Program rigor and corporate partnerships help UA students land experiences that pave the way for college-to-career transition.
It's one of the oldest Catch-22s around. Getting a good job often requires some relevant experience. But getting experience usually entails getting a job. Internships, however, can often break that stalemate.
In fact, more than 80 percent of undergraduates in the retailing and consumer sciences program at the University of Arizona's Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences graduate with internships under their belts. It's a significant factor in giving them an edge in the job market. An internship nearly doubles a graduate's chance of landing a job quickly, according to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE.
Internships had been rising nationally, but according to the NACE 2009 Experiential Education Survey, those numbers took a 20 percent dive in 2009 as employers tightened belts – an under-the-radar side effect of the economic crisis.
As businesses slowly begin to offer internships again – a 3 percent rise this year, according to the NACE 2010 Internship Study – competition is stiffer than ever. In today's undergraduate environment, finding one has become almost a prerequisite to a quick transition from college to a career.
With students now competing for fewer positions, companies taking them on can be even more selective. The Norton School has produced a steady placement rate just over 80 percent among its roughly 100 annual graduates year after year. Norton students scored internships in 2010 with more than 30 companies nationally, including CVS, Enterprise, Home Depot, Kohl's, Nordstrom, PetSmart, Pottery Barn, Starbucks, Target, Walmart and JCPenney.
The Norton School's Lundgren Center for Retailing is the only center in the country that supports a full academic major in consumer science and retailing. It also is one of just a handful of schools to offer an academic program on retail strategy with a focus on building business acumen. Many universities focus more narrowly on fashion and may offer only a certificate in retailing as part of a generic business major.
The Norton School's high placement rate comes with a cost, though. While the vast majority of internships that Norton students secure are paid, that rarely balances an average of more than $3,000 in expenses commonly accrued by transplanting to another city for six to 12 weeks.
Two years ago, the Norton School launched a scholarship program to defray costs for as many students as possible. But limited funding means most students shoulder the financial burden alone.
"This has been and will continue to be my top priority, to provide students with the experiential learning experiences that I strongly believe are critical for preparing our students to be competitive in the business world," said Norton School director Soyeon Shim.
Even so, the experiences pay back in dividends, said Felicia Frontain, senior undergraduate and internship coordinator for retailing and consumer sciences. The NACE 2009 study, Fontain said, found employment among internship veterans is double that of non-internship peers four months after graduation in a sample of 16,500 graduates.
Starting salaries for Norton students are typically $1,000 to $2,000 higher than peers without internship experience, and internship veterans are often fast-tracked for executive positions.
Frontain noted one benefit that can't be summed up in statistics: "These programs give students an amazing diversity of tasks in every kind of consumer retailing situation, from online sales to kiosks to brick-and-mortar stores and, on the manufacturing side, everything from greeting cards to cars."
One UA intern at Home Depot headquarters in Atlanta, for example, was charged with pulling together the chain's crucial holiday season gift center, responsible for choosing products to developing signage and displays, planning orders and coordinating with merchants.
"When they go through that kind of experience," Frontain said, "that's when I see the transformation from student to career-ready."
Employers also take on costs associated with internships, with a single position adding about $6,000 to expense sheets, according to an informal survey by the Norton School in 2008.
Internships at that level often are "test runs" for potential post-graduation employees, said Melinda Burke, director of the Lundgren Center. The majority of Norton's retailing students – 92 percent in 2008 – leave their summer internships with the promise of a job waiting once they've completed their degrees.
An important part of Burke's responsibilities is building the Partner Companies program, where organizations make parallel commitments to support the Lundgren Center and the retailing and consumer sciences program through underwriting and the sharing of time and expertise.
"Our Partner Companies send skilled, experienced employees to classrooms for presentations and coaching in professional development," Burke said. "In return, they get an unmatched opportunity to connect with students that share a passion for their industries."
She said the program is a model for other schools because it presents a "win-win arrangement."
"For students, we have these well-known, vetted organizations that offer incredible experiential learning, and for our partners, especially when working with a large campus like ours, it means an efficient way past the sorting through multiple levels of departments, colleges and career centers just to locate students they want to reach."
Justin Saldivar and Chelsea Fischer are two of the more than 80 retailing and consumer sciences students who complete internships each year.
Saldivar, a third-year student, recently completed a 12-week internship at Dick's Sporting Goods' corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh. There he dealt with product orders, meetings with vendors, helping determine the Spring 2011 collection of flip-flops, toning shoes, Crocs and boat shoes, evaluating the "minimalist" running shoes category, creating a casual shoes style index, and developing a more cost-efficient order strategy to compensate for the shoe-size-demand bell curve.
"Where I was expecting to serve as more of an observer in many capacities, I have been included in every part of my manager's job, from choosing which product I feel we should carry, to calling the managers of companies and having dinner with their executive staffs," he said.
"I feel infinitely more prepared to enter the corporate environment than I did two months ago. Adapting to corporate culture is something they can attempt to explain in school, but a lecture or project in no way compares to the lessons garnered through actually participating in the business world."
Chelsea Fischer, a fourth-year student, spent eight weeks at the Ross Stores' buying office in New York City. Fisher processed purchase orders, interpreted stock analysis, met with vendors, applied retail analytics to interpret sales results and negotiated with vendors and upper management.
"In buying, a lot of people assume you're behind a desk ‘crunching numbers.' Although knowing your numbers is crucial, I was out and about in the market," she said.
"If I wasn't meeting with vendors and developing relationships, I was out comparison shopping the competition and studying price points, visual merchandising and trends," she said. "I was surprised by how much my boss valued my opinion for input on product development and purchases, and now I'm confident about problem recognition and resolution as well as developing relations with people in the workforce."