(CareerBuilder.com) -- You're a recent college graduate with a killer cover letter, a stellar grade point average and glowing recommendations.
But if one important item is missing from your résumé, good luck trying to get a position at The McTigue Financial Group in Chicago.
You need an internship.
This network office of Northwestern Mutual turns to its highly competitive internship program for new talent. Erika Milonas, director of campus recruitment, reviews more than 1,000 résumés in a given year and interviews 400-plus candidates to recruit 40 for McTigue's year-round internship program.
The good news for those fortunate enough to earn a spot: One in four become a full-time financial representative after graduation.
Internships and the economy
The hope of gaining an advantage for future employment has increased both the number and quality of internship applications.
"Internships have become key in today's economy," says Melissa Benca, director of career services at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.
"Graduating students with paid or unpaid internships on their résumé have a much better chance at landing a full-time position upon graduation. Students are doing internships as undergraduates, and it is now not unusual for recent grads to take an unpaid internship with hopes of turning it into a permanent position or at least making some contacts and building their résumé."
The state of the economy also is changing the nature of work given to interns. "In this economic downturn, employers are relying increasingly on interns to shore up areas where full-time hiring has been cut," Benca notes.
Thus, while you still may be making the coffee in the morning, don't be surprised if you're also given opportunities to contribute substantially at the meeting where that coffee is being served.
Benefits for you
Besides getting a foot in the door with a potential employer and looking good on a résumé, internships have other advantages:
• The opportunity to "test drive" a career (Would I be happier in marketing or advertising? Am I more comfortable working with patients or in a lab?)
• Chances to network
• Establishing relationships with mentors
• Possible college credit or certification
• An introduction to the field's culture and etiquette (Are clients addressed by their first name? Are jeans appropriate for Casual Friday?)
• Accumulating new skills
• Gaining a "real world" perspective on an occupation (How much overtime do employees really work? How much time is spent behind a desk versus in the field?)
What's in it for employers?
Most job applicants put their best foot forward on paper. Their cover letter and résumé usually have passed through many hands to make them as appealing and professional as possible, and nearly every job seeker picks references who will say positive things.
Employers do not create internships just to be nice to students and others interested in a certain career. While an interview or a company test can add to what an employer knows about a person, an internship helps an employer evaluate how an individual would fare in the actual workplace.
Like The McTigue Group, many companies develop an internship pool and hire from that group. As Benca notes, "Not only are they seeing potential employees with experience, it is experience within their company."
Companies that devote time and resources to finding, selecting and training interns are looking for a return on their investment. The benefit might be in the present (using the services of talented individuals without having to make a hiring commitment), or it might be in the future (the added ability to choose a person who will work out well as an employee).
And remember that internship opportunities are not limited to office settings. From being a bird-keeping intern at a zoo to a horticulture intern at a theme park, all sorts of opportunities exist for motivated individuals and interested companies to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship.