The younger and less experienced you are, the harder it can be to find a job.
Even as the U.S. unemployment rate crept downward to 8.1 percent in April, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds remained at a stubbornly high 13.2 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
A college degree can help job seekers immensely, but that piece of paper alone may not be enough to get hired nowadays. Work experience is more important than ever -- and an internship may be the best way to get it.
"Employers want to test-drive their employees before making a formal commitment, and in this job market they're able to do that," says Carl Martellino, executive director of the career center at the University of Southern California.
In 2011, about 42 percent of new hires came through internship programs, according to a survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
"Employers are looking for evidence that the candidate can do the job; the internship offers that evidence," says Marilyn Mackes, the association's executive director.
"We consistently tell students internships are one of the most critical parts of planning for your career," Martellino says.
How internships pay off
An internship helped Mark Silverman go from University of Michigan MBA student to president of the Chicago-based Big Ten Network.
Having lived in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, Silverman was already interested in the entertainment industry. A school event in Michigan encouraged him to look for an internship, which he eventually landed in business development at NBC in New York.
"It was really a great experience," he says. "When it came time to graduate, I was really able to focus my efforts on landing a job in the entertainment industry."
After graduation, Silverman was hired as a financial analyst for The Walt Disney Co. where he played a role in the company's acquisition of another icon -- Miramax.
"In all these experiences, you take away things that you apply later on," he says.
When to start applying for internships
Martellino suggests students start looking for their first summer internship freshman year and get more specialized opportunities each year following. After sophomore year, he recommends students seek an internship in a field they think they might be interested in, and by the summer after junior year, students should try to land an internship at a company they think they'd want to work for following graduation.
While any internship is good to have under your belt, research shows paid internships can offer a wealth of knowledge you might not get as an unpaid intern.
Data collected by the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggest paid interns are more likely to get hired than noninterns and generally earn higher starting salaries. This is because paid interns generally spend more time doing actual work and gaining more real-world experience than unpaid interns, who can often get stuck with clerical tasks, says Mackes.
Internships as recruiting tools
Julia Betts, a corporate communications and investor relations manager, started her decade-long career with National Instruments as an intern.
She says the Austin, Texas, tech company's reputation as one of America's top workplaces initially drew her in.
Beyond getting her foot in the door, starting as an intern gave her the opportunity to try out a couple of different job functions and get to know the company before making a commitment. "Corporate culture is something that you absolutely cannot assess when you're interviewing for a job, but you can when you're an intern," she says.
For companies in competitive, high-growth sectors, internship programs can be especially important recruiting tools.
National Instruments tries hard to hire interns whenever it can, and 99designs, an online marketplace where graphic designers compete for work, is a company whose U.S. operation is staffed in large part by former interns. The Australian company opened a U.S. office in 2008 with one employee. That office has since grown to about 30 employees -- a third of whom were hired through internships.
Jason Aiken, 99designs' community director and one of its first U.S. employees, says that when the company opened and was unsure of its growing staffing needs, hiring interns and moving them into full-time positions proved to be the smartest way to staff up.
"I'm really looking for people who can add value over the long term," he says. "Hiring is hard, and I want to maximize my effort."
A key to finding a good intern is finding someone who is hungry, curious and passionate, Aiken says. When you can easily see 100 submissions for a paid internship, it's those traits that stand out.
Turning the internship into a job
Landing an internship can be easier than landing a job. But if you want to turn that internship into a job, be prepared to work hard.
Apart from this common-sense piece of advice, just how does someone stand out enough to get to stick around full-time?
At a very minimum, interns should be on time and dress and behave in a professional manner, says Suzanne Helbig, assistant director of the career center at the University of California, Berkeley.
UC Berkeley recommends interns set regular meetings with supervisors, find a mentor and listen carefully to instructions, and avoid calling in sick because "it will be noticed if you are not at work on important days."
Interns also should take on assignments without complaining, seek out additional opportunities to contribute to the workplace and produce high-quality work. "This is your chance to make a really great impression, and you can ruin that by doing things like being late or doing shoddy work," Helbig says.
There also are a few basic don'ts of internships. Helbig warns interns not to use Facebook at work unless it's part of the job, not to tweet corporate secrets or other proprietary information, and to avoid getting sucked into office politics. Interns also should try not to bring personal drama to the office.
"You want to be a person that people want to work with, so when they're thinking about full-time hiring, you rise to the top of the list," she says.
But in a competitive job market in which the Labor Department estimates there are nearly four people vying for every job opening, interns who want to get hired have to go beyond the basics.
"I'm looking for people who can deal with ambiguity and solve problems even when the situation may not initially be clear," says Betts, who now helps recruit marketing and communication interns.
She tends to offer jobs to interns who show they can take initiative, set priorities and can get projects done.
Making yourself more valuable
Enthusiasm and energy are no longer enough to set interns apart, says Jodi Glickman, a consultant and author of " Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It. The Secrets of Getting Ahead."
In this era of increasing workloads, interns must be proactive in coming up with their own projects, finding their own way and figuring out where they can have the greatest impact. "Take a couple of days to get a lay of the land, get an idea of projects people are working on and the priority tasks at hand, and give your boss a couple of options of how you might be able to help," she says.
Glickman recommends interns think about how to add value to a company, fill corporate voids and make themselves integral parts of workplace teams.
"Play to your strengths. If you're a great writer, offer to draft a memo or report. If you're naturally skilled as a graphic designer, offer to review the Power Point presentations," she says. "The key is figuring out how you can put your skills to use in an organization."
Martellino suggests interns who want to stay at their companies treat the experience like an extended interview, making sure to put their best foot forward every day.
The "internship is the new interview," he says. "It used to be that you only had to impress a potential employer for a few hours. Now, it's more like a few weeks."
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