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For a post-college career, don’t neglect professional experience

By Josh Howarth,

You’re working hard toward earning that ticket to a great career: a college degree. You know you’re headed in the right direction, given that the unemployment rate for college-educated professionals today is much lower than that of the general population.

As you progress through your coursework toward that all-important degree, however, don’t forget something that could be just as important: on-the-job experience while you’re still in college.

If your reaction is, “But I’m working as hard as I can to complete my schooling,” here’s something to consider: Nine in 10 (91 percent) chief financial officers (CFOs) interviewed for a new survey by Accountemps said it is important for entry-level accounting and finance professionals to gain practical experience while in college. While the study was targeted to the accounting profession, the message cannot be clearer for all students: Don’t wait until you’ve graduated to begin building your marketability. In addition to the hands-on skills and experience you gain, you’ll also be expanding your network.

 You not only need to do a superlative job in your classwork during college, but also prepare yourself for steps you’ll need to take once in the job market. Here are some tips:

 ●Investigate internships: One of the primary ways professionals who have not yet entered the job market gain work experience is through internship programs that typically last from a few weeks to several months — or sometimes longer. As with any type of employment, finding the right opportunity will take some research and maybe even a little pavement pounding.

 The Internet is an excellent starting point for finding resources, but don’t forget the career center at your educational institution. Talk with professors  who may know of internship opportunities not advertised, or that require a recommendation from your school.

 Also turn to mentors, friends or family for guidance: For instance, if you know a close friend’s parent works for a leading company in your area, see if you can meet with him or her to obtain career advice. That kind of discussion could lead to an internship or, at the very least, a professional reference.

 You can also contact an industry organization in your field to learn how you might connect with an internship opportunity one of their members is seeking to fill. Getting involved early with a professional association can have other long-term benefits and provide ongoing networking opportunities. If you want to target a specific employer, contact the human resources department to learn whether they hire interns. (Many firms do not advertise this.)

 When you pursue an internship, the experience you earn in the field can help you get your foot in the door at a potential employer. Even if you end up not staying on with the organization, the time you spend working with and learning from established professionals will raise your value as a job candidate and equip you with the knowledge and skills you’ll need to make a positive start in the business world.

 ●Consider professional-level interim positions: Working as a temporary professional is another option for gaining experience while still in school. Employers work with a continuum of personnel, from entry-level to executive and senior-level individuals, on a project basis. As a temporary employee, you can often specify hours that accommodate your college schedule, or choose to work when school is out during the summer months, for example. Once you’re ready to launch your career, these opportunities can transition into full-time positions.

 To find temporary opportunities, you can contact a staffing firm that specializes in interim positions in your field. The firm will also be able to provide guidance on your resume, helping you enhance your marketability among employers.

 You may feel you have enough on your mind just getting through college to pursue these “extracurricular” activities. The truth is, though, working as an intern or temporary professional exposes you to a broad array of functions that could attract the attention of a hiring manager once you’re in the job market.

This taste of the working world also helps you begin building your resume and professional network. Think of it as a way to get a leg up on your fellow students who will soon become your competition in the job-seeking world.

Josh Howarth is a regional vice president at staffing firm Accountemps in Washington.

© The Washington Post Company