Getting Ahead with IT Internships
For many IT students, graduating college is both the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to them. After years of cramming for tests, writing papers and working in labs, it can be difficult for graduates to transition from a cozy academic environment into the cruel “real world.” To help reduce the shock of switching from lectures and late nights to cubicles and coffee runs, many students look to internships for their first employment experience.
Whether paid, unpaid or done for college credit, these pre-graduation positions help potential IT pros turn their theoretical knowledge into practical skills. Although having a perfect grade point average in a respected program looks great on a resume, companies need more than a person who can pass tests. Doing an internship helps grads prove to employers they can apply the lessons they’ve learned in a corporate context.
Yet, internships do more for students than simply sharpen their technical skills — young people who’ve clocked most of their hours behind a cash register or stocking shelves often lack the soft skills necessary to succeed in the business world. Internships give them the chance to develop communication skills, team-building tactics and professional personas they can use for years to come.
Spending time in a corporate setting also helps students choose a career path they will enjoy. Having never worked in the field, many IT graduates blindly accept the first job offers they receive. Grateful to have any job at all, these young professionals often settle for a position that’s “good enough” instead of searching for the niche that will best suit their needs.
Western Governors University (WGU) is an online learning institution with a well-respected IT program, but Ruki Jayaraman, director of the College of Information Technology, acknowledges coursework can’t give students all the tools they need to choose a career. She encourages students to take part in internships that will help them focus their career goals and further develop their skills.
“I think this is the best way students can truly test the waters,” Jayaraman said. “For somebody who’s exploring different career options and different industries, being part of an internship gives them a real feel for what it’s going to be like once they pursue their career.”
Being able to articulate a focused career path often makes young job applicants more attractive to employers because it shows they have a broad understanding of IT and have taken the time to hone specialized skills.
Many companies that offer internships work with students to develop these interests to help make them more marketable when the program is done.
Weyerhaeuser Co., one of the world’s largest producers of forest products, grooms its IT interns by educating them about the company’s goals and allowing them to work on important projects. Debbie Angel, manager of IT documentation, training, intern and administrative services, said the company tries to incorporate its interns as members of the team, so they truly understand what a career at Weyerhaeuser is all about.
“We try to help our interns understand what’s important to them in terms of matching up with a company for a career,” Angel said. “We encourage them to get a better understanding of their values and then look at the environment and values of the places they’re considering, so there’s a good fit.”
Because many of these employers regard their internship programs as an in-house hiring pool, they have a vested interest in making sure students know the roles they would like to play in the company.
Kacy Cariaso, a graduate of Weyerhaeuser’s intern program who is now an integration analyst for the company, said that as an intern, the company urged him to look at all the IT options within its ranks to help prepare him for a full-time position.
“Weyerhaeuser’s a big company, and they have many IT positions, so once I joined the internship program, we were encouraged to venture off into different parts of the business within Weyerhaeuser and perform informational interviews with managers, other interns or co-workers,” Cariaso said.
Graduating interns fill almost all of Weyerhaeuser’s entry-level IT positions, so the company naturally wants its students to be educated about all the opportunities it has to offer. Weyerhaeuser also wants its interns to have the most educational experience possible, so they will be prepared for the positions that need to be filled when they graduate.
“Our overall purpose for the intern program is to bring well-qualified individuals who match well with our environment into the company for long-term careers,” Angel explained. “We really incorporate them as members of the team. We pay a lot of attention to developing them so they are able to come and do meaningful work.”
Julie Barbadillo, dean of general education and business programs at DeVry University-Seattle Metro, said although Weyerhaeuser is one of DeVry’s best corporate partners, this practice is common among internship sponsors. Most companies that invest the time and money needed to educate interns don’t want to see all their training taken elsewhere.
“We try to match the student’s skill set to the employer’s skill set very carefully,” she said. “Most of the internship sponsors are going to be interested in hiring students after they graduate because they don’t want to spend six months of their time with somebody that may not be a good future hire.
“I think internships are kind of known as a testing ground where you can establish yourself and show what you’ve got before the company commits to hiring you full time.”
Because internships enhance skills, build professional networks and ultimately help students get a job, it’s no wonder the best internships are extremely competitive. College counseling offices and school-sponsored internship programs are the easiest ways to identify internships, but for students whose schools don’t offer these options, there are still plenty of ways to find great opportunities.
Many IT students start their search for internships on Web sites such as Monster.com, InternshipPrograms.com or CollegeGrad.com. These search engines can provide a wealth of useful information, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Professional organizations often post opportunities on their Web sites or direct students to resources that can help them in their search. Attending local chapter meetings also can bring results by connecting students with professionals who might know of internships available at their companies.
Enterprising students also can take charge of their educational destiny by calling nonprofits and companies in their area and offering their services. Although these positions might be unpaid, showing initiative and interest often can get students unique and interesting positions that will help further their careers.
“They may not get paid, but if all the student is looking for is an opportunity to gain some hands-on skills, a lot of companies might be open to working with them,” Jayaraman said. “Students really need to do research before they approach these companies and present a case as to why they want to be an intern. If they can put forth a really powerful argument as to why they should be working there, sometimes companies that don’t even have an internship program might end up recruiting these candidates.”
For adult learners who want to switch careers or students who already have a busy schedule, it can be difficult to find time to do an official internship. Barbadillo said these students should still try to fit some extracurricular experience into their spare time. Working on independent projects with local organizations for a few hours a week can give them the resume padding they need to get the job they want.
“Check the nonprofits and the professional organizations,” she said. “If it’s