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Internships: Free labor or a career investment? - On Careers

By Terry Pile

Most graduates of higher education and worker retraining programs enter the job market with the appropriate degrees and certifications, but little, if any, real work experience. Today's employers are looking for both. How do you avoid the catch-22 of not being able to get a job because you don't have experience and not getting experience because no one will give you a job? An internship may be the jumpstart you need to get your career in motion.

An internship is a short-term assignment (generally three to six months) in an organization related to your desired career goals. Some interns receive financial compensation for their work; most do not. Some organizations require the intern earn credit through an affiliation with an educational program.

No matter how the internship is structured, numerous benefits to the employer and the intern result. For the employer, interns fill an immediate need for workers, especially for short-term projects. Interns bring energy and fresh way of thinking. For the intern, it is an opportunity to get work experience in his/her chosen field. It also provides a way to create a work history and establish a network for the future.

Below, three Mercer Island students describe their internships. Their motivation for participating in an internship and their outcomes are quite different.

Marcus Wandell

Typically, students wait until their senior year to participate in an internship, but Marcus Wandell, a junior at the University of Washington, pursued one after his freshman year.

``I was at that point in college where I needed to figure out what to major in,'' said Wandell. ``I was leaning toward a degree in international business with a minor in Spanish. I stumbled across the Washington State Office of Trade and Development, applied for an internship and was accepted.''

Wandell spent his summer doing research and compiling data on global Internet technology companies and Latin American companies doing business in Washington.

``I used this internship to help me determine if I wanted to pursue something involving international issues,'' he said. ``It assured me that I did.''

Sokie Chhim

Sokie Chhim is currently attending South Seattle Community College and working part-time at the south-end Bank of America. Her internship with an engineering firm was useful in helping her redirect her career.

Chhim explained: ``Math and science were my strongest subjects. I figured a career in engineering would allow me to use these skills, be financially secure and enable me to help rebuild my native country, Cambodia. From my internship, I found I needed more social interaction and hands-on work than a career in engineering would offer.''

Chhim is now planning to pursue a nursing degree from the University of Washington. She hopes to join the Peace Corps. where she can put her nursing skills to good use.

Doug Stock

It is rare for students to work an internship prior to college, but in Doug Stock's case, it was a requirement. In order to study at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Stock had to fulfill a six-month internship working in a professional kitchen.

Stock signed on with Tom Douglas Restaurants. He spent part of his internship in the catering department at the Paramount Theatre. He worked backstage, serving the performers and ``in front of the house'' preparing refreshments and serving theater- goers at performances. He also spent time preparing desserts and salads at the Dahlia Lounge. Stock recently started his first semester at the Culinary Institute.

His father reports: ``Doug is working much harder than he imagined, but his internship provided the experience and recommendations he needed ? and he is loving it.''

If you are considering a summer internship, now is the time to start looking. Tap into your network of family and friends to find out who they know. Explore company Web sites for intern opportunities or approach them directly with an internship proposal. Check with the career center at your school for internship possibilities.

The following Web sites also provide internship postings:

Whether you are a recent college graduate or making a career change, working an internship -- even without compensation -- will be a tremendous asset when you step out to look for a job.

Terry Pile is president of Career Advisors providing career counseling, career development and outplacement services to individuals and small businesses. She specializes in helping people find satisfying employment. She can be contacted at terryp@careeradvisorsonline.com

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