internshipsAs a quick search of the Web will show, the very concept of "internships'' has become an industry in and of itself. A wide range of resources are devoted to listing, discussing, describing and ranking internships and even, as I've mentioned before, selling internships.

There's no doubt that part of the appeal in starting, say, a Web site about internships is that its intended audience (college-age kids – and to some extent their parents) is also the target audience of many would-be advertisers. So a site such as InternWeb can tell potential sponsors it will be delivering useful information to a demographic that is very much in demand.

There's nothing new about commercial advertising being used to fund the delivery of information. One thing that interests me about these sites is that they can be a potential equalizer between the internships with large corporations that many people have heard of, and the internships with small mom-and-pop businesses and non-profits that otherwise might go unnoticed.

Ted Williams said his own meaningful experience as an intern spurred him to find a way to promote a variety of programs that might be lacking the attention and recognition they deserve. Williams helped launch the site InternshipKing this month. (With all the attention garnered by the media-savvy Intern Queen Lauren Berger, which WalletPop and Money College wrote about in late March, it was probably only a matter of time before the male version of this line of royalty popped up.).

"Great internship programs don't get enough credit – we want to change this,'' he told me. "BusinessWeek creates an annual list of the top 50 internships at large companies, but we wanted to highlight some of the very best internship programs, no matter what the company size.''

Indeed, BusinessWeek's top-ranked programs in recent years include nationally recognized names like Goldman Sachs, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and Deloitte and Touche, as well as household-name corporations like Microsoft, Disney, General Electric, Amazon.com and Target. For small, local opportunities, students have to turn elsewhere – which is what drove Williams, in part, to create his site.

But internships at smaller companies -- which often feature hands-on experience that can't be duplicated in a larger setting -- can offer a host of unsung rewards.

Ilyse Strongin-Bombicino, who has a successful 20-year career in the public relations industry and recently co-founded Ripple Public Relations, says the most valuable internship experience -- both in terms of experience and eventual payoff -- can indeed come wrapped in a small package. The University of Illinois graduate has worked with, and ended up hiring many interns.

"I tell people all the time that the only people I have ever hired are my former interns. I have never had interns just to have free labor; there's a lot of time and energy and training that goes into working with them. We're working hand-in-hand with them,'' she says, teaching them the skills of the industry.

"I can say this: Every one of my past interns has gotten an amazing job -- either through our connections within the industry or hired by the (agency) I was working with.'' With an internship at a smaller employer, the likelihood of working with managers, executives or even the owner increases -- as does, sometimes, the level of experience gained. When she interned at a relatively small public relations agency, "I was actually making calls. Somebody wasn't handing me a press release and saying, 'Send it out to the database.' "

"I was lucky enough to be hired as an intern in a fast growing technology company,'' Williams said. "As a student, I didn't really find any resources that enabled me to differentiate myself from others or find high growth small companies. It seemed like all large companies cared about was GPA and university rank -- which I understand makes sense for investment banking type internships, but entrepreneurial companies and entrepreneurial students need a better way to meet each other.''

While BusinessWeek's rankings, for example, provide incredibly useful and sought-after information such as average hourly wages as well as the percentage of interns who were offered full-time jobs, Williams says there is much beyond hard numbers that goes into an internship's value. "I know it sounds cliche, but experience still trumps everything else,'' he said. "Sure, every student loves getting paid, but great students, the type of students that will go on to lead businesses one day, are looking for the chance to do exciting work. Great students want to do intern work that matters.

"I've been shocked at the amount of interest in internships. People are talking about them. People seem to know that when done right, companies have the chance to receive great work at a cheap cost and students have the chance to gain meaningful experience while making some extra cash. There is a tremendous opportunity to do it better.''

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