Paying Dues

Today's economy makes interships a must

Graduating during one of the worst times to enter the job market since the Great Depression, millennials have accepted that they're relatively screwed when it comes to bringing home the bacon. In a world where a bachelor's degree on the wall no longer means a fast track, a living wage, and insurance, how do college students get the edge they need to snag those highly coveted, well-paying jobs? Sadly, it could mean a non-paying internship (or two).

"In this job market the value of an internship is pretty darn incredible when we have a buyer's job market which is pretty much what it is right now," said Rhonda Boyles, director of career services at Our Lady of the Lake University. "Employers can pick from all sorts of people. They're going to pick the folks that they know, who's work style they've already tried out, and that's where the intern gets the advantage because they've already gone to work for the employer, the employer knows their style, the intern also knows a little bit about the employer as well."

In case you haven't noticed, job seekers everywhere are falling over themselves these days to for the most menial appointments. Interning isn't always glamorous (unless, of course, you choose to imagine it's Lady Gaga asking you to lick 150 envelopes instead of that dry-tongued baby boomer named Carl), and the nonexistent wages mean you may be cooking the linings of your empty pockets (or at least delaying paying back those college loans a little longer) in the hunt for nutrition. However, it's not always the work you do but the knowledge gained and connections made that prove invaluable.
That said, young adults will far too often assume that a few extra lines on a resume are enough to send them to the top of the pile, and they view their time spent laboring for free as inconsequential. Truth be told, a well-placed internship can offer a personal view of the inner workings of your future career. Says Boyles: "From my perspective it's important you get to test drive the career you want to get into before you commit to a job after graduation."

And if you really plan on trading envelope glue for that proverbial bacon, there are steps you can take to pull ahead of the pack — while you're not groveling at Carl-cum-Gaga's sparkling stilettos, that is.

1. Talk to people. The people working around you are the ones that can help down the road, and forming positive relationships will pay off.

2. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. A trite sentiment? Yes, but it still holds true. While this doesn't mean showing up in a three-piece suit and gold pocket watch for a stint in the mailroom, dressing sharp does show the powers-that-be that you care enough to make an effort.

3. Be proactive. So you finished spit-shining Carl's Buick LeSabre, now what? You may relish having some down time, but your boss will find it far more admirable if you're able to prove that you're aggressive and eager to tackle whatever he or she can throw at you.

4. Ask questions. While you ache to give off the appearance of expertise, no one expects an intern to have all the answers. After all, you're there to learn. Being able to ask for help shows a self-awareness and confidence that is highly coveted in any field. How else will you gain the knowledge and understanding you're there for?

5. Always say "yes." Can you file these cases? Absolutely. Do you mind running these notes to HR? On my way. Would you deliver this package to the unmarked white van sitting in the alley behind the office? Just call me Tony Montana. No matter what you might be asked to do, every task within reason is an opportunity to learn while showing your boss that you're eager to get involved — and competent enough to follow through. Plus, at this point in your life, all experience is good experience. •