Internships: No experience necessary

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Internships used to be the purview of college juniors and seniors. With the real world looming large beyond the growing strains of Pomp and Circumstance, these students grabbed at any opportunity to make a few contacts and to learn a thing or two about the career they'd chosen. Times have changed.

Today's interns are more youthful and more focused. Chances are, they've already researched their career options and narrowed down their choices to two or three. They've taken the required prerequisites for college or technical school and they've put together a list of the top programs. Many even know where they want to work after earning their degree.

The internship, they muse, can help confirm well-laid plans before too much time and money are spent. Call it a shot of clarity in a hazy world. The opportunity is deemed so valuable that even the fact that most interns work for free is no deterrent.

"They want to have the experience before they waste a lot of money. They want to get a feel for it," says James Clark, principal of James M. Barry Career & Technical Education Center in Westbury-Barry Tech, for short-which offers a formal internship program. "[Our students] really are workforce ready. They're ready because they work with professionals in the field."

Getting started can seem overwhelming. It doesn't have to be. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of the experience.

Explore Possibilities

Get the ball rolling by visiting the business department or careers counselor at your school. Explain that you would like to arrange an internship. Be as specific as possible. If you want to do a particular type of work, say so. If you have a particular company in mind, share it. The staff will help you explore possibilities.

Another option is the Long Island Works Coalition, which can connect you with Long Island companies that welcome interns. Log onto www.liworks.org to create a resume tailored to Long Island companies; then post it on the site. You can also research businesses in the region, and send your resume directly to companies that catch your interest. While employers can search the Long Island Works Coalition's database of student resumes, you can browse the internship opportunities posted by these companies.

Prepare

Exploring internship opportunities is exciting. Just make sure that your employment portfolio is complete before you start applying for internships. This means that you have already written a resume and cover letter that can be tailored to specific internships. You have a list of three people on whom you can call for recommendations. And you've learned about interviewing and basic business etiquette. Your business department can help.

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Barry Tech, for example, offers internships as part of its Work Based Learning program. Before interning, most students shadow a working professional for a day or two. Work experience coordinators help them write letters of introduction, research the company and career, prepare and rehearse informational interview questions, and learn appropriate workplace behaviors and dress. And they always end each experience with a thank-you letter. Cooperative education opportunities, which often follow internships, offer Barry Tech students an opportunity to earn a salary while working part-time.

Play the Part

Treat your internship as a job. That means you play the part of an employee by arriving on time or even early, taking only agreed-upon breaks, and working until day's end. If you have to leave early for an important reason, clear it with your supervisor first. And if you are going to be unavoidably late, call ahead. Then make up the time by working through lunch or staying late.

Dress professionally. This can mean different types of clothing for different jobs. If you are working in a hospital, for example, you will probably wear scrubs. If you're working in an office, the usual shirt and tie for boys and skirt or dress slacks for girls is in order. If you're not sure what is appropriate, ask. And if you're getting ready one morning and are unsure about a particular outfit, err on the side of caution. Don't wear it.

Be Flexible

Attitude is crucial to the success of your internship. Chances are that you're starting out with a few strikes against you. You're probably the lowest person on the organizational chart, and the one with the fewest skills and least knowledge of the company and industry. That means you may be asked to do some mindless tasks such as photocopying, sorting, typing and even coffee making. Your supervisor may ask you to run errands or answer the phones.

And you thought you had landed your dream job. You may have. But everyone has to pay their dues and contribute to the company. So, perform every task, no matter how menial it seems, with enthusiasm and diligence. Consider it an opportunity to show your supervisor that you are a team player who's there when needed. And keeping in mind that every experience can be a learning experience-if you approach it that way.

Take Initiative

It's easy to sit back, do the jobs your supervisor gives you, and go home at five o'clock. Do more. After you complete an assigned task, ask for additional work. Suggest projects that interest you or that you think could help the company. Be willing, however, to do the so-called menial tasks as well. This will show your supervisor that you're a hard worker who appreciates all the tasks that go into running a business.

Keep in mind that while your supervisor has agreed to teach you about the business, he or she still has a job to do. If you can help them do that, they'll be more inclined to help you. "They enjoy helping the future workforce," says Terri Drossos, a business teacher and co-chair of the School-Business Partnership at East Islip High School. "I think the students get so much from the businesses; they start to realize what's on the Island. And that connection between business people and students, it's special."

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Network

The connections you make during an internship can be just as valuable as the lessons learned. The people you work with are the ones who could be in a position to hire or recommend you in a few years. So, it's important to establish a good relationship from the start. And when you leave, get their contact information and keep in touch.

"It's important while they're on their internship to build their network there," says Sue Gubing, an educational and careers consultant who runs CareerSmarts.com. She adds that networks can extend well beyond the workplace. "I don't think [high school students] realize that their friends, even if they're 16 or 17, are also a network because their friends have parents and aunts and uncles, too."

Gubing and Cheryl Davidson, director of the Long Island Works Coalition, recommend that you start building a network at the age of 16. Your list should include at least 10 people-everyone from teachers and family friends to employers and mentors. Use a database, an Excel spreadsheet, or a simple Rolodex. The important thing is to begin now. That way, when you're ready to work you'll have plenty of people to call on for references and job leads.

Bring Something Home

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Art students and writers know the importance of a portfolio. This sample of their work can demonstrate their talents to prospective employers. The truth is that everyone should have a portfolio. How else can someone judge your work? References are good; samples are even better.

So, use your internship as an opportunity to begin building a portfolio. Ask your supervisor if you can make copies of any projects, reports, presentations or other assignments you worked on. Place them in a presentation binder, behind protective plastic sheets. You can also include letters of recommendation, performance reviews and your resume.

Ultimately, an internship is your chance to experience the real world. That means the good, the bad and everything in between. "I think that it's a reality check sometimes," says East Islip High School's Drossos. "I think sometimes students have in their mind what they perceive a particular career to be. I think that it's important for them to see whether or not what they perceive to be is what actually is. I think they need to know what a good day is like and what a not-so-great day is like."

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