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Want to Land a Great Job?

Land a Great Internship First
By Heidi Krumenauer

       A wise man once told me that I was going to be successful one day. He failed to mention, however, that everyone else around me was going to be successful, too. That wise man was my college advisor, and thankfully he redeemed himself by discussing internships with me and the value they would add to my career. "An internship," he said, "will give you an advantage over other qualified candidates who are vying for the same position." And he was right. I'm an internship success story.

Internship success story

       In 1991, I was hired by my current employer, American Family Insurance, as a public relations intern during my last semester of college. For five months, I commuted every other day (90 minutes each way) from the UW-Platteville campus to the company headquarters in Madison, WI. Even with snowy roads and often treacherous weather, I was never late for work. And I never missed a day for personal appointments, illness, or just time to goof off with my friends. I took the job seriously and was rewarded handsomely with a full-time job offer in the government affairs division upon graduation.

       What did I know about government affairs? Not a thing! But I had impressed my new boss with my dedication to the company during my internship. I had no idea that he was paying attention to my work product or my attentiveness to detail - after all, he headed another department on the other end of the building. In our interview, I wowed him with the communication skills that I could bring to his department, many of them acquired during my internship. Having knowledge of the company's inside scoop - the direction they were heading and the challenges they faced only made me that much more desirable. A couple hours after the interview, I accepted my first full-time position.

       My story doesn't end there. Fifteen years later, I'm still with American Family. I worked hard, took on as many new responsibilities as I could get my hands on and showed my boss how my talents and educational training could benefit my company. Those efforts paid off with a promotion to Manager in 2000, and a promotion again in 2002, to an upper management position. Today, I'm the Political Action Director for the company, overseeing campaign finance compliance, political action committees and grassroots.

       Could I have gotten this far without an internship? Maybe...but I wouldn't want to find out.

Hiring interns - on the other end

       Interestingly, I have been the hiring manager for all of the Government Affairs department interns. Based on my own internship experience - one that was filled with learning opportunities - I developed a program that would provide a great learning experience for our interns. In the interviews I tell the candidates: "My goal is to offer you an internship that will allow you to walk away with experiences that will help you adapt to working in the real world. If you leave here at the end of the semester and can honestly say you haven't learned even one thing that will better you in your career, then I have failed. I don't want to fail, and I don't want you to either."

       I told every candidate that I understood the magnitude of what an internship could bring to their career, and I encouraged them to put their best foot forward to reap the rewards. Upfront and with honesty, I added: "If you're looking for a gravy job where you're going to get a few credits at the end of the semester and a paycheck at the end of the week without putting your entire self into the program, this is not the place for you." A few students flinched. The serious ones looked me straight in the eye and made a commitment.

       The easy route doesn't prepare you for career development. This is one of those times where working for a tough boss will pay off. Remember that teacher you hated in high school - the one you hated so much because he always pushed you to do your best? Remember how you resented him for making you more responsible and a better student? Do you know why you remember him? He's probably the reason you're a college student today.

       My advice: Internships make for an impressive resume, but if you're going to spend your days working, you owe it to yourself to get something out of your time investment. Seek out an employer who values your internship!

Get serious and impress

       Internships are highly sought after, so if you are the one who is touched by the magic wand, don't take advantage of a huge opportunity by slacking off. If you land an internship, there is something outstanding about you and your resume that set you above the rest. Your interviewer saw it - now don't blow it once you're in the door.

       As an intern mentor, nothing impresses me more than students who take the job seriously and put their best efforts forward in everything they do. Meet deadlines. Pay attention to detail. Ask to be involved in new projects. Show up on time for work. Be courteous to your other co-workers. Dress appropriately. And the list goes on.

        Make it your goal to set the bar for your successors. It's been 15 years since I hired my first intern, but I still talk about him and use examples of his good work and his positive attitude. Make it your goal to leave a good impression - one that your boss will talk about for another 15 years.

The good, the bad, and the lazy

       If anything's going to kill the mood of an internship, it's the student who doesn't take the "best foot forward" approach. The majority of the students came into my program with the goal of using the internship as a stepping stone to their career. I'm happy to report that they have become lawyers, lobbyists, real estate agents, and other professional business-types. But there were those few - those few who refused to learn from their sneak peek inside the corporate environment.

       Their tardiness excuses were inexcusable - and quite frankly, career-stopping moves:

       "I have a hangover, but I'm sure it will be better this afternoon."  Good, because once it wears off, you will come to the realization that you don't have a job anymore.

       "The Gap just called and they need me to cover a shift this morning. I guess they got that new sweater shipment in and someone needs to sort the colors."   And the Gap is going to help launch your writing career? Good luck with that.

       "It's 10:56, and I just looked at my work schedule. I didn't realize I had to work today. Since the day is almost over, I'm just going to stay home."    No, can stay home the rest of the semester too!"

       I confronted an intern one day after she'd been repeatedly late for work. She told me: "I'm not a full-time employee, so it's not important that I start on time." But the kicker was her next sentence: "And furthermore, you expect too much from me - like accuracy. I'm only a college student. So what if I misspelled some words in the article. It's not that big of a deal."

       No intern success story there. She was working full-time at the pretzel place in the mall shortly after that.

       Be a success story! If you haven't already, seriously consider the benefits of an internship program. Here are a few answers to your questions to get you started:

Internships - what's in it for me?
    o  College credit - Check with your university to see if college credits are available if you participate in an internship. Depending on your major and university offerings, you could earn up to eight credits (or more) for a semester's worth of work. There may be additional requirements like weekly reports or a term paper.

    o  Pay - According to Vault, a career information website, only half of internships offer pay. Fewer than that offer competitive pay. In your search for an internship, ask about the salary or other benefits. Don't decline an internship because you might have to work pro bono, but if you have a choice between ching in your pocket or no ching...duh...take the ching!

    o  Resume building - Think about it. During college, you work in the fast food industry taking drive-thru orders. Your roommate accepts an internship at a local accounting firm. You graduate at the same time and submit resumes to the same accounting firm. This is not brain surgery. Who is going to have a better shot at that job?

    o   Moving to the front of the line - Getting your foot in the door with a company and gaining practical work experience will make you more marketable. College students are not competing against themselves anymore - they are competing against professionals who've been in the workforce for 20-30 years, and have now been displaced due to downsizing or they are just looking for a new challenge. If you've held an internship with a company and you are competing against other external candidates, in some cases, you are more likely to be considered for a position because of your knowledge of the company.

    o  Earn a larger starting salary, - There's no guarantee here, but experience is worth gold. Don't be surprised if you can negotiate your salary based on the extra experience your internship gave you. Go ahead - try that with your job as a bus boy at Burger Barn.

HELP! How do I find an internship?
    o  Talk to your advisor - He will know about other students who have held internships and will be able to talk to you about their experience. He might also have connections with businesses based on previous interns. If nothing else, he'll be able to talk to you about your goals and help you decide what works best for you.

    o  Contact companies - Some companies don't post internships but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Take some time to research companies that you'd like to work for. Contact their Human Resource department to inquire about current and future postings.

    o  Do your homework early - Don't wait until the last week of the semester to start your job hunt. You should begin your search several weeks (even months) prior to your prospective start date. Internships are often hard to find, and waiting until the last minute just gives someone else the advantage of taking what could be yours.

    o  Compatibility - Seek out a company whose business practices and goals match yours. If impressed with your work and if a full-time position is available, many companies will hire you after the completion of your internship. If you knew the company's values didn't match yours going into it, you've wasted a great opportunity to keep your foot in the door. Another point: make sure your background is compatible with the internship being offered. For example, just because you drink Coca-Cola and you'd like to work for them doesn't mean you are the best match for their company. If you have a journalism degree, but Coca-Cola has an opening their accounting department, move on. It's not meant to be.

    o   Strut your stuff - Be sure to let your employer know upfront your talents and interests. Many times internships are cookie cutter from one to the next. The job may entail a lot of data entry, but if you design websites as a hobby, let your boss know that in your interview. Ask if there are opportunities for you to utilize your skills. Many times the employer hasn't given much thought to additional tasks that the intern might take on. This is your opportunity to shine!

    o  Intern during your last semester - While internships should be taken at anytime, last semester internships seem to benefit you more if you are looking to stay with the company. There's truth in the old saying: out of sight, out of mind. If you are already there, it's much more appealing to an employer to see you stay with the company than for you to leave and hope to come back later - and hope you don't change your mind. Again, do your homework early! Secure your internship early enough so that it's waiting for you.

    o  Multiple semester/long-term commitment - Many companies offer year-round internships with full-time employment during the summer months and part-time during the school year. Suggest to your potential employer that you would be willing to take on responsibilities during the school year. It shows you have initiative. And it also benefits the employer in two ways: 1) they have tasks that need to be accomplished; 2) they spend less time searching for an intern next summer.

I'm in the door - now what?
    o  Make a great impression. Work hard. Bosses watch every move to see if you're someone they'd like to hire. Even if there's no opening in their department, there are openings in others. You don't want a bad reference.

    o   Treat your work schedule with respect. Don't take days off to play volleyball with your friends. If your boss said you need to be there at 8:00, don't arrive at 8:01 consistently. And if you need to leave early or arrive late, be sure to discuss it with your boss prior to that time. Bosses understand your need for school-related activities such as final exams, etc. Don't take advantage of the flexibility they will provide you to make your schoolwork a priority.

    o  Adhere strictly to company policy. Just because you're a college student doesn't mean that you don't have to follow the dress code, smoking policies, etc. As an intern, you will be expected to behave like the rest of the part- and full-time employees.

    o   Network! Take the time to meet with other employees in the company over a lunch hour or break to learn more about other departments positions that might interest you. You will never have a better time than now to get to know the company you're working for. Note: Do it on your time! Your boss won't appreciate you using company time to further your career when your work isn't getting done.

Heidi Krumenauer is a Political Action Director with American Family Insurance Company, headquartered in Madison, WI. She has been employed with the company since 1991, when she began her career as a public relations intern.