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Students, biz can benefit from internships, co-op programs

What is most important when an employer is interviewing applications for a job? High grades in college or internships that show the graduate has had real life experience in the field?

While good grades are a consideration, of course, most employers want some indication that a job applicant has more than just an academic understanding of the profession.

“Internships are extremely valuable for young people to get real world work experience,” said Amy Adkerson, a 1998 graduate of the Mississippi State University (MSU) communications department. “Having work experience and a portfolio to show perspective employees put me a step ahead of people who did not do internships and didn’t have a portfolio coming out of school. Your portfolio is a way to present visual proof of what you are capable of doing instead of just talking about it.”

While in school, Adkerson completed internships with the MSU Office of Agricultural Communications and the American Hereford Association. After graduation she had no trouble getting a job. She first went to work as a marketing assistant for MDC Homes in Atlanta. Then in 2000 she went to work as a PR and marketing assistant for the King & Bellow Law Office in Nashville. Adkerson currently works in the MSU registrar’s office and is responsible for the publication of the course catalogs and the master schedules for each semester.

Another option for work experience during college is co-op education. Luther Epting, who heads the MSU Career Center, said there are several advantages to co-ops or internships: First, they help the students know what skills are necessary in the various careers while confirming the student’s career choice. Second, relevant work experience brings “theory” to life as students see how theory is actually applied in the workplace.

“Third, students are exposed to the ‘school to work’ transition or, as we say, ‘backpack to briefcase’,” Epting said. “Also, students earn a significant amount of money that can be used to defray school expenses. And students who do internships receive more job offers with greater compensation upon graduation.”

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of cooperative education in the U.S. and the 51st anniversary of the MSU co-op program. A co-op student does a minimum of three internships by rotating from school-work-school until the student has worked three semesters. All are with the same employer and provide planned, progressive and supervised work experiences. During the work semesters the students are registered with the university and considered “full-time.”

Laura E. Hubbard, a co-op with First Chemical, Pascagoula, said the co-op program has been a wonderful experience.

“I cannot imagine my college education being complete without the knowledge and experience I gained while co-oping for First Chemical Corporation,” Hubbard said.

Another co-op, Becky Stone, an electrical engineering student at MSU, did co-op work with the U.S. Corps of Engineers Mobile District in the fall of 2004 and the summer of 2005. She plans to complete her final term this coming summer.

“I feel that my decision to become a co-op student was the best decision I have made at this university,” Stone said. “I have learned so much from my co-op experience that other students and engineers may never experience. Working with the crew and the site engineer, I participated in the disassembly of a 13.8kV generator and this summer I will witness the reassembly of the very same unit.”

Co-op jobs are also a great way for students to support themselves while paying for college. The Career Center also helps students get a job after graduation. Those students who have completed internships definitely have an advantage in the labor market.

“Students with relevant work experience are in greater demand,” Epting said. “They require less training and receive higher starting salaries.”

The MSU Career Center places about 500 students per year in internships, including co-op students. Other colleges in the state have similar programs.

Most of the Career Center internships are not for academic credit although students are registered with the university and are considered full time during the internship period. But there are quite a few academic areas that actually require an internship for graduation. These internships are generally for academic credit toward graduation.

The benefits of an internship or co-op program aren’t one sided. Businesses and industry also gain. One company long involved with the MSU co-op program is Diversified Technology Inc. in Ridgeland.

“One of our main reasons for doing it is at the end of the day when the co-op program is over, we hope to have a potential employee who will want to come to work with us permanently,” said Kevin Burnham, human resources administrator for Diversified Technology, a designer and manufacturer of embedded industrial computer boards.

Burnham said co-ops learn the culture of their company, and hopefully will consider employment there when they graduate.

“It gives us a leg up right off the bat if we can get the co-op student familiar with the company, what we do, our design practices, the personnel, and pretty much how things work,” Burnham said. “They are familiar with our company culture. All orientation is done, and the employee understands what is expected of them.”

What happens if a co-op doesn’t work out? Burnham can’t recall that ever happening. He said there is a lot of competition and an extensive process before a co-op is hired. The company benefits by getting into the search for a qualified employee earlier, and that is important in a competitive labor market.

Hopefully they like working here,” Burnham said. “It just gets us in the hunt earlier rather than later. We provide a nice environment. When they have a degree in hand, they have a sense of what is out there and can compare us to other firms out there.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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