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Students Who Want to Get Good Jobs Fast Should Do Internships First

Students in their last two years in an undergraduate business program who want to better market themselves to potential employers should participate in an internship before graduating.

That's the advice of Jack Gault, chair of West Chester University's Marketing Department. He's directed the department's paid intern program since 1994 and placed nearly 1,500 students (mostly undergraduate marketing majors) with more than 200 intern employers.

For more than 20 years, one of Gault's main research streams has been the effects of undergraduate internships on early career success. His research quantifies what other researchers have anecdotally conjectured based on surveys of how students thought an internship might benefit them. Gault has discovered:

  1. Interns enjoy higher starting salaries and job satisfaction than non-interns.
  2. Interns find jobs in less time and receive more job offers than non-interns.
  3. Higher performing interns earn higher starting salaries than interns who only met their employers' expectations.
  4. Employers' perceptions of the internship program and the university are affected by the performance level of their interns.

"These employer survey results corroborate my earlier published empirical research of intern versus non-intern alumni," he notes. He's referring to his 2000 study, published in the Journal of Marketing Education, that offered the first hard evidence that an internship contributed positively to early career success. This seminal article (cited in more than 200 subsequent publications) surveyed alumni business majors who had completed internships and those who had not. Gault found those interns' starting salaries were 9.3 percent higher than their non-intern counterparts; the time for interns to obtain their first job was two months versus 4.5 for non-interns; and at two years in the workforce, interns were earning on average 17 percent more than their non-intern counterparts mostly due to earlier promotions. Interns also reported significantly higher levels of job satisfaction than non-interns.

Another interesting fact discovered was that women graduates with internship experience earned pay equal to that of their male counterparts. In his most recent research (which he is currently preparing for publication), Gault and co-investigators WCU Management professor Evan Leach, and Marketing adjunct faculty and PPD Advisory Board member Marc Duey surveyed more than 600 managers of U.S.-based corporations to determine how they perceived the value of internship experience including the relevance of the internship to a full-time entry-level job description.

Their preliminary finding: High-performing interns whose experience was relevant to the entry-level position of interest earn significantly higher starting salaries than all interns and non-interns.

Gault also notes that his most recent study corroborated that "high intern performance results in an enhanced perception of the value of the internship program to employers." Research indicates that intern programs must be validated by "clear academic objectives, well organized and contain integrated educational content, with standardized evaluation methods."

Managers who responded to Gault's survey noted that internships of about four to six months long were optimal for students to gain sufficient professional experience.

"These students get hands-on direct industry experience," Gault concludes. "Smart hiring managers know that asking for a prospective employee's internship evaluation will provide a better indicator of their future performance than any letter of recommendation."

Further evaluation of the data is giving Gault, Leach and Duey insight into what other types of collegiate activities matter to prospective employers of entry-level applicants. The team looked at how employers rated participation in 34 collegiate activities including student government, athletics, social groups, service, and of course, internships. Early evaluation of the data shows that recruiters rated "relevant internship experience" at the top of the list when making decisions to hire and pay increased compensation. Gault and his colleagues will complete their analysis for this study over the winter.