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More students spending winter break in ‘winternships’

In a tough job market, students are eager to get any edge they can

Alex Stein, an English major at Tufts University, is doing an internship for an advertising firm in New York over his winter break.barry chin/globe staff/Globe Staff

Tufts English major Alex Stein is well aware that he could be spending this winter break planted on a sofa in sweatpants or drinking beers to celebrate his impending graduation, or both. Instead, the 22-year-old senior will spend a week of his break in New York, working at Y&R advertising.

“I know the job market is very tight for college grads right now,’’ Stein said. “Even if the job market wasn’t doing poorly I would still want to be out there. I don’t mind missing TV for this.’’

“You really have to have experience,’’ says Mary Concannon, a senior at Roger Williams University, who has a winternship at a marketing firm in Boston.michele mcdonald for the boston globe

Stein is among a growing number of college students who are using a portion of their school break to take part in a so-called “winternship,’’ or winter internship. Facing a bleak job market and shrinking starting salaries, more students are doing winternships to bolster their resumes and, they hope, their chances at landing a job.

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“The growth is unbelievable,’’ said Robin Richards, CEO of Internships.com, a company that works with 30,000 businesses to find interns. “Two years ago, we saw very few winternships. This year, we’ve seen a 46 percent increase in our employers posting internships for winter break.’’

Until recently, winter break wasn’t an internship period at all. Now, Richards says, winternships have become the first of a three-step process for finding employment.

“It’s really become part of the audition for a full-time job,’’ he said. “They start with winter. If it goes well, it makes it very easy for [companies] to make them an offer for summer. At that point, an employer starts to look at a student as a viable job candidate.’’

The winter internship also offers the company a pool of students between fall and spring, the usual college internship periods, says Meghan Siegal, a creative director at advertising agency Arnold Worldwide, who has hired college students for winternships.

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“Both sides are definitely benefiting from the relationship,’’ Siegal said. “Companies need students at that time. There’s a shortage of interns. Plus, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to revisit the relationship when the student is ready to graduate.’’

Winternships, most of them unpaid, have been around for several years, but schools such as Tufts University, Harvard Business School, and Swarthmore College have been putting more emphasis on them as their students search for an edge in a still-weak job market. Julie Dobrow, director of communications and media studies at Tufts, says that the school started its winternship program with four Los Angeles-based positions five years ago. This year, the school offers 36 winternships in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles.

“It’s become very important,’’ said Dobrow. “Opportunities are few and far between, so students are savvy enough to know that the more opportunities that they can get, the better they will be positioned to get a job.’’

Much of the Tufts program centers on shadowing, a process where students follow a company employee to see what a job entails. For example, one student will be on the set of “Mad Men’’ this month trailing Christopher Brown, the art director for the show. (Occasionally, donors come forward to offer airfare or lodging to students embarking on winternships, but in most cases, the student is responsible for transportation and housing expenses.)

“I know that there is a good applicant pool at Tufts that has been growing steadily,’’ Brown said. “This will really give a bird’s eye view of what an art director does while a show is actively filming.’’

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While students vie for winternships to get work experience and make connections, many companies have their own, very specific interest in hiring students.

“When we talk to employers and ask what they’re going to do with these young men and women, they say they have a lot of work in the area of social media,’’ Richards said. “Nobody knows social media better than college students.’’

Stein, who is majoring in English with a minor in communications and media studies, says he’s focusing on the social media aspect of his winternship because as the current workforce ages, he’ll be able to position himself for employment.

Regardless of season, internships have become a necessity, according to Lauren Berger, who runs the website Intern Queen and authored the just-published book “All Work, No Pay.’’ So she isn’t surprised to see the increasing popularity of winternships.

“I think the biggest challenge when it comes to winternships is that a lot of employers aren’t familiar with them,’’ Berger says. “What I tell students is to find an employer that regularly hosts an intern in the fall and spring, and ask if they have a winter opportunity. But I’ve seen employers become a little more inquisitive about this.’’

Tufts graduate Sarah Ullman completed two winternships, one of them at International Creative Management in Los Angeles, and she ended up landing a job at that company when she graduated two years ago.

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“More than anything I decided on an internship because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work at a talent agency,’’ Ullman says. “But it let me get a taste for the environment and what the work was like.’’

Mary Concannon, a senior at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., is hoping her winternship will improve her chances of post-graduation employment. She’s in Boston for winter break working at marlo marketing/communications, a public relations firm in the Back Bay.

“You really have to have experience,’’ Concannon said. “I had three others before marlo, and that’s not really considered a lot. So I’m taking this opportunity. My friends are sitting home on the sofa now, but I’d rather have a job in the spring than extra sleep now.’’


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

Due to incorrect information supplied to the Boston Globe, the number of students participating in the winternship program at Tufts University is 36, not 32. Also, those winternships are occurring in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. Additionally, Tufts graduate Sarah Ullman completed one winternship at International Creative Management in Los Angeles, not two as was reported.