Summer internships shine in tight job market

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Just as it gets cold, it's time to start thinking about summer.

Employers are showing up at college campuses as early as fall, recruiting not just for full-time entry-level positions but coveted summer internships. And while an internship always enhances any resume, it has also become a serious gateway to receive a job offer post graduation.

"Many employers are looking to internship programs as a feeder to their hiring," said Marcia Harris, director of career services at the University of North Carolina. "So if they find someone who's sharp, that slot no longer exists when graduates go to search for jobs."

One reason that employers now are concentrating on internships is a so-called "war for talent."

In the next few years, Baby Boomers, born between the years 1946 and 1965, will begin to retire en masse, opening a spate of new positions for today's graduates. The need for replacements will be especially acute in certain industries such as energy, education, health care and government, which can't outsource its labor.

"You can't move a power plant to India," said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

So while major financial-services firms have long utilized the summer internship as a way to "test drive" students before hiring them, now companies such as utilities are doing the same.

And the pressure is on since the number of students studying computer science, accounting and engineering -- some of the most sought-after skills today -- has dwindled.

"A company asked me yesterday to see how many computer science majors we have and I was shocked at how few there were," said Darby Scism, who took over as director of the career development center at Loyola University Chicago four months ago.

Exelon Corp., an energy company based in Chicago, is one of those employers hankering for talented students. Over the past few years, Exelon has doubled the number of interns it welcomes from 40 to 80.

"We are trying to position ourselves as the employer of choice because when we compete for engineers, human resource talent and accountants, we're competing not just with other companies in our industry but other Fortune 500 companies," said S. Gary Snodgrass, chief human resources officer at Exelon.

All of this, of course, puts students in an advantageous spot.

"If you study accounting, employers are almost knocking on your door," said Scism.

Even so, university career advisers and employers alike say that regardless of the labor market, finding the right internship still requires effort. Here's what to do:

Start early

While the majority of employers don't start filling internships until January, companies in competitive industries, such as financial services, arrive on campus as early as September or October.

As a result, if you haven't submitted your resume to your university career center, do so now. Even if you have no desire to crunch numbers at a major accounting firm, you'll gain access to all internship postings.

"There's a United Nations internship we just learned about yesterday, and the deadline to apply is Nov. 10," said Harris of UNC. "But students who aren't registered with us won't hear about this great opportunity."

Plus, the earlier you visit the career center, the more time you have to get help with drafting a resume and identifying career interests.

Hone your search

The easiest way to find an internship is to go directly to the company's Web site.

If you don't have a specific list of companies, head to your school's career and internship fairs, many of which take place at the start of the year. Also, talk with professors, alumni and upperclassmen for their input.

Finally, look online. Many companies list internship opportunities on the Web, said Randall Hansen, founder and publisher of QuintCareers.com. He recommended the following sites: www.collegecentral.com, www.internjobs.com and www.internweb.com.

Keep perspective

If after doing your homework, you don't like your internship, don't panic. Though it's nice to walk away with a job, the real point is to gain experience, as well as explore a variety of work environments before committing to a full-time job.

Plus, said Exelon's Snodgrass, "We couldn't put all our eggs in one basket. And we never will."

E-mail Carolyn Bigda at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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