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Working it: Demystifying the world of college internships

Photo: Art by James Heimer, License: N/A

Art by James Heimer

Photo: , License: N/A

The college internship: It's a rite of passage for students, one so critical to the college experience that if you Google the word "internship," more than 91.7 million results overtake the computer screen. It used to be that prospective interns had to scrape up on-the-job experience with the help of advisers and on-campus internship offices that worked with local companies to help ambitious students find businesses willing to put them to work. These days, though, Googlers can search repetitive internship-listing websites, which are really just job boards specializing in internship placements. Internships.com, for instance, identifies itself as "the world's largest internship marketplace, [and] boasts 59,629 internship positions from 24,156 companies located in 9,171 cities across all 50 states."

Likewise, some businesses have come to rely on college interns to help fill out their staffs – and colleges know it. Some schools (including the University of Central Florida) hold internship fairs where businesses pay to meet students who want experiential learning. Over the past several years, the number of students participating in internships has sky-rocketed. According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than a million four-year college students work as interns each year. If you add high schoolers, community college students, post-grads and even mid-career adults who participate in internships, as many as two million interns can be counted as part of the U.S. workforce, according to the institute.

And there's a good reason internships have become so popular: According to a study released in July by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 61 percent of 2012 graduates with a paid internship under their belts received at least one job offer from the company they interned at after they graduated. Only 36 percent of graduates without internships while in school had offers.

Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Generation Y research and management consulting company in Boston, says internships are not what they were 10 years ago, when people used internships as a direct funnel to employment – students completed an internship and the company hired them. These days, though an internship might help a student's job prospects, mmost don't get hired when they finish interning.

In May, Millennial Branding published its Student Employment Gap study, which discovered that 91 percent of companies expect job seekers to have one or two internships on their résumé, but only half of those companies have hired interns within the past six months.

"It's a huge problem because [students] think a degree is going to get them a job. They think an internship is going to get them a job," Schawbel says. "Then employers are requiring these internships, but they're not hiring their interns. It's a huge dilemma; that's why we called it the student unemployment gap."

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