Internships: Bulldozing Roadblocks to Effective Career Services

by Bill Coplin

As a result of the publication of my book, 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College I have had the opportunity to attend conferences and work with career counselors in high schools, community colleges and colleges. I am amazed by your commitment and skill in the face of the roadblocks sometimes created by unfocused students, parents who see their children as trophies, administrators who see career services primarily as a marketing tool and, most of all, faculty members who think helping students develop themselves for a successful work life is not their job and possibly not even the job of the college.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying your situation is hopeless because, despite the barriers, you have REALITY AND TIME on your side. The reality is that the cost of higher education coupled with the complexity and ever-changing nature of the job market require that over the long run you will get more resources. As a result, your mission will be more central to the mission of your institution than it is today.

However, John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century said, “In the long run, we are all dead.” So what to do now?

My experience of more than 40 years teaching and advising at the college level, in addition to working closely with college career counselors at Syracuse University and elsewhere, leads me to suggest that the most powerful bulldozer to remove the roadblocks of fuzzy thinking and blind vested interest is the internship. I know this is not a revelation to the readers of this web magazine, but I hope to stimulate you to place it at the top of your priority list. Increased emphasis on internships will give you more leverage in many ways.

Five Benefits of Interning

First, students and parents increasingly see internships as key to career development. Ten years ago, one out of five first-year students had a good grasp of the value of internships. Today, three out of five first-year students I meet have internships on their minds, and the trend is up. The growing awareness of the importance of internships gives you an incentive to wave in front of students to get them into your office early and to take your services seriously. It also allows you to point out to administrators that a strong career-oriented internship program will attract today’s value conscious students while at the same time strengthening relations with corporations.

Second, internships are great for career development. I am sure you need no convincing on how getting and succeeding in internships will benefit career development. If all your seniors had two or three good internship experiences, your job would be much easier. With employers increasingly using internships to fill entry level hiring, more seniors would likely have jobs earlier.

Third, internships often carry academic credit and the larger the role you can play in giving academic credit, the more likely you will get students into serious professional training opportunities. My experience at both the community college and college levels suggests that career counseling services rarely have the opportunity to offer a course for academic credit. Careers Services at Syracuse University, working with my academic program, offered a one credit course for two years on a trial basis. Despite very positive student reaction, we could not get the curriculum committee to give the course permanent status. Career service offices that manage the internship function may be able to add training, evaluation and counseling opportunities for academic credit as a separate internship preparation course or as part of the internship itself.

Fourth, internships will link career services to service learning opportunities on campus, a growing and powerful trend on college campuses. First year students who are involved in community based activities through classes are closer to being ready for finding valuable internships. Mutual support will create a coalition that should enhance the resources of both as well as some shared activities.

Fifth, internships provide opportunities to link with alumni in two ways. The first is the possibility that alumni will help in mentoring students and in providing internships and jobs. The second is that alumni might be interested in donating money to internship programs, which means your center could be an asset to campus fund-raisers. Increasingly, colleges are providing scholarship funds to help support students who pursue internships.

Bulldoze the Roadblocks

Unfortunately, the college office providing internships is frequently not part of the office or offices providing career services. If that is the case for your institution, you need to develop a political strategy whereby you gain control of internship programs. The arguments outlined above could be helpful in that strategy. All change generates opposition, but as pressure mounts for higher education to cut costs, the consolidation of internship offices with career services will become a relatively easy cost-cutting action.

If your organization already has control of the internship program, you should look for opportunities to grow it through financial subsidies to students and by offering credit-bearing instruction as part of the program.

Don’t let the internship bulldozer sit idle. Get rolling today!

Bill Coplin is a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School and the College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse University, and author of "Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College" (Ten Speed Press, 2003). He can be reached through wdcoplin@syr.edu

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