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Why college students and employers pursue internships as a path to future employment

Posted May 11

As thousands of college seniors wrap up final exams this month and head out into the working world, the job picture looks relatively bright.

That is especially true for those with internship experience, employers and researchers say.

A spring survey for job search engine CareerBuilder found that 67 percent of employers plan to hire recent graduates this year. That was up from 65 percent a year earlier and marked the highest level since 2007.

Separate research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that nearly two-thirds of college students who finish a paid internship will get a job offer upon or even before graduation, while only about one-third of those without an internship to their credit are likely to have similar good fortune.

Brianna Rippin, a 20-year-old junior at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, is among the growing number of undergraduates recognizing early in their college careers that internship experience can complement their studies and give them an advantage in an increasingly competitive job market after graduation. Double majoring in economics and finance, Rippin started scouting out opportunities early in the school year before landing a prized gig this summer as a quantitative analyst intern at Progressive Insurance.

"I firmly believe that the completion of an internship is the No. 1 step an undergraduate student can take in order to obtain postgraduate success," Rippin said. The message she and other students get from future employers is that they are "really interested in your ability to apply knowledge in a real-world situation."

Indeed, employers say they increasingly view internships as prerequisites for many jobs. Many of them also view internships as an important way to make ties to top students they want to cultivate and potentially hire as full-time staffers after graduation.

"Firms like it because they can test out talent before they hire," said Kevin Jacques, a Baldwin Wallace professor who doubles as the school's finance chair.

'We want to make conversions'

Emily LeFevre, human resources director at Phillips Edison & Co., supports Jacques’ assertion.

She said Phillips Edison, which provides redevelopment, leasing and management services for grocery-anchored retail centers, largely gears its internship program toward "converting" students into postgrad hires. Phillips Edison, which has offices in multiple major markets across the U.S., including Salt Lake City and Cincinnati, regularly works with several universities, including the University of Utah and a host of schools in Ohio.

"We want to make conversions," LeFevre said, adding that such hires can hit the ground running and are more likely to shine with the company. "It's a huge part of our recruiting practice."

She emphasized that meaningful work experience along with a college degree is “almost an expectation." If graduates don't have that experience, she said, "it's a huge question mark because it's just so standard."

Danielle Brindisi, a 2014 University of Cincinnati grad and a former Phillips Edison intern, said her own experience mirrors LeFevre's assessment.

The 24-year-old political science major said a majority of the degree programs at her college required an internship before graduation and the school provided information and guidance early on. She started laying the foundation for an internship her freshman year. By her junior year, Brindisi was interning at Phillips Edison, with an emphasis on professional experience and the hope of opening the door for a full-time job.

Brindisi started out in the property management group, reviewing lease language for clients, and then later worked in the HR department. She found her niche in HR and eventually won a job there upon graduation. Now she has come full circle: She runs Phillips Edison's internship program.

Her experience sums up what many employers say they want to see develop from internships. "It's a great way to start reaching out to people at a young age," Brindisi said, "a great way to identify and connect with talent."

Dylan Schweitzer, Enterprise Holdings' corporate talent acquisition manager, said the car rental giant shares that view. Enterprise runs a national internship program, hiring some 2,000 per year, aiming to make connections with possible future hires.

"It's a very big part of our recruiting program," he said.

An upward trend

Among 2015 bachelor's degree graduates, 65 percent took part in an internship or cooperative education assignment, according to a nationwide survey of college students by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

That marked the highest level since NACE started keeping tabs in 2007.

Separate research from NACE shows that the so-called conversion rate of interns to full-time employees topped 50 percent a year ago, up from about 35 percent a decade earlier.

NACE research associate Kenneth Tsang said conversion is likely to continue to be a primary focus for employers. NACE members increasingly report that they want new hires to have on-the-job experience, and many say they view internships as a way to ensure that experience is meaningful to their companies.

"It's no longer just something nice to have," Tsang said of internships. "It's almost a minimum requirement" to get hired.

He added that paid internships are not only coveted by students for obvious reasons, but they also are widely viewed by employers as far more valuable credentials for job applicants. The thinking, he said, is that the best students migrate to paid opportunities.

The 2015 NACE survey found that more than 60 percent of interns/co-ops were paid. Nearly 78 percent of private, for-profit companies paid their interns. NACE research shows the average intern earned $17.20 per hour in 2015, Tsang said.

Tsang summed up the message college students increasingly are taking to heart: "An internship has to be a top priority."

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