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Internship program gives USFSP students competitive edge in workforce

For many college seniors, graduation can be bittersweet. The reality of what it takes to find a good-paying job can be quite daunting.

There’s also the potential of finding out that the dream job in your career path is not what you imagined it would be. It can be a rude awakening. And you still have to pay back student loans.

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg Kate Tiedemann College of Business, hopes to change that paradigm with an expanding internship program that matches students with local businesses.

Recent graduates Ashley Lipsey, Eloy Martinez and David Montalvo, and seniors Melody Ucros, Paula Anderson and Thomas Ashurst are among the many students benefitting from that program.

“I knew I wanted to do something in finance, but didn’t know what. An internship was a way for me to test drive my career,” says Lipsey in a recent USFSP YouTube video she did with Martinez, Montalvo and Ucros that promotes the value of internships for undergraduates at the school. (Click here to see the video.) 

Internships for USFSP business majors aren’t required, but they’re strongly encouraged, says Sri Sundaram, Ph.D., the new dean of the USFSP College of Business.

“Classroom learning provides foundational knowledge.  Internships add the experiential component,” says Sundaram.  “But they also help students develop important soft skills, like working with a team in a professional work environment,” he says.

There’s also the matter of money. In a tight job market, internships can often make the difference in helping secure a good job.  

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, completing an internship increases students’ chances of having a job at graduation by 52.7 percent.

Sixty percent of the employers surveyed by the NACE reported that they preferred hiring employees who had work experience gained through an internship or co-op program.

A win-win for businesses and students

Kacee Howes, Director of Internship Development for the greater Tampa Bay office for Northwestern Mutual, knows first-hand the value of internships.  

When she was an undergraduate at Clemson University, Howes came home to Tampa Bay for the summer and signed on to intern for Northwestern Mutual. She was hired after the program ended and went to work for the company soon after graduating.

Howes has now been with Northwestern Mutual for eight years. For the last two years she has been in her current position working with college interns.

“We love the internship program because it brings a lot of youth and energy to our company, but it’s also a good investment for us,” says Howes. “Internships have been how we have found some of our most successful employees. Former interns tend to be the most productive and have the highest retention rates.”

In fact, says Howes, half of Northwestern Mutual’s leadership team across the nation had an internship with the company first.  

Locally, USFSP grad Ashley Lipsey benefitted from Northwestern Mutual’s internship program. She completed an internship there in the fall of 2015 and is now a full-time advisor at the Tampa office.

USFSP College of Business isn’t the only program advocating for internships. There’s a nationwide trend toward universities partnering with local businesses to promote internships for students.

A 2015 NACE Student Survey found that 65 percent of bachelor’s degree graduates participated in an internship and/or co-op – the highest percentage for any graduating class since the survey was first reported in 2007.

Gary Patterson, Ph.D., was interim dean of the College of Business when funding from the Florida State Legislature a few years ago allowed the college to expand its career adviser team from one to three staff members.

That was a big benefit to business majors, he says.

Better prepared for future careers

“We were able to leverage the funding we received and expand the services we provide,” says Patterson. “We are trying to really encourage all students to have this type of learning experience before they graduate.”

Why is it so valuable? “The students are young; it’s a way for them to try out their potential career choices,” says Patterson. “We’re also finding that students who participate in an internship get a better job and they’re better paid. And corporations getting a more prepared employee,” he says.

The President of the USFSP Entrepreneurship Club, Melody Ucros says she pursued an internship to “learn more about analytics and the rules involved in working for a big corporation.”

Now, as a sales operation intern for Sharp Electronics at Tech Data, she is monitoring performance, doing forecasting, budgeting and implementing programs that increase sales. 

“I started in January and I love it,” says Ucros. “I have been able to validate the type of work I thought I liked and have gained some expertise in it.”

Her next step is graduate school at the IE Business School in Madrid, Spain.

Eloy Martinez had a similar experience. He graduated last year from USFSP with a double major in marketing and entrepreneurship and is now an account coordinator at Kobie Marketing -- after completing an internship there first.

The first person in his family to graduate from high school and college, Martinez says one of the biggest values of his internship was the chance to confirm that he was pursuing the right career path.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the marketing field and what I learned during my internship turned out to be perfect, confirming exactly what I wanted to do,” says Martinez, who is now in process of applying to graduate schools for his MBA.  

Martinez also acknowledges his USFSP professors. “Having the internship also confirmed everything my professors had been telling me for four years – in fact, I emailed them to tell them thank you.”

Campus-wide focus on work experience

Many of the colleges within USFSP have been encouraging -- or requiring -- internships for some time.  

But more recently there’s been “a big push to grow more opportunities for students in all disciplines to gain greater experience in the real world through volunteering, professional associations and internships,” says Lesa Shouse, Director of the USFSP Career Center.  

She says that as part of its Vision 2020 Strategic Plan, USFSP is working toward creating a more formalized internship program that not only expands opportunities, but also creates resources for students that can cover everything from professional and ethical behavior to communication and telephone etiquette that will be expected on the job.  

Career advisers like Karli Gross, Assistant Director of the Career Management Office at the Kate Tiedemann College of Business, reach out to local corporations to develop partnerships. They also work with students to fine-tune their resumes and help hone job interview skills – critical steps in securing employment.

Accounting major Paula Anderson is one of many students who has benefitted from the Career Management Office. 

“They were super helpful,” says Anderson, who is interning at Frazier and Deeter, a national tax, accounting and consulting firm with a local office in Tampa.

Anderson joined the firm during the busy tax season, often working overtime each week to handle the workload. “It was very valuable hands-on experience,” she says. “Many times at the end of an internship the company will extend a full-time offer, and that’s exactly what happened for me. I graduate in December and will start working there full-time in January.”

This story is part of a series -- supported by USFSP -- about innovative programs and talented people working and studying at the public university based in downtown St. Petersburg. 

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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