Eileen Kern

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Internships & Summer Work Experiences

Although internships are a fantastic way to begin a relationship with an organization, job seekers (and employers, for that matter!) need to approach the world of internships with open eyes as to some of the benefits–and risks–associated with internship programs in the modern world.

iCIMS Hire Expectations Institute proprietary research, as presented by my colleague Holly DeMuro in an article titled “Getting the Best Internships to Support Your Career,” illustrates one key fact that college students and entry-level professionals may want to know about internships:

On average, more than 6% of a company’s “new hires” were already working with the company in an alternate capacity before they were hired full time. This means that an internship has a huge potential for landing you a job there in the future.

And, although want-to-be interns might not know the actual percentage of intern-to-full-time conversion overall or for their particular “employer,” many individuals certainly approach internships or contract work with an organization hoping that the organization may consider them for a full-time position down the road. This helps explain another one of the Hire Expectations Institute’s findings from their proprietary research:

In 2013, for example, the word “intern” was THE most frequently searched term on companies’ career pages and the term “internship” was the fourth most frequently searched term. Obviously, that tells us that there are a lot of people looking for internships!

Although I am extremely passionate about the resources the Hire Expectations Institute makes available to job seekers and employers, I came into Starbucks this afternoon planning to write about literature or poetry. What has me thinking about internships on a Saturday when I could be contemplating books instead?

One of my friends posted a link to the New York Times Parenting Blog post, “The Camp Counselor vs. the Intern,” in which a concerned parent publicly explores his daughter’s desire to continue serving as a camp counselor rather than take a professional internship.

Like it or not, a summer internship — indeed, more than one — has become de rigueur for a college student. That is a big reason why her camp, like others, has had an increasingly difficult time retaining experienced counselors. Whatever she wants to do upon graduation — right now, the uncomfortably tentative plan is to make documentary films — I insisted that those reviewing my daughter’s work experience will be decidedly unimpressed with “Camp Counselor, 2009-2012.”

I’m not worried about this man’s daughter, and here’s why: She knows the value in what she is doing, which makes me suspect that she’ll be able to pitch the value in her resume or cover letter to her next potential employer:

“What I do there matters,” she insisted. In several conversations, she told us about helping a camper cope with her mother’s debilitating depression and comforting others whose parents were fighting or separating, about aiding 11- and 12-year-olds who were coming to terms with their sexuality, battling anorexia, confronting body fear. She talked about the many hours devoted to water-skiing lessons, about instilling the confidence needed by awkward, gawky, painfully self-conscious 8- and 9-year-olds to stay prone in the water, hold on to the rope, then rise up and stay on their feet as the boat pulled away. “What’s more important than that?” she asked.

Now, I think (paid) internships are great. (I think unpaid internships put employers at serious risk under minimum wage laws and that employers should be VERY cautious about creating unpaid internship programs to minimize risk.) Since the economic recovery, some of my friends have been part of really wonderful internship programs: they’ve been paid decent wages, given the training they need to be prepared for a full-time job in their field, and ultimately were brought on full-time at the employer who provided their internship.

I also think other professional experience is great, and that any employer who doesn’t “get” why this college student wanted to make a meaningful difference with her summer experience won’t be a good fit for her. I do appreciate that, in recognition of the student’s ultimate professional goal, her father asks her to create a film while at camp (although his skepticism that being a counselor is a good choice is clear in his writing):

My wife and I wouldn’t have been able to stop her from returning to camp, but our approval was important to her, so eventually I gave in, with the proviso that she agree to make a documentary film about camping.

I have never been a camp counselor, but I was a Resident Assistant during college, and here are just some of the transferable skills I picked up during my experience:

  • Event Planning & Marketing: Not only did I need to work with available college & community resources and a fixed budget to put on events, I needed to figure out how to get my residents to attend. And, I personally wanted to do so without lying (e.g. calling something “mandatory” when it wasn’t). I had consistently high turnout to my events because I explained the reasons why it was in my residents’ interest to come out. I also designed my events so that students would have a reason to come out.
  • Team Building: Your college/camp housing is temporary, but it can still feel home-y. It might seem like a little thing, but I actually received a recognition for my bulletin boards. And when someone ruined most of my common room decorations in (what appeared to be) a soda-explosion disaster? I organized a dorm activity with snacks and craft supplies, and we started over together.
  • Conflict Resolution: Did someone leave their radio on–loud–and then leave for the night? While my residents were fabulous, I did find myself in a few situations where I put my training to the test, trying to resolve a situation in a way that all parties found reasonable.
  • Leadership & Communication Skills: I found myself at times needing to advocate for my residents–occasionally needing to propose changes to my supervisors in residence life. I also found myself at times needing to navigate some tricky situations (I’m in a room with a resident when she unwraps her birthday package from her grandma. In the package, Grandma sent a box of birthday candles. As a policy, candles in the dorm are fined at $500/wick because of the very real fire hazard lit candles present. What would you do?)
  • Prepared to Be on-Call 24/7: I’m a huge advocate of work-life balance, but, as any RA or camp counselor knows, you don’t get to pick when an emergency comes up. It might not be the greatest timing for you, but if someone really needs to talk and you’re the right person for the job, you know how to drop almost everything to help resolve the situation. Whether you’re helping motivate someone to finish a senior thesis or talking a homesick camper through the first couple of nights away from home, you’re not about to say “It’s past my bedtime” or “I need to get to the library”–you’re trained to listen and to draw from your knowledge of available resources to help in any way you can.

Now, for most young people today, the world doesn’t boil down to these two options and only these options. Some job seekers who can’t get hired as camp counselors may land excellent internships. Some young people will need to make alternate plans when all of their job applications fall through for a particular summer. Some will hold down multiple jobs or internships simultaneously. As far as I can see, here’s the trick:

  • Think about what you want (in the short term and long term) and position yourself so that you build the skills, experiences, and/or connections that will help you achieve that. (Check out my Career Mapping and Goal-Setting questionnaires for starting place.)
  • If you are faced with a decision and one choice better serves your life goals, always take that choice. If neither choice is obviously “better” for your end goal than the other, it doesn’t matter in the long run. Pick whichever you think you’ll enjoy more in the short term as you ramp up to serve your overarching goals.
  • Wherever you go, make friends and stay connected. Employee referrals are an enormous source of hire virtually anywhere. You never know when your former camp counselor friend will land a fantastic job himself, then remember you when a job in your field opens up. Someone who has seen you act intelligently under pressure in one situation may be proud to work with you in a future context, knowing that you are up to any challenge.

Any transferable skills to add to the list? Agree or disagree with these priorities? Leave a comment with your thoughts!