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July 22, 2014

Interns Zoe Foulkes and Christine Casey are spending their summer working at Digitas, a global marketing firm in Boston (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH).

It's summer break, and for many college students, that means a dive into real work experience through internships. That can mean anything from boring days answering phones, to exciting opportunities leading to future employment. At WGBH's On Campus, we were curious about how college students approach internships today, so we asked our own intern to do some research.

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"From any internships that you've had, or this one, do you have any internship horror stories… or classic intern moments?" asked Mikaela Johnson, a rising junior at Colby College in Maine.

Johnson is interning with On Campus in Boston this summer. She took the "I'm one of you" approach as she interviewed five interns at Digitas, a global marketing and technology company based in Boston. She shared her own stories to help break the ice.

"I got locked in the staircase, got lost in the parking garage," recalled Johnson amidst laughter.

All the interns agreed the workplace can be a little intimidating at first, as was this interview for Johnson. But she forged on, asking the group if their current internship is in line with their career goals.

"Yes, definitely," answered Robert Donahue, a senior at Providence College. "This is my dream job, being a copywriter when I grow up."

Intern Mikaela Johnson gets ready for her first WGBH on-air debut with reporter Kirk Carapezza (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH).

Others weren't so confidant.

"I think part of the reason I did this internship was to figure out if this is something I want to do," said Zoe Foulkes, who is going into her second year at Harvard. "Going back to why I value internships in the summer, it's to figure out if it's something I want to do with the rest of my life." 

All the interns Johnson talked to are part of a competitive, ten-week paid internship program at Digitas. For Donahue, this was his first opportunity working in a professional office. 

"I've been all over the place in jobs. I've done sandwich making, to retail, to painting, so I kind of wanted to do something that fit my future," Donahue said. "This is definitely a lot more rewarding than those."

In fact, the student move to internships has some local businesses hungry for summer workers. One local health club told us they're short on lifeguards this summer because many college students would rather intern than work, especially now that the expectations for internships have risen

"I feel like the older generation would think of an internship as sort of like go get coffee, go shred documents type job, and that's certainly not the case now," Donahue said. "Everyone I know is doing actual real-world tasks in their internships."

At a time when more students get fewer summer jobs, either by choice or because of the lackluster economy, internships provide the work reality check.

"The premium experience for college students nowadays is the internship," said Anthony Carnevale, who directs  Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

Carnevale says today's college curriculum doesn't effectively prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, so internships are growing increasingly important.

"We really don't connect our college system to the real world of workplaces at all," Carnevale said. "The students who have the internships, those are the students who get the jobs first."

Hear more intern stories:

That's because employers say they're more likely to hire those students who have tested the workplace waters. Molly Knight is senior manager of campus recruiting at Wayfair, a Boston based company which sells home goods online.

"When I look back at our hires, I would say 90 to 95 percent of those hires in the last year have had an internship experience," said Knight. 

When asked whether Wayfair ever hires anyone without internship experience, Knight hesitates.

"We would, and we have," Knight said, adding, "It's rare to be honest." 

Increasingly, employers are beefing up their internship programs to recruit potential candidates. Wayfair, for example, says it pays its interns competitive wages. The goal, Knight admits, is to convert them into full-time hires.

"If you can come into a career and have had more work experience, exposed to more businesses and roles, the better employee you're going to be post graduation," said Knight. 

All this pressure on getting and doing  internships can take a toll on the college student who may prefer to decompress over the summer. Back at Digitas, our intern Mikaela Johnson addressed the issue with Harvard senior Ope Adebanjo.

"I would say the pressure is there just because you want to be the best candidate you can be, for whatever job you're applying for, especially in this job market," said Adebanjo.

A thought not lost on our intern.  For her part, Mikaela says all this focus on job training can be overwhelming.

"It was definitely stressful hearing everyone talking about their internships or how they got their job or they're going to get paid and then you're wondering well what am I going to do with my summer," said Johnson. 

But she thinks taking an internship - paid or unpaid - will pay off.

"As long as you're doing something that you take interest in and at the end of the day you're happy to go to work the next day then I think it's worth it," said Johnson.  

Listen to our extended interview with Anthony Carnevale on the rise of the internship. 

global competitiveness, internships

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