Words by Alissa Nance and Marissa Irish

It’s more than fetching coffee

This year’s college graduates — if they haven’t already done so — are about to pound the Eastside pavement in search of job opportunities. Even those armed with high GPAs may find that a bachelor’s degree alone doesn’t cut it in today’s competitive marketplace. Employers want experience, and in order to stand out among their peers, recent grads need one magic word on their resume: “intern.”

In recent years, internships have become a ticket to a full-time position. About 52 percent of interns are converted to full-time employees, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2015 Internship & Co-op Survey. Students who aren’t hired by their internship facilitator nevertheless can show employers that they have hands-on experience that’s difficult to attain in the classroom.

Many colleges and universities have caught on to this trend. No longer are career centers urging students to find summer jobs unaffiliated with their majors; instead, students are encouraged to pursue summer internships throughout their undergraduate careers. Seeking to better prepare students for the “real world,” some schools even offer internship courses that propel students from the classroom into the boardroom.

Matthew LaCroix, left, a University of Washington student and Nintex intern, chats with Todd Kopet, the company’s finance director.

Matthew LaCroix, left, a University of Washington student and Nintex intern, chats with Todd Kopet, the company’s finance director.

With so many students vying for internships, landing the perfect one can feel like a job in itself. “When I applied to Nintex, I must’ve applied to a hundred places,” said Matthew LaCroix, a senior at the University of Washington and an intern in Nintex’s finance department. LaCroix’s not alone. Many students apply to dozens of places at once, flooding companies with internship applications.

Even though companies increasingly are using internships as recruiting tools, some interns fear that they’ll primarily just be making copies or fetching coffee. “I really did think that they were just going to have me copy papers all day,” LaCroix said. He soon found out this was not the case. “From the get-go, they gave me this awesome project that I’ve just had so much fun working on.”

Eastside companies understand that college students need actual experience, and many give their interns significant responsibilities to test their potential as employees. Interns now find themselves being tasked with projects that have a real impact on the company and themselves.

“It was almost like the intern title was just a formality,” said Gordon Patterson, a UW graduate student interning at Apptio. “Rather, I felt more like a contractor that had actual influence in the design decisions.”

At WE Communications in Bellevue, interns are working with clients within a few weeks.

“Our interns spend the vast majority of their time working on client-facing projects and assignments,” said Jamil Ghores, who manages WE’s internship program. Considering WE’s client list, which includes Safeway and Microsoft, interns get to work with some of the biggest names in business.

Interns can be surprised by the independence they are granted on certain projects. “I’ve interned at big companies like Google, as well as smaller startups, and this was the first time that my manager said to me, ‘I am not going to micromanage you. Here is the project, make it happen,’” Patterson said.

That autonomy promotes innovative thinking and fosters a sense of responsibility that employers value.

“It was actually one of the most rewarding internships in that aspect because I truly had to learn to navigate ambiguity and break out of my comfort zone to figure out how to propel this project forward,” Patterson said.

Some Eastside companies require interns to work across several fields. At WE, interns work with at least two teams with different clients or specializations, Ghores said, and Apptio shuffles their interns around early.

“Our interns go through an onboarding process where they have to build working relationships with people in at least five departments,” said Patrick Neeman, an intern supervisor at Apptio. “Many of the interns said this was the best thing about working at Apptio — working with so many people with different skill sets and experiences to offer.”

Interns also must work closely with their fellow interns. Meredith Whitlock, an intern at WE working on the Microsoft account, said she sticks with her teammates as they learn the ropes together. “All of the interns are still learning, and with each of us working on different assignments every day, it is extremely helpful to have such close support,” she said.

Internships give young workers the opportunity to learn from seasoned professionals, but they also serve as a valuable networking opportunity. “Getting to meet all of these people during this (transitional) period of my life is just awesome,” LaCroix said.

For Patterson, connecting with previous Apptio interns proved to be a valuable exercise. “It opened up a network for us to help each other find full-time jobs around Seattle,” he said.

Many companies see their interns as members of a hiring pool. Ghores knows this path well; four years after his own internship at WE, he is now a senior account executive. “Our track record for hiring interns into full-time roles is quite solid,” he said.

It’s clear that internships open many doors, providing daily learning experiences and potential job opportunities. As they prepare the next generation to take on the job market and the future of business, it’s easy to see why internships have become a staple of the college experience.

Matthew LaCroix

Matthew LaCroix

Q&A: Matthew LaCroix

Intern, Nintex

Matthew LaCroix is a Mercer Island native and a student at the University of Washington. He is on track to graduate in June with a bachelor of science in economics and a bachelor of arts in Chinese. In December, he began working as a financial analyst intern at Nintex, where he focuses primarily on building a usable data structure to help Nintex better understand its customers.

Describe a typical day at Nintex.
I usually roll in around 7:30. I like to be there a little bit before the people I work under, so that I can have something to show them, because we usually start out with a meeting. Then I have lunch around noon and go home around 5. During that time, I deal with a few month-end things. I only work two days a week, but I do get those huge chunks of time at the office, which is really nice.

Do you feel like you’ve been given a lot of responsibility at your internship? 
What I was kind of blown away with is that I’ve been entrusted with this super-cool, meaty project of analyzing renewal data. I’m developing my own slide backs and processes from the ground up. I love it.

How has your experience at Nintex changed your idea of what a typical internship is? 
I really felt like an employee. I was given real things to do. I got to develop my own things, I get to make presentations that are valued. I’m not just sitting in a desk, crunching numbers on a spreadsheet all day.

What is the best part of interning at Nintex?
I would say that I get to work with an amazing team of people. It really feels, at least to me, that building a strong sense of community is their top priority.

How do you like the office space?
When I applied to Nintex, I did a lot of research about the actual business, but I wasn’t thinking about the actual atmosphere inside of the building. When I came in for my interview, I was just totally blown away. It went from, “Oh I’d really like to work here,” to gripping the seat of my chair, like, “I really, really want this.” Our cafeteria blows me away every single day. We call it the Chill Out room. I’ve always heard rumors that places like Microsoft have Xboxes and stuff; we have that. Snack time is kind of all day for me now.

How do you like the office culture?
It feels like almost every other day, if not more often, there’s some big event that everyone goes to. I really do get to feel like part of the office, which is really great at Nintex, since there’s so much going on there all of the time. There’s a shuffleboard tournament this week; how could I forget that?

Do you work with other interns in the finance department?
I’m the only finance intern. I actually think that I may or may not be the first one. I do hang out with other interns in the Chill Out room from time to time.

What would you say is the biggest challenge of working at Nintex? 
I think my biggest challenge is that it’s difficult to live two lives: one of a student, one of a working person. Occasionally, the two collide, and it’s kind of difficult to go from one to the other. Luckily, I do get to work a full day, but it’s sometimes hard to have a really great day at work and then come home and try to get into all of my coursework. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge. I love being in the office, but when I get done, I just want to be like everyone else and just lay down, to not have to crack open a book.

How do you think this experience has prepared you for life after college? 
The really boring answer is that now I am an Excel genius. It’s a hard skill that I can put on my resume that is just super valuable. And learning to exist in the business environment — how to draft a good email and navigate different people and go onto the third floor to bug the sales team about something — is what I hope will differentiate me in the next phase of my life.

Are there opportunities to get a full-time job at Nintex after your internship? 
Yeah, I say with a gleam in my eye — that’s definitely something we’ve talked about.

Meredith Whitlock

Meredith Whitlock

Q&A: Meredith Whitlock

Intern, WE Communications

Meredith Whitlock recently graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in journalism and mass communication, and has been at WE Communications since mid-February. Her long-term goal is to work in international development. She looks forward to acquiring experiences and skills in the PR industry that will allow her to make impactful change in her future career.

What is a typical day like at WE?  
I split my time between two teams on the Microsoft account: One team primarily handles press inquiries, and the other focuses on corporate and legal affairs. There’s never a typical day for me; each one is different and dynamic, which I enjoy. It’s a diverse mix of coverage monitoring, outlet research, catching up on the news, and meetings with my teammates, clients, or fellow interns.

So you don’t have a strict routine? 
I do have a pretty regular morning routine. When I get into the office, I spend each morning assessing media and flagging news coverage that is important to our clients. I’m excited that there is so much to learn and become familiar with, including the process of responding and handling the large influx of media requests we receive, so I spend time working closely with my teammates to learn the ropes.

What was it like when you started at WE? 
There was so much to learn coming into the agency. We began the orientation process right away, which included a multitude of team meetings and training sessions. I felt this was crucial to understanding the process of the agency and gearing ourselves up before getting thrown into the hustle and bustle of account work.

You’ve had the chance to work with WE’s biggest client, Microsoft. What has that been like? 
Working with Microsoft has been an amazing learning experience so far. I never thought I would find myself interested in technology, but there are so many diverse teams that comprise the Microsoft account. I find myself continuously engaged in topics I didn’t guess I would be interacting with at a PR firm, like tech policy, security, and public opinion.

How often do you work with other interns? 
I work closely with other interns, whether they are on similar teams or if I’m just asking for advice or edits on a project. There are so many dedicated and passionate people working alongside you that are always willing to help.

How has your experience at WE altered your impressions of what a typical internship is? 
I personally came from a nonprofit background, where I was used to wearing multiple hats at one time. My experience at WE thus far has been really rewarding, as I’m diving into specific areas and already expanding my skill set within PR.

What have you found most difficult about your internship? 
One of the biggest challenges for me was understanding the level of communication necessary for success, in addition to understanding how to leverage my resources, here at WE.

What’s your favorite thing about working at WE? 

I truly enjoy learning. There are people that work here from diverse backgrounds with varied interests, which provides a pool of knowledge to dive into and explore, and I have only scratched the surface. Not only that, but the people here are so eager to help you achieve your goals. I believe that is pretty unique and extraordinary.

How do you think WE has prepared you for your future? 
WE is definitely preparing all of the interns for a full-time career in the communications industry. Through my time here so far, I have already seen myself grow and become more confident in my work thanks to an amazing support system.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of “425 Business.”