Economic and Business Development is a great resource for SWOSU students who are looking for quality internships. Organizations like the CEBD help connect students with internship opportunities within the private sector, at companies like Bar-S Foods and SportChassis, LLC .

The CEBD also hires interns for its own program. Often, they’re students from a wide variety of disciplines, including accounting, marketing, engineering, graphic arts, grant writing, chemistry research projects, and safety-related areas.

The organization had a successful track record for post-intern job placement. “Over the last two years,” we have had three interns who were working at one of our companies be offered and accept full-time positions upon graduation,” states Max Pyron, Research Analyst for the CEBD.

Again, locking down an internship that’s flexible enough to work around your class schedule is a priority. “The biggest challenge is fitting in an internship with a full class load and the demands of that,” Pyron explains. “All of our employers have been great to work the interns around their schedules and to put their classwork first.”

Visit the CEBD or SWOSU’s Career Services today to find more information on internships. 

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