Interns find more revved-up roles

Firms still have youths fetch sandwiches, but many plug top prospects into key positions

The fall term at DePauw University began weeks ago, but junior Andy Bagley is 800 miles away from its Greencastle, Ind., campus, working at the American IronHorse Motorcycle Co. factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

A bad case of hooky? Actually, Mr. Bagley is working as a marketing intern at American IronHorse with the full support of DePauw, which practically demands that all of its 2,200 students go into the workforce during their college years to sample work life and prepare for the real world.

Experiential education – the term applied to internships, cooperative work, and fellowships – now appears to be the ticket to a career.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers' survey of job recruiters shows that their top selection method is now internships, beating out on-campus recruiting trips. And interns now make up 32 percent of new hires – double the rate of just five years ago.

Internships once were pretty much limited to students who planned careers in engineering, law, or teaching. They have steadily spread to other fields, though students were in many cases used as gophers to make coffee or run the photocopier.

But then employers saw the value of bringing on board someone to help, especially during the summer months when regular workers are on vacation.

"There's been a push over time to make [students] have more responsibilities," says Camille Luckenbaugh, of the colleges and employers group.

They've taken that notion to heart at Fairchild Publications, the Manhattan company behind magazines such as Jane, Details, and WWD. Its staff of 750 is complemented by 300 interns who check facts, edit copy, produce graphics, and assist with photo and fashion sessions. They've even helped design magazine covers. "Something they're not going to get from textbooks," says Rena Kokalari, who manages Fair-child's internship program.

Bagley, for instance, helped draft American IronHorse sales brochures, writing a revamped dealer application form. He also attended meetings with high-level executives, giving him a real dose of the work world.

"I sit in the same office as the vice president of marketing, who's in contact with the CEO," says Bagley of an experience that he believes will give him an edge over fellow graduates when they enter the workplace.

"What's going to separate you out [from the rest of the pack]?" asks Lynn Gaulin, who retired last year as director of the experiential learning office at the University of Rhode Island.

Internships give students a chance to explore the world, and explore different kinds of jobs. Bagley, for instance, previously pulled a stint at a bank in Ohio, where he worked on a credit-card marketing program.

"It's like a two-month job interview," says Barbara Cook, of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. The Fort Worth-based railroad formally evaluates interns who work for it every summer, and finds that a growing number of its new management trainees come from its summer job programs in everything from accounting to transportation.

Cook says BNSF also likes the intern program because making a career at a railroad may not have been the first notion to cross the mind of a freshly minted college graduate. Exposing students to the transportation industry via a summer job can show them that it actually has the makings of a high-tech career.

Thousands of other employers liberally use college interns. Walt Disney recruits them, for instance. DePauw has sent interns to work at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, at MSNBC, and on Wall Street. One student who worked with a communications company even helped plan the 2002 Super Bowl half-time program.

In Manhattan, nearly 100 students trek to RCA Records headquarters every year to tackle research on the Web, to work in finance, or to go nightclubbing to identify new talent. RCA's interns are unpaid, but spokeswoman Carrie Hand says each intern must receive credit for the experience from his or her school.

At the University of Chicago, about 100 students participate annually in its Metcalf Fellowship program. Many of these are paid positions, but many aren't, so the school raises funds to support students who choose to work at charities or other organizations that don't have the finances to pay for summer help.

There are a lot of unpaid internships in Washington, D.C., too, but that doesn't keep an estimated 50,000 young people from descending on the nation's capital every year to work for government agencies, lobbying and trade groups, and the like.

"The city runs [on] and relies on interns ... giving them a taste of the business field they've chosen," says Eugene Alpert, who heads the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Studies (www.wtc.edu), and the National Society for Experiential Education (www.nsee.org). His organizations arrange internships for 1,500 students annually.

Mr. Alpert says that during the past decade, internships have become part of students' culture and are the norm, not the exception. He sees them as an experience that students will remember for their entire lives, if for no other reason than the networking possibilities they can provide.

Not everyone finds internships useful. And some students find that once they begin an internship they've landed in a field where they really don't want to be. Ms. Gaulin says she once matched up a zoology student, destined for medical school, as an intern to a physician.

The student discovered that he didn't really want to become a medical doctor, but switched gears a bit to find a career in pharmaceutical sales.

From her perspective, Liz Hughes, an executive at job recruiter Robert Half International, says students get an immediate boost from an internship because they can list it on their résumé. And it shows a prospective employer that the student has real-life experience as well as an ability to juggle tasks, in this case studies with work.

"The more concrete work experience a college graduate has, the better," says Ms. Hughes.

And if an internship produces nothing else, she says, it will at least give a student a list of references that goes beyond professors.

The people often footing the bill for these out-of-school tryouts – parents – also seem accepting of them. According to Robert Bottoms, president of DePauw, test-driving a job underscores the ability of a liberal arts education to blossom into something practical.

"Parents are eager to see that a major in history might actually lead to a job," he says.

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