Internships: Finding Work by Doing Work

If a college education is a big advantage in the job market, why the need for an internship?

“In 1970 one in 10 Americans over 25 had a bachelor’s degree,” wrote Melissa Korn in the Wall Street Journal. “Now a third do. That means jobseekers need an edge.”

Internships, apprenticeships and other trial work experiences are playing an increasingly important role in the US job market. The Big Four auditing firms alone employed more than 30,000 interns last summer. More than 35 percent of employers polled by the National Association of Colleges and Employers hired full-time staff from the ranks of interns, and more than 50 percent of employers polled said they want to see an internship on a prospective employee’s resume. With increased federal government support for apprenticeships and other work experiences, interning isn’t just for college kids any more.

Interns function somewhere between a student and an employee, according to a National Association of College Parents blog—“the experience is intended to help the student close the gap between school and work.”

Internships can vary in length and have an enormous income span—from $25,000+ for the summer at big engineering and accounting firms to the standard pay for most internships: zero. Internships are a fairly recent development; medical internships began right after the Civil War, but business internships didn’t begin to proliferate until the Great Depression.

Meet JVS Chicago’s Summer Interns

JVS Chicago welcomed two Lewis interns to the agency this summer—Naomi Cowans from Tulane University and Jason Wilson (pictured, above) from the University of Iowa. The Lewis Summer Intern Program, a project of the Hillels of Illinois, is funded by a gift from the Harriet and Maurice Lewis Family to the Continuum program of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. It pays interns a stipend and JUF-affiliated agencies receive free help from some of the Jewish community’s best and brightest. After a three-day orientation program, Cowans and Wilson came to JVS Chicago and went to work.

“It’s a rigorous program—9 am to 5 pm, five days a week—and a great way to understand what it’s like to be a full-time worker,” said Cowans, a junior majoring in Latin American Studies with minors in Management and Spanish. “Going in I had a very slim clue about what I wanted to do after college and wasn’t sure that an internship would prepare me. Now I have a more focused idea of what I want to do and how I’m qualified to do it.”

While some companies don’t let interns do much more than file or make copies, Cowans and Wilson said they were allowed to make a significant contribution at JVS Chicago. Cowans, working for Career Moves, created a vlog (video blog) about job searching and worked on curriculum for an extension of the Jewish Employment Network aimed at millennials. Wilson did a variety of tasks for the Duman Entrepreneurship Center, including old-fashioned telephone marketing, creating fliers, scheduling meetings for the Center’s Director and helping business analyst Shelby Parchman prepare materials for a loan committee meeting.

“It was very worthwhile,” said Wilson, who’s majoring in Communications and getting a certificate in Entrepreneurship. “I learned a lot about professional development and got better at marketing, acquiring the entrepreneurial mindset and understanding other organizations’ needs and wants. My next challenge is to take what I’ve learned to my next experience.”

The trick to getting a meaningful summer internship is beginning early. The deadlines for applying are often in the first month or two of the year for the following summer’s internships. A program like the Lewis Summer Intern Program might require several interviews. Students wanting a good internship next summer should really be looking at internship programs now, before they get too busy with classes.

No College Needed

The best-known employment gap is in the area of STEM jobs—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math-related work—and not all the jobs in that area require a degree. Many technicians’ jobs require a combination of a high school diploma and specialized training.

While a pharmacist needs a college degree, for example, a pharmacy technician does not—and the job can pay $40,000+ soon after a tech becomes nationally certified (JVS Chicago offers a free Pharmacy Technician training program that can be completed in 12 weeks if the student already has a diploma or a GED). The demand for computer coders is so high in Chicago that some graduates of a local 16-week “coding boot camp” make $80,000 a year at their first job.

With demand for non-degreed technical workers increasing, there has been a rise in “paid work experiences” and apprenticeships that introduce prospective employees to career fields such as health care, information technology and skilled labor.

JVS Chicago offers paid work experiences to young people 18-24 years old who meet income and residency requirements. Companies of all kinds have participated in the program, including TJ Maxx, Lurie Children’s Hospital, MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, Metro South Hospital in Blue Island, Black Ensemble Theater, Miracle Center Theater, James Martin Landscaping and Vista Health System. The paid work experiences average about 120 hours over a period of 6-10 weeks.

“The primary purpose is to get work experience for youth who don’t have much,” said Jamie Sandberg, supervisor of Youth Services at JVS Chicago. “They interview for positions, work on scheduling with their managers, complete time sheets and are expected to do real world work.  The ultimate goal is for them to be hired by their internship site or to continue with JVS job placement services.”

As usual, JVS Chicago is helping youth who face some of the most difficult challenges to employment. For example, more than 80 percent of the program’s enrollees have a disability or a documented medical condition, according to Sandberg. Nevertheless, the program has been able to keep almost 100 percent of its clients on the track to employment. Thanks to funding from the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, the Workforce Board of Lake County, JUF’s VOICES teen foundation, and the Kaplan Family Foundation of Minneapolis, Sandberg and her staff are able to stay with clients until they are “successful and stable—the average length of contact is about 18 months, and we often stay in touch a year after employment. We want to see them working successfully with steady hours or enrolling in college before the case manager, client and the support network decide that it’s time for independence.”

Training and apprenticeships have become so key that the US Department of Labor maintains an interactive map of the US listing all the training opportunities available in a given town. It’s not unusual for a town the size of Evanston or Oak Lawn to have 15 different work experiences available.

For more information on JVS Chicago’s youth services program or other work experience information, call 855.INFO.JVS or email

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