Summer dilemma: Get the experience - or the cash?

No lounging in the lifeguard's chair or busing restaurant tables. When Harvard sophomore Amy Heinzerling begins her summer job this month, she'll be at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, trying to protect natural resources - and working for no pay.

The unpaid internship will probably offer valuable experience for Ms. Heinzerling, an environmental studies major. But as the school year ends and students go out to develop real-world skills of building a career and making money during the summer, many face a perennial dilemma: Should they go for the cash offered by a traditional summer job or the career experience of a poorly paid or volunteer internship?

The answer depends on individual circumstances, experts say. But it's telling that more and more students are forgoing the money altogether to move ahead academically.

So should teens focus on internships? A lot hinges on where students are on the educational ladder. "When you are in high school up through your sophomore year in college, you want a diversity of jobs on your résumé," says Shawn Boyer, cofounder of SnagAJob.com, an online job site for part-time and hourly work. "Early on, internships aren't important. But when you are a junior or senior in college, you need experience in the field."

Of course, there's no strict division between a summer job and an internship. "What is a summer job for one student is an internship for another," says Steven Rothberg, president of the job-hunting website, CollegeRecruiter.com. "We encourage employers to refer to them as internships, because they will have more success hiring a better qualified candidate. Students are more apt to accept a position if it's called an internship than if it's called a summer job. It's just sexier."

Many students seem to agree.

"By the summer after the junior year, just about everyone is looking for an internship," says Dan Lynch, an economics major at Northwestern University with two internships under his belt. "I've found that doing internships helps build your résumé and helps you start off a conversation when you go into an interview for a full-time position."

Many career counselors concur, citing the skills, connections, and practical field knowledge gained through an internship. But good internships with prestigious firms often go to top students. Other internships may sound promising, only to turn into a stint of unpaid or poorly paid tasks that are of little value to the student.

Mr. Boyer warns that listing such experiences on a résumé, may result in embarrassment during a job interview. "You want to make sure that if you're putting it on - so it will look great in subsequent interviews - that you're actually able to tell them that you did something substantive while you worked at that company," he suggests. "If you made copies and ran errands, it may not look nearly as impressive as you'd initially hoped it would."

One consolation: Two-thirds of student interns do get paid, according to a survey by career publisher Vault Inc., with income ranging from $10 an hour to $13,000 for the summer.

Still, working summers is less popular with young people than in recent decades. For example: A smaller share of youths ages 16 to 24 worked last July than at any time since 1966, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One reason: an increased focus on academics. A decade ago, 1 in 6 youths (ages 16 to 24) were enrolled in school in July, the BLS found. By last year, nearly 1 in 3 were enrolled.

Even among those who do work, the motivation is slowly shifting toward academics. This summer more teens will be working to save for college than to make extra spending money, according to a Junior Achievement survey of 1,155 teens. This marks the first time in the six years of the survey that college savings were No. 1.

To find the right position, be careful and ask lots of questions.

"When you are looking into an internship, be very inquisitive as to what your actual duties are going to entail," suggests Boyer. "If it ends up where you're just going to push paper or make copies or be a gofer, you're much better off going to work in a retail position or in a restaurant, where you're actually going to be doing things of substance."

These jobs can teach valuable lessons, too, such as the importance of learning to get along with all types of people, customers, and co-workers.

Even a disappointing internship has its merits, says Peg Hendershot, director of the career counseling service Career Vision, in Glen Ellyn, Ill. "You may end up doing grunt work, but you get to see the environment and see if it's what you're going to want."

Ultimately, the right summer job needs to fit a student's career path. For example, if someone is studying to be an investment banker, working in a mailroom is not an internship, says Mr. Rothberg. "They might call it an internship, but it's really a job because your career path is not to work in a mailroom."

Students who need the money that a summer job provides can turn it into a career advantage, Boyer says. Many workers in corporate offices initially started out by working at a summer or hourly job with the company and were later hired for full-time work in their field. "It's like you get into a club when you work for one of these organizations," he says, adding that if you work hard, you'll probably receive a job offer when you graduate.

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