That's the advice of Kristen McGuire, executive director of the Baltimore Collegetown Network, a decade-old consortium of 14 local colleges and universities that works to attract students to the area, keep them engaged in the community and persuade them to stay after graduation. The network, which is funded by its members, offers services such as a free shuttle for students and discounts on tickets to events and attractions.
Last week, the network launched an upgraded website, http://www.baltimorecollegetown.org, which McGuire described as free, one-stop shopping — a database that allows employers to post internship opportunities and students to perform custom searches by field, school term and hours.
McGuire spoke with The Baltimore Sun about the network's mission, the growing importance of internships and the condition of the job market for recent college graduates.
Question: Tell me about the mission of Baltimore Collegetown Network and how that's evolved.
Answer: When it started, it was the CFOs [of member colleges] meeting for coffee [to talk] … about how to get business. Since we've grown into a bigger organization, [we try] to attract more students to Baltimore through marketing pieces, showing it's not all crime and grime and there's great stuff in Baltimore. The second thing is to engage [students] in the area, and that engagement might be an internship or community service or taking our shuttle.
Q: How would you describe the job market for this year's graduates? What are their prospects?
A: I think that students are encouraged that the Baltimore area is trending upward in terms of jobs. When you look nationally, we've been pretty stable. I'm hopeful students will be able to find jobs here in 2011 and in 2012 as the government ramps up BRAC [the military Base Realignment and Closure program].
Q: How competitive is it to land an internship these days?
A: It really depends on the company, but students know that they have to get an internship — that's on their radar. With 120,000 students in the network, it's certainly competitive, but it depends on the field you're in. We encourage them to start early. Companies can have their choice of students, and they want the rock-star students who can come in and help them make a difference. We tell students they should be looking for a summer internship now, and [we] encourage businesses to post their summer internships [now].
Q: Has it become more of a challenge in a difficult economy for students to find the good internships?
A: Businesses are looking at internships as a way to get projects done. They're finding it's a good way to meet short-term needs if they can't find the money to hire for a full-time position. There might be more opportunity for interns in a down economy. It also helps businesses develop a [hiring] pipeline. … When [they resume hiring] they've [already] field-tested a group of people.
Q: Why is it important for students to land internships? Has it become more important?
A: Getting the work experience is really important. It helps students develop a network of contacts and can help them secure a job before graduation.
Q: Are these internships typically paid or unpaid?
A: It's really both. Some small nonprofits offer unpaid internships, and students are still taking them. … Sometimes they can offer stipends to cover parking or lunches.
Q: What makes the internship website unique?
A: We first launched it three years ago. In dealing with businesses, they often said they would like to hire but had no idea where to start posting because every college had different requirements and it was difficult to navigate. We provide a single front door.
Q: What has changed?
A: Before, it was a big list of internships that was a little unwieldy. Now you can search by semester or field or paid or unpaid. And businesses can now log in, save information, post an employer profile and link back to the [company] website.
Q: How many companies post internships and how many positions are available?
A: There are usually a couple hundred [jobs] up there at any one time. The number of companies has [totaled] from about 400 to 500 over the last three to four years.
Q: What types of internship experience are employers looking for when hiring for full-time jobs?
A: It's the quality of the work being done. If an intern is filing papers … it's not as good as being on the ground and making something happen and being involved in the company's bottom line in some way. Employers are looking for someone who can contribute back to the company.