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Internships great for students seeking work and experience
Sunday, June 13, 2004

As a fresh college graduate, Megan Elias last summer faced a dilemma familiar to many new job seekers. Few positions were available in her dream field, special events planning, and they all required prior work experience.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Megan Elias, Animal Friends operations assistant, with Cody, a 4-month-old Labarador mix in the exercise area. Elias was an intern who later was hired full time at the shelter in the Strip District.
Click photo for larger image.
Some employers sought at least 10 years of past work -- an impossible requirement for a new graduate from Westminster College who was searching for her first full-time job.

It seemed an illogical predicament to the public relations major. "They wanted you to have the experience, but nobody will hire you to give you the experience," said Elias, now 23.

The closed circle opened when she came across an Internet posting for an internship with the special events coordinator at the Animal Friends Inc. shelter in the Strip District. "That's the experience I need," she thought.

Indeed, while the internship was unpaid, she took it and did well enough that she received a full-time job last fall as an assistant to the shelter's operations director. Her new job requires dealing with the public, the shelter's staff and the animals awaiting adoption.

"I'm happy," Elias said. "Internships are worth it, especially for someone who isn't sure of what they want to do. The best way to find out is to put those shoes on. It doesn't necessarily give you a full representation of a job, but it definitely gives you enough."

Participating in an internship or cooperative education program is one way students can give themselves a big edge in the job market, said Marilyn Mackes, the executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

"As a rule, employers look for job candidates who have the kind of work-related experience that students can gain through an internship or a co-op program," she said. "At the same time, many employers will look first to their own pool of interns or co-op students when they have regular, full-time openings."

Elias, for example, impressed her bosses when she arranged a "Bark'n Brew" social event at Station Square during her part-time internship. Elias "did everything from A to Z -- planning, follow-up, making contacts, doing the budget, doing the PR -- everything down to the nitty gritty of handling the dogs," recalled Animal Friends special events coordinator Jessica Eichner.

At Alcoa, interns are recruited from 28 universities with which it has partnerships. The Alcoa program targets students in information science, finance and accounting, and law, and hopes to use the internships to develop the interns into full-time employees.

The company gives students significant work experience as well as opportunities for social interaction that include summer activities sponsored by the internship center. It's a chance for Alcoa to check out the students and for the students to investigate Alcoa.

PNC Financial Services Group looks at summer internships "as a three-month interview -- test driving the corporation from the student's point of view and vice versa for the corporation," said Brian Rider, PNC's college relationship manager. "It's very good from a talent pool perspective to build your talent pipeline."

While PNC hired 43 interns this summer, up from 33 a year ago, employers nationally appear to cutting back a bit. An NACE survey found that employers expect to reduce hiring of interns by 1.8 percent this year and placements for cooperative education programs by 6.8 percent.

The stagnation could reflect a stronger full-time job market now that the economy is exhibiting some strength, but it comes as both high school and college students have faced tough times when they've looked for summer jobs over the last several years. The drop-off has been most severe for teenagers, according to an analysis by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

Teen summer employment tumbled from 45 percent in the summer of 2000 to 36.5 percent last summer -- the lowest rate since record keeping began in 1948. Using computer models, Northeastern predicted another dismal summer jobs outlook for June to August this year, though it holds out hope that spring's surge in payroll jobs could signal a turnaround.

Because jobs have been hard to come by until recently, teens have found themselves competing with older workers for seasonal jobs in amusement parks, retail outlets and other traditional summer venues.

A higher than usual number of college students were among the throng of applicants this spring for 495 seasonal jobs at Kennywood and its sister water park, Sandcastle, said personnel director Joseph Barron.

The parks collected a record 2,800 employment applications, up 400 from last year. "For us, it's probably the best it's been in 10 years," said Barron. "We can really be choosey."

Kennywood pays $5.85 an hour plus a bonus of 50 cents an hour for those students who stay on the job through Labor Day. While the bulk of the hiring is completed, the amusement park will fill vacancies as they occur through the season.

Jay Trower, a cooperative education teacher at Pittsburgh's Peabody High School, said he has noticed college students with early dismissals this year are grabbing food service jobs that he typically tries to arrange for his students.

"The college kids home on vacation are scooping up my kids' jobs," said Trower, who got his own first work experience as a photographer's assistant through a co-op program at Schenley High School. "And you have tons of displaced workers who are willing to take relatively low-paying jobs that usually go to students. It's a challenge."

Jim Brenner, a youth employment expert with CareerLink, the state's job service, said employment opportunities are down in part because of the demise a few years ago of federally funded summer jobs programs administered by the city and Allegheny County.

"It seems like there are less jobs available for young people," he said. "They're out there but it takes a lot of work to hunt them down."

With summer jobs tight, internships are getting more attention in Pittsburgh, thanks to work being done by organizations such as the Regional Internship Center of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a foundation-supported program that encourages employers to offer internships to students at 33 area colleges and universities.

It acts as a clearinghouse for employers and college students, and was how Elias found the Animal Friends internship. Its interactive Web site, www.ric-swpa.org, allows students to post resumes and search for internships and permits employers to post open internship openings and search for candidates.

The Pittsburgh Technology Council offers a similar service to its members (www.pghtech.org/careers). The program's manager, Justin Driscoll, said internships set up through his service more than doubled this year to about 260.

The regional internship center's Mary Ann Eisenreich, executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Women Work, called the intern center's online matching system a "godsend." She has used the free service to fill two positions that pay a stipend.

"We send them a job description for an intern and it goes out to all of the colleges in southwestern Pennsylvania and my e-mail pops up with people who are interested," Eisenreich said. "The young people I have coming in are just wonderful. I feel grateful to have them."

There are currently more interested students than available internships. About 2,600 students are registered with the regional internship center, 1,000 of whom have signed up since January, director Sara Mongell said. Some 350 employers have posted more than 1,200 intern positions.

Surveys conducted by the center, a partnership of the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board and the nonprofit Coro Center for Civic Leadership, show "students are looking for internships and are starting to realize that this is something that can help them get a job," Mongell said.

The center encourages employers to pay interns; those that do attract the most student interest. About half of the participating employers pay hourly wages or a stipend. The rest are unpaid or structured so that students can receive academic credit.

An underlying mission of the center is to use internships to attract and keep talented college students who might otherwise leave Pittsburgh after graduation for opportunities elsewhere. Students who have a positive internship with an industry or company, the thinking goes, will be more inclined to stay here.

Retention of young people in an area with an aging population was also behind the creation of a new cooperative internship program begun this year for the financial services industry.

The basic idea behind that program, dubbed PRICE -- for Pittsburgh Regional Internship Collaborative Enterprise -- is for financial service organizations to cooperate in managing and sharing interns and to engage those interns with the city.

If a participating bank, for example, is not in a position to offer full-time positions to graduating seniors who showed promise as interns, they could be hired by other financial organizations that would recognize PRICE program participation as a stamp of approval.

The program is in its pilot year with participation by Mellon Financial, PNC and the smaller First Commonwealth Financial Corp. It will be expanded to a larger select group of other financial institutions next year, then debugged and rolled out to the general financial services community in 2006.

"Internships are a great way for young people to discover what it is about an industry that they like or don't like and what you hope at the end of the internship is that there's a job opportunity," said Sherry Monheim, who administers PRICE from the nonprofit Institute for Economic Transformation at Duquesne University.

"But in today's market, especially financial services, that's not always the case. So by networking through an independent collaborative, we can funnel (intern) graduates to other opportunities within the city, the region. In the end what we're trying to do is retain talent."

As part of the PRICE program this year, participating interns will be given leadership and community outreach training and be expected by the end of the summer to complete an extra curricular project on Pittsburgh and its challenges in recruiting and retaining top talent.

"We're really excited about it," said Elizabeth Dennis, manager of strategic staffing for Mellon and the program's originator. "The point is we in Pittsburgh really need to engage youth, to get the advice of younger adults. They know what it's going to take so we need to include them in our strategy at a regional level."

First published on June 13, 2004 at 12:00 am
Jim McKay can be reached at jmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1322.
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