Landing internships is one tough job

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Jennifer Berg is a full-time student at the University of Minnesota. On top of her schooling, she works as a waitress and bartender at two Twin Cities restaurants, logging up to 40 hours a week to help pay for school. She goes straight from class to her jobs, which usually go to 11 p.m., and has a pile of homework to tackle when she gets home.

“Sometimes I go for 16 hours straight and haven’t even touched my homework,” says Berg. “It can definitely wear on you after a while.”

But even with all that work, is she doing what she needs to get a good job when she graduates? Although Berg maintains a high GPA and is involved in extracurricular school activities, she doesn’t have any “real” work experience to speak of. She hasn’t racked up time as an intern in a workplace that’s like the one she would like to find herself in, once she graduates.

In today’s job market, internships really matter.

*Interest Surges*
According to Monster.com, the nation’s leading job search engine, 85 percent of companies use internships and similar experiential education programs to recruit for their full-time workforces.

As a result, students around the country are focusing on getting internships as never before. Kerry Willigan the internship director at Georgetown University’s Career Center, says the number of students interested in gaining pre-professional experience before graduation has surged in recent years.

Increasingly, having only one internship on the resume isn’t enough. Many employers today expect applicants to have two or three under their belt before they apply for a job.

That puts students like Berg, who are working to support themselves and pay tuition, in a tough spot, because most internships are either unpaid or paid on a minimal stipend. The few that do offer adequate compensation are the most competitive and hardest to get.

*Paid vs. Unpaid*
“If I thought it was possible for me to pay for school while working at an internship, I would do it in a second,” Berg says. “It scares me to get out into the working world knowing I will be up against people who didn’t have to pay for college or were supported by their parents and able to take several internships or unpaid jobs.”

Berg’s worries are not unfounded. Peter Vogt, a career coach for Monster.com, writes on the web site that “employers overwhelmingly point to internship experience as the most important factor they consider in hiring new college graduates for full-time positions.”

A quick search of InternPost.com, a common resource for students seeking internship information, reveals that nearly half of the internship opportunities are currently available are unpaid. Others pay, but not in money, offering company products or meals instead.

When hiring an intern, the company agrees to invest time and money to train the student in the ways of their business. Companies argue that while such training may be invaluable to the intern, the company often loses the value of its investment when the student returns to school in the fall.

*Rising Demand*
Kelly Biondich, a student at William Mitchell Law School in St. Paul, says the number of paid internships has trended downward over the past seven years.

“The number of full-time paid internships often fluctuates with the economy,” she said. “I have been told by several companies that they would reintroduce a paid internship once their business picks up.” That said, the crux of the problem is the fact that while the supply of well-compensated internships goes down, the demand continues to rise.

Even those students who can afford to apply for internships feel the pressure to build their resumes. Cassie Johnson, also a student at the University of Minnesota, says she feels pressured to get internships every day.

“Everyone either has one or they are looking for one,” She says. “It puts a lot of pressure on us to interview while juggling our work load. There are even well-advertised internship fairs that we can go to help us find the ‘perfect’ position.”

*An End to Bartending?*
Whatever the benefits of gaining “real” work experience in college, the difficult reality remains the same. Those who don’t have the financial means or resources to support themselves in a low-paying internship, will have a harder time finding a full-time position after school.

For Berg this may mean many more months of bartending.

“I just hope that people will be able to see that I was able to pull my weight in school while working two jobs,” she says. “Although I don’t have any fancy internship positions on my resume, things have never been handed to me and as a result I have a strong work ethic and a desire to succeed.”

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