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Saliba, George N - 3/1/2006

Internships and cooperative educational experiences that pair college students with businesses can be called "symbiotic" - the latter being a term describing organisms with close, mutually beneficial relationships.

When it comes to business' gains, Dr. Freyda Lazarus, director of Montclair State University's Center for Community-based Learning (which last year handled some 1,200 service and work internships) says, "If an [employer] is in a crunch time and it would like some talent, an internship may work for them. Also, a lot of companies look to internship programs for recruitment, for after-graduation hires. Some companies look to test students' potentials, to see if they'll fit into their environment. Then they'll explore the feasibility of hiring them."

Indeed, having interns is an effective way of examining potential permanent hires, without any kind of commitment. And, according to a phalanx of educators, interns can undertake complex tasks. In fact, at least some worthy tasks are necessary. "First and foremost, the internship has to be a learning experience," notes Thomas J. Hopkins, director of the Career Development Center at Rutgers UniversityNewark. "It can't be a situation in which the employer is going to benefit and the student is going to be doing nominal tasks where they are not really learning much." Meanwhile, students benefit from internships because merely obtaining a bachelor's degree (with a decent grade point average) isn't necessarily sufficient to land a job in today's competitive labor market. Employers making permanent hiring decisions often like to see internship experiences on a college graduate's resume, as proof of real-world exposure. Dr. Jennifer Jones, director of academic career planning and placement at New Jersey City University, which has about 3,900 undergraduate full-time students, says, "The bottom line is that the better prepared a student is in terms of skills, knowing the workplace and understanding professional etiquette - and the more he or she can demonstrate that on a resume - the more employable the student. Because that's what employers are looking for." Also, interns can often earn college credit for undertaking a quality internship. Why? Because institutions of higher education recognize the learning potential of such undertakings (i.e., there is a big difference between studying public relations in a college classroom or library - and being thrust, as an intern, into a bustling PR agency). Internships also allow students to explore whether they are satisfied with their proposed career direction. A computer science major, for example, might enjoy college programming classes, but discover via interning that programming isn't what he or she imagined it was. This gives the student time to pursue different applications of his or her major, prior to graduation. To ensure a student learns from an internship, a company must designate an employee to act as an intern supervisor and mentor. Another fact emphasized by numerous educators is that all employers - whether large or small - must think through an internship job description the same way they would approach a professional full-time job description. Rutgers' Hopkins says employers should consider what tasks the intern will be able to help them with and how the company can simultaneously make those tasks a learning process for the student. He adds that if employers do this, it lessens the chance of expectation disappointments for either the intern or the company. This isn't to say internship responsibilities must be written in stone, and that they can't grow to the level of a student's true competency. Margaret Van Brunt, assistant dean of the Rohrer College of Business at Glassboro-based Rowan University, says, "I have had students come to me and say, 'I haven't really been given a lot to do [at the internship].' And I have to tell them, 'Well, give it some time. They're just trying to see what you can handle.' And nine times out of 10, the student will come back to me and say, 'You know, you are absolutely right. Once they got a feeling for my capabilities, my job description actually expanded."' Rowan's College of Business has about 950 students, of whom 150 to 175 participate in internships annually. Meanwhile, colleges and universities throughout the Garden State stand ready to help trepid employers obtain interns. An employer's telephone call to schools can help flesh-out a job description and define the employer's role.

When a company decides it wants interns, it can, of course, post a job description on major career Web sites or on its own Web site. In fact, Montclair State's Lazarus sees this activity increasing. However, she says, "From my perspective, I can't imagine why a company would want to do that, when they have colleges and universities that will: reach out to the whole campus for them; recruit the students; screen the students; and help the students prepare." For example, Montclair State students who work through the school's centralized internship and co-op program are required to take two workshops. "They've spent some time in our office, with our staff, thinking about what they have to offer an employer," she says. "They [go over] what kinds of experiences they have had and skills they have, so that when they go for an interview, they are more prepared." Obviously, employers ultimately interview and decide whom they will hire for an internship. While some internship fields often don't compensate students, other fields pay interns handsomely. Meanwhile, if a student undertakes an internship for college credit regardless of whether it is paid or unpaid - the employer might be expected to provide the college or university with an intern's performance evaluation and related paperwork. The student, for his or her part, is sometimes required to keep a log of activities and write a postinternship academic paper detailing the experience's value. Dr. Diana Peck is a professor in the communication department at Wayne-based William Paterson University and is also internship coordinator for that department.

Of the school's approximately 11,000 students, there are approximately 950 communication majors and during an academic year about 130 communication students enroll in the internship course. Speaking about employers' input, Peck says, "An evaluation should reflect genuine interest in the intern's success ... they should be candid, but really [include] constructive comments on how to help the interns prepare for the professional world." As for internship trends, the professional world, according to Rutgers' Hopkins, doesn't halt its hiring of interns during job-market downturns. "[During 2002 and 20031 they weren't bringing interns on in the same numbers, but they were still bringing them on, whereas fulltime hires for graduating seniors were really hurting," he says. The California-based Cooperative Education &Internship Association, the leader in providing professional development and resources to practitioners in the fields of cooperative education and internship program management, says there are no aggregate statistics regarding the number of internships, because the figure changes from semester to semester. New Jersey's educators, though, use words like "popular" and "increasing" to describe internships. Rowan's College of Business, for example, sees internship participation increasing by about 25 students each year. While many interns are juniors and seniors at four-year colleges and universities throughout New Jersey, others are students at venerable community colleges. Jake Farbman, spokesperson for the Trentonbased New Jersey Council of County Colleges, says, "An internship for a community college student would be that first internship. And the community college students come out ready to work hard, start at the bottom and work their way up. At the same time, you know they are relatively close to the business location, because they live close to the community college. And [you also know] they are dedicated and want to be there. A lot of our students are returning students." How can an employer reach county college students? A good place to start is at www.n)*, which has a contact list for all 19 colleges.

From there, companies can contact the colleges directly, either reaching out to department chairs or student services. All told, New Jersey had some 151,933 students taking college credit courses at county colleges last fall. Whether it is at one of the county colleges, one of the nine state colleges, one of the three public research universities, or one of the independent higher-education institutions, there is no shortage of talented students who can boost a business' bottom line.