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Summer Exposure

School's Out, Work's In--More Undergraduates Toil Away at Internships, Hoping for a Lucky Break


WASHINGTON — Alice Newton, a communications major who just finished her third year at American University, faced a tough choice when she mapped out her summer plans--head home to Martha's Vineyard to teach tennis and "hang out with nature," or get a career-oriented internship.

Newton decided to hang up her racket and get some experience in the work world.

"I still question it periodically," said Newton, 20, who is working in the research department of Powell-Tate, a public-relations and advertising firm in Washington. "But there comes a time when you have to think about your career. Academic experience only takes you so far. Hands-on experience supplements it quite nicely and gives you something books can't give you."

Newton is one of thousands of undergraduates who annually work as interns in the nation's capital--a subset of a growing number of students all over the country who are seeking internships to gain work experience. Internships always have been an integral part of college education, but with companies looking for better-trained employees, they have become almost a requisite of success.

A 1996 survey of 434 members of the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers, a professional association for human-resources professionals who hire college graduates, found that 70% of employers require new hires to have had internships or other job training. Work experience was second only to "major" on the list of factors used to screen students for interviews.

Sixty-one percent of the respondents said they offer summer internship programs and 98% of those said they use the programs to find permanent employees. On average, nearly half of summer interns were offered full-time positions.

Seventy-two percent of manufacturing companies offered internships, while 55% of service businesses and 35% of government departments had such programs.

Students such as Newton are taking advantage of the opportunities.

"I have a lot of older friends," said Newton, explaining why she sought a summer internship. "The ones that had internships have jobs and the ones that didn't struggle to make ends meet."

Corporations benefit from internships because it gives them a chance to put prospective employees in job situations and to see how they handle the work and fit into the corporate culture.

Interns also are inexpensive on the pay scale, and don't receive benefits. In fact, some companies try to cut costs by designating certain full-time positions as internships and using recent grads to fill the slots.

"The simple truth is that it's a great incubation period to test people out," said Barry Lawrence, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based Society of Human Resource Management, which represents 80,000 human-resource professionals. "And certainly companies benefit from not paying benefits and getting inexpensive labor."

Though the departments of Labor and Education, as well as many other associations, do not track the growing numbers of students holding internships and the corporations offering them, career counselors at colleges all over the country say the programs are proliferating.

"We are seeing increasing numbers of companies conducting on-grounds recruiting for interns," said Tom Fitch, assistant director of the Office of Career Planning and Placement's Experiential Programs at the University of Virginia. "The number of organizations requesting interns this year has jumped by nearly 50."

"Over the last year to year and a half," Fitch added, "students have been starting the process earlier. Some students have started looking as early as the first and second year."

Summer internships aren't just a resume-building burden. Collegians gain exposure to fields they want to explore, as well as opportunities to network and find mentors. Paid internships also help defray college costs.

But most internships are unpaid, and that can be a strain for students who already are struggling with college loans or other expenses. Some schools and companies provide housing, meals or other essentials, but often this is not enough for students, who rely on money from summer jobs to get them through the school year.

Career counselors say that no matter how insignificant an internship--or even a plain old summer job--may seem, students can apply the skills down the road.

"Employers love to see students who have experience in sales or customer service, for example," said Pat Masidonski, associate dean and director of the Weston Career Resources Center at the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. "We encourage students to turn what may seem like insignificant experience into positive examples of how they have worked successfully with people in all kinds of environments. Our goal is for students to say, 'I worked as a crew chief at McDonald's and was responsible for scheduling and managing a group of three employees.' Not, 'all I did was work at McDonald's.' "

For some, such as Catherine Moreno, internships can lead to better internships and, eventually, to graduate school or a permanent job.

Moreno, 19, just completed her junior year at Rice University in Houston. She is interning this summer for Washington D.C. Law Students in Court, which represents indigent clients in landlord-tenant disputes.

Moreno is one of a handful of undergraduates accepted into the program; she said that was partly because of the other three internships she has held, including one as a researcher and historical writer for the National Guard in Texas. Moreno hopes to parlay these experiences into a spot at a top-notch law school.

"It's a perfect way to get exposure to what you really want to do," Moreno said. "And real work with real lawyers is valuable. . . . You have to pay your dues. I want to go to Yale and I'm convinced that without these internships I'd have no chance to get in."

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