start of something: internships can give both students and employers an edge

This past summer was far from cruel for Nicholas Wilders, who spent the hot months getting down to a Cleveland Foundation-supported summer internship at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
For 11 weeks Wilders worked with the hall's strategy and planning department, collecting surveys and crunching data on visitor trends to help his bosses explore potential marketing opportunities for the museum. He then flipped his paid internship into a part-time special projects assistant gig, which has him doing additional survey work as well as canoodling with guests on the floor.
 Nicholas Wilders
"The biggest thing with being a twenty-something young professional is to be open to any opportunity that presents itself," says Wilders, 21, a Harrisburg, PA, native whose ultimate career goal is to work as a producer/director in theatre, with an emphasis on social justice.
Harnessing the energy of the bright, enthusiastic, personable students like Wilders currently matriculating through higher education channels is critical to developing a pipeline of talent for Northeast Ohio, say leaders of local organizations that include internship programs as part of their overall mission.
Findings from a report published last April by the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education (NOCHE) back this point. About 62 percent of 133 organizations and companies surveyed have a structured internship program, with a strong majority of those employers planning to maintain or increase the number of interns they brought in during 2014.
Young trainees also have a chance to turn their summertime flings into part- or full-time jobs, the report states. Over three-quarters of survey participants offer employment to at least some of their interns at the conclusion of the internship period, hiring them for entry level or other non-supervisory positions.
This number tracks nationally as well: According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, over 63 percent of paid interns interviewed for a 2013 study received at least one job offer with a median starting salary of $51,930, outpacing counterparts with unpaid internships or no internship experience.
An 'open door' to the job world
For Northeast Ohio, this means creating a "two-way street" where both interns and employers benefit from the relationship, says Stephen Love, program officer at the Cleveland Foundation. Since 1999, the community organization has provided summer internship programs linking students to area nonprofits and governmental agencies.
The 16 host sites for 2015 include Bike Cleveland, Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and Cuyahoga Land Bank.
A handful of 250 to 300 applicants are chosen for meaningful, career-related programs that display the depth and breadth of the region's nonprofit sector, with an aim of encouraging students to make Cleveland the center of their post-graduation universe.
“We want that talent pipeline to stay,” says Love. “Students attending schools locally or coming home for the summer can at least consider the opportunities here.”
From early June to mid-August, participants work for an organization or agency as if they're full-time employees. No getting coffee or collating documents, either. Rather, they engage in core short-term projects like Wilders' comprehensive survey work at the rock hall. Weekly half-day professional development seminars, meanwhile, teach students such working-world staples as résumé building and networking.
As organizations often lack the time, budget and know-how to create their own internship programs, the foundation assists host sites with identifying and hiring talented individuals well as developing a work plan for their student charges. Foundation-facilitated interns are paid $12 per hour, a cost defrayed by a stipend given to the host organization.
Real-world training can be a separator for soon-to-be-grads preparing to dip their toes into a competitive job market, Love says. Cultivating a network and sharpening leadership skills are experiences unlikely to be paralleled elsewhere.
"Establishing those skills early is crucial to student success," he says. "Internships provide an open door for those conversations."
Internships getting hot in Cleveland
An Ohio State University-led Quality & Value Initiative Report submitted last month to the Ohio Board of Regents recommended the state create more internship programs for students, citing the possibility of a powerful partnership between educational institutions and the workplace.
That would be fine with Jean Koehler, executive director of Summer on the Cuyahoga (SOTC), a venture that brings together 65 to 70 juniors and seniors attending eight partner schools for nine weeks of immersive internships and connections with Cleveland's professional, civic and social offerings.
Summer on the Cuyahoga Downtown Bike Tour 
The program was launched in 2002 by a local alumni branch of Yale University concerned about Cleveland's dearth of skilled young professionals. Case Western Reserve University, Denison University and Ohio Wesleyan joined the effort in later years, although 75 percent of SOTC's student participants are not from the region.
"The ultimate goal is to attract talent to Cleveland," says Koehler.
This ambition is fulfilled through a holistic conglomeration of offerings, starting with internships at private, nonprofit and for-profit entities like KeyBank and BioEnterprise. A series of Cleveland-centric events fill students' off time, Koehler notes. SOTC interns can be found meeting local political and business leaders, or taking a bike tour of downtown neighborhoods.
Pairing up with local alumni hosts is another program component. Hosts serve as a connection to the city, ideally as recruiters to bring students back to town after graduation. Free group housing on the campus of Cleveland State University is the final piece, standing as a comfortable incentive that trainees may not find in New York City or Boston.
Cleveland stays on the radar for a portion of attendees, says the SOTC director. In 2013, the summer program had 62 interns, 15 of whom found part- or full-time employment here. Even for those who move, the alumni network stays in touch, giving YPs a window into Cleveland should they want to relocate long-term. 
"What's great is you have 70 students working in different capacities while experiencing the city," says Koehler. "It's helping change the perception of Cleveland, to understand its vibrancy and possibility."
College Now Greater Cleveland, a nonprofit that offers scholarships to Greater Cleveland high school students, holds an annual career fair for scholarship recipients interested in jobs or internships with over two dozen participating companies.
This year's fair on Jan. 9 corralled 30 businesses from a variety of industries, with Hyland Software and American Greetings among the companies to make an appearance. Over 300 students, many of them from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, were expected to attend the event.
Academic retention may be College Now's raison d'être, but the organization also looks to keep brainpower in Cleveland through meaningful employment, says mentoring program manager Madeline Rife.
CollegeNow and Young Leaders Open House at College Now Greater Cleveland 
As Rife's title suggests, mentorships are part of that process: Local professionals guide partner students throughout their college career, teaching them interpersonal skills while taking them through the paces of résumé building and LinkedIn profiles.
However, there's no replacement for immersion in a work environment, and that's where internships are invaluable. "Our kids are getting skills they don't learn in school," says Rife. "It's a chance to practice basic interactions and networking in a professional setting. Developing networks with mentors and (other interns) are the ties that can keep them in Cleveland."
College Now further support students with discussion topics on finding internships, a mantle that program mentors take up as well. There's no guarantee college grads with a taste of the outside will return, but there are those who want to be part of the city's upswing.
"Cleveland looks different for people in their early 20s," says Rife. "It's like coming back to a new city."
An economic development opportunity
As internships are a way for Northeast Ohio businesses to identify talent, The Career Center at Cuyahoga Community College is happy to expedite that process through free co-op/internship services for students.
Large-scale annual job fairs provide the hookup, as do smaller campus recruiting events that bring up to a dozen employers seeking skilled workers. About 75 percent of the internships Tri-C brings in are paid opportunities, says JT Neuffer, the center's director of employer relations.
Students will spend between 180 and 300 hours with a business, becoming integrated into the office environment while working on projects. For employers, the relationship is low risk with the possibility of high reward. Boston Market's marketing division recently hired a Tri-C business student right out of an internship after having difficulty filling the position locally, Neuffer notes.
"What we offer is a continuous marketing piece promoting internships to employers and students," he says. "Students become a valuable resource for a company."
According to the NOCHE-published study, businesses use interns to assist with projects, gain exposure at colleges and universities and create a rich, sustainable talent pool. It's that final point that interests NOCHE, as the organization's talent advocacy efforts include a free online internship platform for both Northeast Ohio employers and college students.
Center for Arts Inspired Learning student interns take a bow during their internship experience 
The NEOintern network consists of 25,000 students, who are able browse hundreds of new NOCHE-approved internship posts every month. Users can post resumes to the database, which interfaces with the Ohio Means Jobs statewide internship platform.
"The system is available for anyone as long as the job is in Northeast Ohio," says Patrick Britton, NOCHE's assistant vice president of programs. "We wanted to remove any barriers a company might need to host interns."
The decade-old platform has about 2,500 companies, many of them hiring more than one intern at a time. Post-internship job placements are more difficult to track, though NOCHE estimates between 300 and 400 trainees -- or about 70 to 80 percent of platform users -- move on to employment opportunities with their host companies every year. Cleveland stalwart Sherwin-Williams hires hundreds of interns annually, with many of those turning into full-time positions. Approximately 70 percent of General Electric's new employees emerge from the corporation's intern and co-op programs, Britton notes.
"Internships are a real economic development strategy for Cleveland," he says. "The more people getting internships can mean more people getting jobs."
For 2015, NOCHE is planning a career fair centered on college-age IT talent. In addition, its Entrepreneurial Internship Program will provide support for starter businesses wanting to create or enhance intern-centrc programming.
"These programs are a strong way to get local students who've chosen to be here to stay here," Britton says. "When I was in college the idea was you had to leave for somewhere else. I don't think that's true anymore."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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