Finding an internship: catch 22
With the job market so dire, and jobs so scarce, it will help any college grad to be able to tell a potential employer that he or she has had an internship in their field. But, the "catch 22" is that while internships never have been more important, they also are harder to get than ever.
"The job market will continue to be tough for college students graduating next spring. Chances are good that it will still be tough in four years for those entering their freshman year this fall. Getting on-the-job experience through internships will be critical. Unfortunately, the number of internships nationwide has not returned to pre-recession levels and competition for those spots are fierce," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.
The latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the job market is beginning to make a comeback. While the government has shed tens of thousands of temporary Census workers over the last couple of months, payrolls in the private sector have seen seven consecutive months of net gains, adding a total of 630,000 new jobs to the economy.
While the employment statistics are trending in a positive direction, it could take years for the job market to fully recover. Following the relatively mild 2001 recession, it took nearly four years for the unemployment rate to fall below 5.0 percent and it never achieved its pre-recession level of 4.2 percent.
"Each new class of spring graduates should see some improvement in the job market, but it will remain extremely competitive for several years. In this environment it becomes necessary to set yourself apart from fellow classmates, not to mention their job-search competitors with a few years of experience. Internships are vital in this respect," said Challenger.
A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that 42.3 percent of graduating seniors with internship experience received at least one job offer when applying for post-college employment. Meanwhile, only 30.7 percent of seniors without internship experience who applied for a job received an offer.
"As far as employers are concerned, what you learn in the classroom is not nearly as important as what you can learn on the job. When an employer sees an internship on an applicant's resume, it immediately signals that this person has experience working in a professional environment with deadlines, objectives, expectations and with people of varying personalities, skill sets and at different levels of an organization," said Challenger.
As the overall job market continues to improve, the internship market should also see gains. In fact, it already has. According to the NACE internship survey, employers plan to increase the number of internships by 2.9 percent in 2010. This follows a bleak 2009 internship market, which shrank by 20 percent.
"Unfortunately, the increase in internships may not be much help for underclassmen and seniors seeking positions during the fall or spring semester. Unlike a decade ago, when internships were reserved almost exclusively for those still in school, today's college interns are competing with candidates who recently graduated. And, in this economy, they are just as likely to compete with professionals who graduated 10 years ago," noted Challenger.
In a survey of 2,534 employers by online job-search site CareerBuilder.com, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) said they are seeing seasoned veterans, those with more than 10 years of experience as well as mature workers, age 50 and older, apply for internships.
"College internship seekers can greatly improve their odds of success by going through their school's career center or finding opportunities through professors. Many colleges and universities maintain close relationships with companies in their communities, so these will be natural targets for openings," Challenger advised.
"Students seeking internships also should not hesitate to approach companies that are not officially seeking interns. Many smaller firms are so focused on day-to-day operations that establishing internship programs fall off the radar. However, if approached by an enthusiastic student about creating an internship position, many will acquiesce," he added.
"Once an intern is on the job, it is critical to treat each day like a job interview. Internships frequently lead to full-time positions following graduation, but you must set yourself apart from your fellow interns. With the job market in recovery and employers slow to add new workers, it is critical that interns exceed expectations. Those who merely meet expectations probably will not get the full-time job offer," said Challenger.
"Meeting the right people during your internship is also critical. It is likely that the person supervising the interns is relatively low on the corporate totem pole. In fact, he or she may be only a year or two out of college. The intern with full-time job aspirations should make a daily effort to meet the managers and executives who make the hiring decisions. The higher up the executive you impress, the greater the odds that a permanent position will be found for you," he added.
"Students who do not receive an offer from the company where they interned can still benefit from the experience. Managers and executives in the company represent the beginning of your job-search network. Even if they cannot find a spot for you in their company, they may know executives in another company that may have openings."