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Business Internships are Essential

I’m going to start this article with a shocking statement. The most important thing you can do in business school is graduate. The second most important thing is to undertake as many internship experiences as possible.

Let’s begin by answering the obvious question.

What is Internship?

An internship is an opportunity for an individual (generally a student) to experience (whether paid or unpaid) professional practice within an organization for the purpose of learning from the experience.

This seems like a simple definition, but let’s break down each element.

  • The Intern (Student) – Internships are generally provided only for students. The reason for this regards the employment laws in the United States. Employers do not want the internship experience to appear to be a full-time or part-time job. The reason regards the obligation of the employer to provide unemployment insurance for employees. An intern is not considered an employee for purpose of unemployment coverage. The very nature of the internship is that it only last for a specified period of time. The employer does not want the intern to be able to claim unemployment benefits at the end of the internship experience. This can have a negative impact on the employer’s insurance rates. Employers have the obligation to withhold and pay employment taxes on employees. Further, employers are required to pay employees the higher of the state or federal minimum wage. If the intern is not paid, these rules do not apply. This begs the question, when is an intern required to be paid?
  • Paid or Unpaid Experience – An internship experience can be paid or unpaid. The employment and tax laws (mentioned above) require that an employer pay employees a minimum wage and withhold and pay employment taxes. This rule applies to interns only if the internship experience meets certain requirements. Namely, if the intern is required to complete tasks that provide more than incidental benefit to the employer, the employer is required to pay the intern. Basically, the employer is not allowed to replace an employee with an intern. So, internships that require an intern to work on projects the way an employee would must legally pay the intern and the employer must abide by all employment tax withholding laws. This rule does not apply to non-profits. A non-profit may accept the services of an employee or intern without incurring the tax withholding or payment obligations. This is often known as “candy striping”, as the employee is making a donation of services to the organization. Now, if the internship focuses on providing exposure or a learning experience to the employee, the employer does not have to pay the intern. Again, the employer may only receive incidental benefits from the intern’s activity. For example, an unpaid intern may shadow a manager and observe her daily responsibilities. The intern may take part in some of these functions, but the value to the company is only incidental. The primary purpose of providing the intern with this opportunity is for exposure and learning.
  • Professional Practice – Most internships expose the intern to some form of professional practice. For example, a management student may shadow the manager in the accomplishment of her duties. A marketing student may work on a marketing project for the company. Of course, there are many industries that simply require interns to perform menial tasks around the business. The movie industry is infamous (and has been held liable under employment laws) for assigning interns to these roles. While there is no legal requirement that an internship constitute a professional experience, it may cause the intern to be treated as an employee for purposes of paying a minimum wage and the employer withholding payroll taxes. Also, many academic institutions allows students to receive academic credit for completing a qualified internship. The student receiving academic credit is tied to the intern receiving a certain level of professional experience.
  • Learning – Generally, an internship focuses on the intern learning. That is, the student should receive professional guidance and mentorship within the professional field in which the internship takes place. As such, an internship is generally completed under the supervision of a professional in the intern’s career field. It is possible for the student to learn from their experience while providing value to the employer. As such, some part-time jobs that have a learning element and provide exposure to professional practice would qualify as an internship.

Why are Internships Important for Business Students?

Internships are perhaps the best way for students to receive the following benefits:

  • Exposure – An internship provides an opportunity to receive exposure to professional practice. This can help the intern determine whether a particular career path is right for them. Also, many student interns say that experience in a career path makes the concepts and theories learned in the classroom more relevant and engaging.
  • Experience – The internship provides some experience undertaking professional tasks or developing professional skills. In business school, students are exposed to various skills required in a particular industry. They are not, however, required to demonstrate or practice those skills with enough regularity to create proficiency. Practicing those skills in the employment environment can be highly beneficial to the learning process. Also, these skills may be necessary for the student to secure future employment in the field.
  • Networking – The intern has the opportunity to make connections with individuals who work in that industry. Every person with whom the intern has some level of interaction is a potential connection. These individuals often serve as references for the intern in the future. They can help the intern in locating a job, making other industry connections, or provide a professional recommendation for the intern when later applying for a position.
  • Work Ethic – The student can demonstrate her work ethic and willingness to learn. Many employers want to see a level of dedication to an industry or career field before hiring a new employee. Employee turnover is a big deal for any business. As such, an applicant with some level of exposure or experience in the career field may signal that she is dedicated to the career path in which she is applying.
  • Potential Employment – Many employers use the internship experience to fill their talent pipeline. That is, the interns become the primary recruiting pool for the company. Across the US, Fortune 500 companies hire approximately 80% of new hires from their internship programs.

Searching for Posted Internships

There are numerous methods of searching for internships that have been publicly listed. These include:

  • School Listings – Many employers reach out directly to schools to list internship opportunities. They may go as far as to schedule on-campus interviews for open internship positions.
  • Job Boards – Many companies list internship opportunities on internal and public job boards. These listings are generally only available for a limited amount of time. So, interested interns should be diligent to check these boards for new listings.
  • LinkedIn – Employers are increasingly posting internship opportunities on LinkedIn. Further, employers are using the platform to actively recruit students searching for these types of internship positions. Recruiting interns, however, has not reached the level of prominence as actively recruiting candidates for full-time positions, but this form of recruiting does exist.

Finding Internships that are NOT Publicly Posted

Not all employers actively list internships. In fact, some of the best internship experiences happen at small or mid-sized employers who do not actively recruit interns. So, how do you find these internships.

  • Personal Connections – The best source for locating an internship is through one’s personal connections. Having someone to refer you to a company for an internship opportunity has a very high success rate. There is a sort of social contract involved obligates the employer to at least provide the recommended intern with an interview. This types of connections often result in an employer creating an internship for the recommended student. Sources of personal connection can include family, friends, professional connections, social/interest/religious groups, etc.
  • Direct Contact – I cannot recommend enough that you make the point to reach out directly to companies for an internship. Many companies do not list internships; and, they may not take interns except in the off chance an individual reaches out to them directly. With this being said, you should not depend upon sitting behind a computer and sending our resumes to potential intern employers. Start by identifying potential companies. There are many ways to identify potential companies. Here are some recommendations:
    • Internet (Google) Search – Most companies have a web presence. Google is the leading Internet search engine. You can easily find companies by searching specific keywords and your location. When searching a location, try the city, county, and zip code where you are searching.
    • Chambers of Commerce – Most counties have a chamber of commerce. These chambers keep lists of members and directories. Some have searchable directories on their public website. You can use these directories to search by business type or industry.
    • Yellow Pages – The local yellow pages are largely a relic of historic advertising practices. Now, most of the business listings are in online format. The listings are very useful, however, as all of the businesses are grouped together based upon their primary value offering.
    • Facebook – While Facebook is a social media platform for individuals, businesses have an increasing presence on the site. Companies develop business pages from which they manage their advertising campaigns. You can actively search for businesses based upon keywords and location.
    • Business Databases – Finally, there are tons of free and paid business search databases available on the Internet. Simply Google the phrase, “Search for businesses” and you will see results for dozens of results for search databases. I recommend reading the Google ratings to determine which ones are worth it.

Once you identify a company, you should research the company and make an appointment to meet with someone at the company. If all else fails, you should simply show up at the employer, ask to speak with a manager, shake hands, and drop off your resume. This level of personal dedication can have very positive results.

Conclusion

Learning business is just one step in the process to securing a career as a business professional. Generating an opportunity for employment or other professional experience is paramount. Employers expect business students to complete internships while in school. Acquiring an internship with a company may be far easier than acquiring a full-time position.

So, if your objective in acquiring business knowledge is to secure employment, an internship (along with other forms of professional networking) is the most important thing that you can do in business school – behind graduating.

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