Natalia Baryshnikova takes a rare break from her work planning a new sustainability program, from scratch, for the technology company where she interns. It’s been a frantic summer of preparing for the launch, now just days away.
The stakes are high—the company does more than $1 billion a year in sales of design, manufacturing, and engineering software—though the pressure’s eased a bit since Baryshnikova sweated out her presentation before the CEO.
It turned out to be less intimidating than she’d feared. Now she calls him Jim. “Since day one, I’ve had access to every executive that I wanted to speak with,” Baryshnikova says. “It’s an open-door policy. If you want to suggest some ideas, you’re really welcome to. That’s something that really surprised me.”
Especially considering that Baryshnikova is a summer intern. The intern: punch line of a grand pop-culture joke. The kid who gets the coffee. The assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, except usually without even a paycheck.
Yet internships are more important than ever to resume-building college students. Some three-quarters of them have had at least one, according to Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, the largely critical new book by journalist Ross Perlin that has contributed to a season of soul-searching about the topic. Among other developments, the US Department of Labor has tried to tighten the rules for unpaid internships to ensure such basic guarantees as internships actually benefit the students and do not displace full-time employees. Half of all interns, after all, work for free.
But it turns out engineering companies have done something different with the internship: take it seriously.
While only 43 percent of students majoring in the arts and humanities get paid to work as interns, and 70 percent of business majors, nearly 90 percent of engineering and computer-science majors report having paid internships, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute.
“Of my engineering friends, more of us had internships than psychology or English majors,” says Will Stewart, a mechanical-engineering major at Syracuse University who interned this summer at the defense, security, and aerospace company BAE Systems.
“You still have to apply yourself. The internships don’t fall into your lap. You have to put the work into it. But an engineer at a university could probably go up to just about any company and say, I want to intern this summer and the company would consider them.”
It’s not about altruism. In an era of concern over the continued supply of US-born engineers to fill jobs—the proportion of young adults in competitor countries studying science and engineering is rising much more rapidly than in the United States—internships encourage engineering students not only to continue in the field, but to come back when they graduate.
“My best scenario is that we have interns who become future customers or future employees,” says Kathy Cullen, Senior Vice President of Global Human Resources at PTC, just outside Boston, where Baryshnikova is an intern.
It’s a strategy that pays off for students, too. More than three-quarters of personnel managers say relevant work experience is the critical factor in making hires, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE, and 80 percent of private companies use internships as a recruiting device.
“I knew that if I did my work and impressed people that would turn into a full-time job,” says Stewart.
“A summer internship is like a three-month job interview,” says Eric Melniczek, Director of Career and Internship Services at High Point University in High Point, N.C., and a former executive recruiter. “There’s definitely a win-win here. An employer is more likely to take a chance on someone who’s a proven commodity.”
That’s because “they want to see how the intern behaves within the organization, not only to determine whether or not he or she has the skill level, but also whether or not he or she fits within the corporate culture, which is equally important,” says Edwin Koc, Director of Strategic Research at NACE.
Fifty-seven percent of NACE members surveyed have offered full-time jobs to former interns, and students report a strong correlation between having an internship in a particular industry and wanting a career in it.
“We want to make sure we get them before they go work for someone else,” says Kerry Creeden, who oversees mechanical- and electrical-engineering interns at BAE and makes job offers to the best ones before they even start their senior years in college.
“Our philosophy is to build a pipeline of entry-level talent, so it is strategic in the sense that how many interns we have in any given year correlates to what our forecast says we’ll need for new hires three or four years down the road,” says Bud Fishback, who runs the internship program at Boeing. That company took 1,215 interns this summer—up from last year—738 of whom were engineers, and even has a Facebook page with information for prospective interns.
William Kelley, Director of Public Affairs for the American Society of Engineering Education, says construction-engineering students at Catholic University were required to do internships every summer when he was dean of engineering there. And even mediocre students often turned those into jobs.
“I ran into a kid the other night on the Metro who I didn’t think was a super-duper student as an undergrad, and he was working at a well-known construction firm as a construction manager,” says Kelley. “He made the connections on his internship. I’ll bet if we went to every engineering college in country you would hear that same story.”
Still, he says, “If your company is going to offer internships, you’d better make a commitment to it. If these kids are going to make coffee and do some kind of mundane thing, they’ll go back to campus and they will tell their classmates about that, and you won’t get anybody signing up for the next year.”
Baryshnikova, a second-year student at MIT’s Sloane School of Management, has heard stories like that. Colleagues tell her that “the things they’re working on are very minor,” she says. “But I can see how what I’m working on will have an impact long after I’m no longer working here. I’ve enjoyed it. And that’s how word spreads on the job market. It’s really about what people say about you.”