College Undergrads: No Internship? No Problem

With internship hiring plummeting this summer, many undergraduates are scrambling to find that prestigious summer opening that will pave the way for lucrative post-graduate opportunities. Many won't succeed. So what do you do if summer is fast approaching and you haven't landed an internship?

Internships are the main pipeline to full-time recruiting, companies say, and the numbers bear them out. Top companies often rely on their internship programs for as much as 90% of their new college hires, so an applicant without an internship is at a big disadvantage—no small thing, particularly for current juniors. Even in a best-case scenario, they may be graduating into a not-quite-recovered job market next year.

As bad as it is, there's reason for hope. For one thing, you're not alone. The National Association of Colleges & Employers says internship hiring is down 21% from last year. Given the circumstances, many employers won't hold it against you if you've never interned at the company—but only if you have something to show for your summer off.

In fact, the first step toward making good use of your time is to stop thinking of it as your "summer off." Be flexible, recruiters say, and take advantage of any opportunity to gain skills. At Ernst & Young, which fills half of its full-time entry-level positions with former E&Y interns, Campus Recruiting Leader Dan Black says that students who don't land an E&Y internship should consider a summer position at a smaller accounting firm or any other service-oriented industry. "A lot of students are quite focused. They'll say I want to work with X company in X industry doing X position," he says. "With the market being the way it is, I would recommend that they keep their options a little more open."

Less Glamorous Jobs

Black is living proof that such a strategy can work. He himself couldn't land an internship at E&Y when he was looking for a summer internship college 15 years ago and instead worked as a mechanic in a garage. But he still snagged a full-time gig at the firm after graduation, and he's been there ever since. "I learned a lot of valuable skills. I used to close the gas station by myself. That was responsibility," he says. "In fact, I did spend a lot of time talking about that experience [in job interviews]."

Career services directors overwhelmingly agree that sometimes these less glamorous jobs can help get your foot in the door—particularly if they're related to your industry of choice. "Want a career in the hospitality industry? Find a job with lots of customer contact, even if it's at McDonald's (MCD). Knock yourself out and get rave reviews from your boss," says Carol Schroeder, undergraduate career services director at North Carolina State's College of Management (NC State Undergraduate Profile). "Engineering or business? Take a lifeguard position in a crowded public pool where you have to be hyper-observant and make quick decisions."

At Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for instance, when underclassmen inquire about internships, recruiters often will encourage them to apply for a seasonal customer service or car prep position to get acquainted with the company and its culture. That way, they will be more competitive when seek out an internship the next year.

The Nonprofit Route

Many employers also encourage students to do volunteer work within their communities. Deloitte's national campus recruiting leader, Diane Borhani, recommends that students explore volunteer opportunities at nonprofits Deloitte works with. It's another way to connect with the firm, she says. "We, and many firms, are passionate around community services projects," Borhani says.

She also recommends that students look into job-shadowing opportunities. Such opportunities involve spending a day or two with someone in the student's chosen career, or one the student would like to explore. They can be accessed through the school's career services office.

There's also nothing wrong with multitasking. When it comes down to it, after all, many students have substantial financial obligations and can't afford to take an unpaid position or just do volunteer work. "We have a lot of students who like to do nonprofit work, but they have to do something to pay the bills," says Gary Beaulieu, career services director of the Indianapolis-based Butler University (Butler Undergraduate Profile).

Take Eric Kotchi, 19, a Butler junior double-majoring in marketing and pre-law. In one of his classes this semester, 10 out of the 20 still haven't landed an internship. But Kotchi, who wants to be a sports agent, was able to accept an unpaid internship doing marketing for Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney's two-day football camp in June. Why? Because he already has a job at Butler's health and recreation complex that helps him pay the rent. And although his rec center job may not be the most glamorous position, he wouldn't have found his football camp internship without it. "My boss sent an e-mail from someone who organizes the camps, and I told her I was interested," says Kotchi.

"Network, Network, Network"

Kotchi essentially lucked into his internship, but not everyone is so fortunate. To be in the right place at the right time, most students will have to work at it—and that means networking. Career services directors advise students to take an aggressive approach to networking, mapping out their contacts and tapping them frequently for information and advice. "Network, network, network with everyone you know, including peers, friends, family, faculty, and past managers," says Trudy Steinfeld, executive director of career services at New York University (NYU Undergraduate Profile). "And remember to include online social networking sites and professional associations."

While students should explore all options, they shouldn't assume that all internships by now are taken. Verizon Communications (VZ), for instance, has filled 250 summer internships but still has 100 openings. Jane Clements, Verizon's vice-president of corporate human resources, says that 10 years ago, to be searching for an internship in May "was definitely late in the game." But with so much of the company's recruiting now done online, Verizon doesn't need to rely on reaching out to students while they're on campus during the school year and can recruit year-round. She adds that students who can't secure an internship this summer shouldn't lose hope. "We have this big focus on summer internships, but Verizon has internships throughout the year."

Students sometimes can even use the recession to their advantage: "It's amazing how many organizations put things on the back burner because they don't have enough manpower," says Deloitte's Borhani, who recommends that students research a company's needs and proactively offer to help with tasks that might otherwise go unfinished. "I would give [students who do that] a few points for initiative," she adds.

Most important, says Marie Artim, Enterprise Rent-A-Car's assistant vice-president of recruiting, students should remember to focus on the job function instead of the name of the employer. "It's not the who you work for but what are you doing that is important," she says. "I can't reiterate enough to always be thinking how your skills are transferable." Is Google (GOOG) not welcoming you with open arms? Maybe McDonald's will—and the experience, especially if it entails a degree of responsibility you wouldn't get at the Googleplex, may actually be more valuable. So don't lose heart, and get creative.

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