From preventing tall trucks ramming low bridges to preparing NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) for a 2017 mission to discovering heart valve behavior in diabetics, enterprising young college students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics landed solid, paid summer internships in 2012, developing real-world solutions for real-world problems.
STEM students and employers around the country say internships have implications for the future that reach well beyond summer income and logging on-the-job experience. Students value internships as an opportunity to confirm or refine their choice of majors as well as an essential element in their long-term strategy for launching post-graduation careers with some of the most visible brands in the world. An increasing number of companies regard internships as an on-the-job audition and the first step in their recruiting and hiring process.
“You have to treat [the internship] as if you’re on a job interview every day,” says Lindsey Latrice Sanders, 28, a senior at Florida International University (FIU) and engineering management major who completed an 11-week internship this summer with NASA at Cape Canaveral. “The internship is a job that’s getting a feel for you.”
“An internship is the best way to get a career,” declares Alexandrea Brea, 21, an electrical engineer major and junior at FIU who worked at NASA learning hundreds of acronyms while taking on responsibility for the planning of the SLS rocket launch in five years. “It is a way to network, build resources and get your name out there.”
At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), which hosts 400 interns annually, three-quarters of the hires are people who came in as interns, says John Knezovich, director of university relations and science education.
Mary Fisher, assistant director of the internship program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, talks with employers who have reinforced her belief that “Internships are vital. Students who can show work experience have a leg up, and employers get to save recruitment dollars and see if you are a fit” for their company and culture.
“As a young and innovative company, interns are a key component of our efforts to grow and diversify our workforce,” says Whitney Bosch, a recruiter with Google’s Building Opportunities for Leadership and Development (BOLD) Internship program. Still, Bosch says the experience “provides students with opportunities to take initiative, and to develop their skills and strengths throughout the summer.”
A study earlier this year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that approximately 60 percent of 2012 college graduates who took part in paid internships received at least one job offer.
But not all employers are focused on linking internships to hiring. Building strong team players with effective communication skills is heavily emphasized at LLNL, Knezovich says. “We are a team-driven applied science laboratory. The ability to communicate clearly is a critical skill they don’t get in school that is essential for presenting your work.”
Academic growth is a key part of what Skansa USA Building says it wants its internship to deliver to students. “Obviously, we cannot hire everyone,” says Jessica Murray, senior director of communications for the company, which provides a plethora of construction services within the construction industry.
“Our job is to shape and continue helping students. We hope we have taught them something they have not learned in the classroom,” she says. “The internship helps them learn and understand what they are going to be doing a job like this.”
Tyler Clark, 19 agrees. Still on a high from her summer internship at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., Clark, a rising junior at Spelman College, said clarity was one of the benefits of working on the Enterprise Tech Support Team, looking at ways to improve the online user experience.
“It helped reassure I enjoy technology. They also gave me something to reach for and push myself academically.”
John Miles, 24, a chemical engineering major at Prairie View A&M University has had two internships with Allied Waste in Houston and three at Indiana University Medical School in Indianapolis. The opportunities helped him focus and discover his love of research.
“I feel more diverse. I’m not just focusing on oil and gas but biological systems,” says Miles who spent this past summer as part of a research team at Indiana University analyzing healthy and dysfunctional mitochondria in conjunction with a diabetic heart.
During her internship at Occidental Petroleum Company (OXY), Michelle Lopez, 19, was assigned to help create an electronic detection system that actively warns truck drivers when low clearance bridges are ahead. As part of her responsibility on the research team, the Oklahoma State University sophomore got to put her electrical engineering major to work. “It was a real-world problem to work on,” says Lopez, who decided along the way that chemical engineering with a petroleum minor is a better academic fit for her.
Angela Strong, 21, can’t believe she’s just finished living 11 weeks in Korea, let alone working on construction and project management tasks for the U.S Army Corps of Engineers through AMIE (Advancing Minorities Interest in Engineering). The Morgan State University Civil Engineering senior worked on quality control on the construction of elementary and high schools on the Camp Humphreys military base. She said she didn’t realize until the end of her internship that Camp Humphreys was preparing to become the largest U.S. garrison in Asia. “It’s cool to know that I am a part of history in the making.”
At LLNL, Florida A& M University first-year software engineering master’s student Crystal Ronnette Williams, 23, worked on developing a system to protect special nuclear material and classified information in sites across the country. “Although I knew C# programming language, I was also exposed to more methods and functions in that environment.”
Bria Crawford, 19, a civil engineering major and rising junior at Howard University finished up her summer at Exxon Mobil Environment Service with a research-engineering trip to Indonesia before starting her junior year in the fall studying abroad in London. Crawford, other interns, and companies say there is a strategy to landing an internship.