By the end of May, college and graduate students are packing up their dorm rooms and looking ahead to their summer plans. For many students, that means an internship to gain work experience and a valuable résumé item. Most have one lined up by winter or early spring.
But what happens if a student's internship search isn't working?
That was the case for Rich Winslow, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Florida, who in desperation started a Web site called www.richwinslow.com/help in April after he applied for dozens of internships in his field. "I've applied to 50-plus positions since January and had only one callback," he wrote on a Web community forum board, noting he had linked the page to social content Web sites Digg.com and reddit.com. "I'm the first engineer in my family, and no one, not even extended family, knows anyone in my field."
Career counselors agree that in today's tight job market, students may find it harder than in years past to land their dream internship, if any at all. But internship-seekers should not give up hope, even at this point in the school year, says Manny Contomanolis, director of the career-services office at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and president-elect of the board of the National Association of Colleges & Employers. Even if students can't find an internship, there are still plenty of options available for them. "It is better to do something, even if it means volunteering or working to earn money, than sitting at home bemoaning you don't have a job," Contomanolis says.
Fortunately, there is still time to salvage your summer, sans internship. Here are some tips:
1. Revisit the career services office.
Most students looking for internships visit the career services office at their college or university in the fall or early winter but don't always go back later in the school year. Career services offices can be a helpful resource for landing a summer internship, even in late May or early June, RIT's Contomanolis says. They are usually the first places companies and small businesses turn to when making the decision to hire an intern, even when it's a last-minute hire. In fact, most career services offices still are getting daily internship listings and posting them on their job boards, says Contomanolis. "Things do pop up late," he points out. "One thing students should do is never give up hope."
Indeed, students can and should continue looking for internships into late May and early June, says Kenneth Keeley, executive director of the Career Opportunities Center at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business: "We think the internship market stays alive at least into June 1 or the first or second week of June."
2. Volunteer at a nonprofit.
Nonprofits can't always afford to pay for an intern but are frequently looking for extra help. Volunteering over the summer, even for just 10 or 15 hours a week, can provide a résumé-worthy experience, says Diane Crist, director of the career development center at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business in St. Paul, Minn. The experience may also allow the student to demonstrate some initiative and organizational savvy, qualities that will appeal to future employers, Crist notes.
For example, if a student is working for an environmental nonprofit, she can organize a project that gathers a group of people to clean up a local stream. "Anything like that will certainly help to embellish their résumé," Crist says.
3. Reach out to teachers.
Summer can be a busy time for college professors, many of whom use the time to work on research and publishing papers. Often they are looking for an assistant to help them with their work and might even be able to offer a stipend or salary. "Students should go back into their academic settings and talk to faculty about the different possibilities for research and things that need to get done at the university," Crist says.
Even if professors are not looking for a research assistant, they can still be a valuable resource for the job-hunting student. They are likely on top of the job market in their field and may be able to connect the student with people who can help them land a summer internship, she says.
4. Start your own company.
The entrepreneurial-minded student can use the summer as a time to research a business plan and, if they're ambitious enough, start a business, says Mary Banks, director of the business career center at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Leeds School of Business. Students at her school have started businesses ranging from lawn care to babysitting/nanny service during the summer months. "In Boulder, starting a small business is relatively easy," Banks says. "It is remarkable the types of things that students can do. They can be really inventive."
5. Join the family business.
A family business can be a valuable resource to a student who is looking to bolster a résumé. Those students who have connections to one should take advantage, says Ritch Sorenson, the Opus chair in Family Enterprise at St. Thomas University. The savvy student can design his own summer internship at the family business, taking on a project such as upgrading the technology platform or a managerial role that includes supervising employees. "I think sometimes students go and help their families who have small businesses but don't realize it is a project they could put on a résumé," Sorenson says. "It is a great opportunity that gives them far more than just summer employment."
6. Learn a foreign language.
Language skills are becoming increasingly important in today's business world, and students who can speak multiple languages have an edge in the job market, according to career counselors. One productive way students can use their free time is to learn a foreign language that is in demand by businesses and government organizations, such as Mandarin Chinese or Arabic. Students can sign up for language classes at their local community colleges or universities and later add that to their résumé as a skill or qualification.
7. Explore professional organizations.
Students should consider joining the local or national industry association of the field they plan to enter. Many of these groups have student rates and offer industry functions, networking events, and lectures over the summer months. Sometimes the organizations are looking for students to volunteer—a part-time gig students can add to their résumé. A stint could help students land an internship in their field.
That's what happened to Richard Bottner, 22, founder of Acton (Mass.)-based Intern Bridge, a recruiting and consulting firm, who volunteered at the Society for Human Resource Managers the summer in between his junior and senior years of college. He ended up meeting an executive from the Au Bon Pain restaurant company who gave him an internship in the company's training department. "A lot of these local societies want to encourage students to learn about the industry and are also great for networking," Bottner says. "They might be able to help you line up a part-time internship."
No matter what students end up doing over the summer, they should make sure to pay a visit to their career services office in the fall to learn how they can frame their summer experiences to future employers, says RIT's Contomanolis. This is especially important when students have more unconventional summer job experiences that fall outside the realm of a traditional internship. "A lot of times kids don't think about their experiences in a thoughtful and reflective way, and you have to tease it out of them," Contomanolis says. "It is very hard for a student to do on their own, but with a career adviser it is a very easy process."
Most of all, experts say, keep trying. This month, mechanical engineering student Winslow finally heard back from a company that offered him an engineering internship. He took it.