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Marilyn Petrowski ’14 landed the post-graduation job she wanted the summer before her senior year: merchandise allocation analyst at TJX Companies. She didn’t get the position on the strength of her education alone. Petrowski walked in with solid experience managing Web content for a radio station, writing press releases for a professional lacrosse team, and compiling client research at Arnold Worldwide—all gained as a student intern.

Employers and career counselors say stories like Petrowski’s have become increasingly common as internships evolve to meet the needs of corporations looking for talent. “Internships have become the new entry level,” said Louis Gaglini, associate director for employer relations and recruiting at BC’s Career Center. “Companies do not have the resources to train employees that they once had. They want students to come in ready.”

Observers say the changing marketplace offers students both opportunities and challenges. For those like Petrowski, internship experience can alleviate uncertainty about entering the job market after graduation. “I’m very lucky because [the TJX position] is something I really want to do, it’s not just a job,” said the 21-year-old communications major from Wellesley, Mass. “It takes the pressure off of me.”

On the other hand, employers’ expectations do put pressure on students to begin thinking early—preferably before they finish freshman year—about work and careers beyond Boston College. And when they do, they realize that internships are essential.

Gaglini pointed to a study of 2012 graduates by the National Association of Colleges and Employers that showed that 63 percent of students who worked paid internships received at least one full-time job offer prior to graduation. By contrast, only 40 percent of students who did not undertake internships were offered full-time jobs.

Shawn Tubman, vice president for talent acquisition at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Boston, said internships allow companies to effectively interview prospective candidates for a few months instead of a few hours, giving them a chance to really know prospective employees before committing to them.

“We do not view our interns as high-quality temporary help,” said Tubman, whose company hires approximately 600 interns across the United States each year. “Smart companies are reaching deep into undergraduate and graduate institutions to identify high-potential freshmen and sophomores, have them as interns as juniors, and hopefully convert them into entry-level hires upon graduation.”

Gaglini cautioned that not all internships are meant to lead to full-time employment. But all, he said, “offer students from all majors and backgrounds the opportunity to apply classroom learning and to gain tangible skills in the workplace, regardless of their academic pursuits.”

Whether or not an internship leads to full-time employment, it’s on-the-job experience that counts, says Tubman. “Go into it with an open mind and with a broad-based approach ... really be flexible and focus on the work,” not the company or industry, he said. “The more [students] are engaged in the work, the more they are going to get out of it.”

Case in point: Sam Gervase, a 21-year-old finance and international studies major from Davenport, Iowa, who had a singular internship experience the summer before his senior year. With help from the Career Center, Gervase and two friends leveraged a Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) grant into a summer adventure. First they spent two months working on an organic flower farm in West Maui, Hawaii, living in an old school bus and growing much of their own food. Then they moved to Seattle and worked for Stockbox Neighborhood Grocery, a company that brings fresh produce stores to urban areas underserved by mainstream supermarkets.

“The summer was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Gervase said. “I learned more than I’d ever learned behind a desk. It was really cool to see how a small business operates; how one person can wear the hat of finance, marketing, everything.”

GE Capital was impressed enough by his hands-on experiences that it accepted Gervase into its risk management leadership program, where he will use his new skills and insights to underwrite corporate loans for the mid-range business market.

Experts also advise:

  • Using professors, alumni, and externships (typically one-day introductory internships) to search for a company that seems like a good fit;
  • Showcasing communication, critical thinking, and analytical skills—all key attributes sought by employers;
  • Doing serious interview preparation. Prospects who thoroughly research the company and the industry, network, and check to see if the organization has been in the headlines can have an informed discussion with a potential employer.

That’s all hard work, Gaglini acknowledged. The good news is that living the college experience to its fullest and career-prep activities such as networking with professors and alumni about career paths are not mutually exclusive.

“We want students to have a great experience at Boston College—to have fun, make friends, go to football games,” he said. “But there’s no reason they can’t also have those conversations at the same time. And if you have those conversations, doors will open."

by Ralph Ranalli