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Tight College Internship Market Signals Need for Students to Prepare Earlier

The job market is tough for interns this year.

Overall, the number of internships for college students is expected to decrease by 3.4 percent in 2014, according to the most recent survey  by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. However, employers in the Northeast expect an increase of 10 percent.

While internships are typically thought of as learning experiences, applicants often need specialized skills to land a position, according to a report out this week from Burning Glass Industries. For instance, an engineering intern might be required to know AutoCAD; a design students might need to know JavaScript.

This makes it important for students to build their portfolios before ever applying to an internship.

Students can start in high school by contacting employers to learn about various careers well in advance of applying for an internship, suggests Karen Purcell, owner of PK Engineering, a firm in Reno, Nev. Start with a professional association to get a name of someone who might be willing to provide a job-shadowing experience.

Being in the workplace and talking to professionals can provide early insights.

"It helps you determine if it's an area that is right for you," said Purcell, author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

Especially in STEM fields, it can be difficult for students to imagine various careers without some first-hand exposure, said Purcell. Understanding what employers are looking for in applicants can help students as they make course decisions and give them an edge when hoping to secure an internship or job. Finding a mentor can also provide early guidance that can pay off later, she added.

Some schools are experimenting with career exploration programs beginning in kindergarten. In South Carolina, counselors help students sort through career options in the state's Pathways to Success program. Following the students from grades K-12, they craft an individual plan in 8th grade that includes classes to support their field of interest and search for related internships. (See Is 8th Grade Too Early to Pick a Career? in the National Journal.)

A survey earlier this year found that employers think students should start to focus on their careers in high school to improve their chances of securing internships and jobs in the future.

Other research finds paid interns reap bigger benefits in the job market than unpaid ones. The average hourly wage rate for interns at the bachelor's degree level ranges from $15 to $18 per hour, according to the NACE survey.

All the effort often pays off. The NACE survey found that employers made full-time offers to 65 percent of their interns.

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