Internships Key to Landing First Job

Late last spring, our twenty-year-old son Miles excitedly told his mother and me that he had been accepted for a summer internship at Community Works Carolina, a non-profit financial institution in Greenville, South Carolina, where he majors in economics at Furman University.

How much would this internship pay, we asked. Well, that’s the bad part. It would pay nothing. Miles did cheerfully say, however, that Furman would provide student housing and a stipend for food. That was good to hear, although he would need to have a car.

So, early in June, Miles and I set out on a four-day road trip down to Greenville. We had a great time, stopping overnight with family in Chicago, with a rugby teammate in Cincinnati, and with cousins outside Atlanta. We saw the Reds and the Braves play to large crowds in their ballparks, and toured the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. At the end of our tour, I sampled a little bourbon, so Miles drove us clear down to the Tennessee state line.

When we arrived at the Furman apartment, his fraternity brother and roommate Jason told me that he, too, had an unpaid internship. The young man hopes to become a doctor, so it made sense for him to volunteer over the summer at a health clinic in a poor part of town. He thought that the internship would look good on his application to medical schools.

It turns out that both boys may well have made very wise choices for their future. “Educational research shows that participation in a high-impact practice such as an internship can be highly beneficial to students,” said Staci Heidtke, associate director of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s department of career services. At Eau Claire, “about 83% of students participate in at least one internship during their undergraduate studies,” said Heidtke, pointing out that the Wisconsin university system as a whole strongly encourages summer internships.

At the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, which graduates about 500 per class, the vast majority of students have summer internships. “It is the best form of experiential education that we can give a student,” said Mindy Deardurff, director of Carlson’s undergraduate business career center. Doing an internship is “good for both students and employers because it’s like a twelve-week-long interview process,” Deardurff added, with larger companies tending to pay the highest hourly wages and non-profit organizations tending to pay little or nothing.

The Travelers Companies, an international insurance conglomerate with more than 30,000 employees, views having summer interns “as a way to build our talent pool,” said Kirk Friedman, second vice-president for employee relations at the firm’s St. Paul regional headquarters. “It’s a very effective way to find future employees. We want to show students what the work world is like.”

Regardless of their academic major, more than 50% of students who have gone through the Travelers formal internship program get offers of full-time employment after graduation. “Our goal is to select the strongest interns for entry-level positions in our company,” Friedman said, pointing out that since the economic downturn recruiting efforts have become more intense than ever. “Internships prove work experience,” noted Friedman, “which is important for landing that first job.” My son Miles could not agree more.