Competition is fierce for summer jobs

NEW YORK — Students have some new competition for jobs this summer. Namely, the growing army of 12.5 million out-of-work Americans hungry for a paycheck.

To boost her odds, Jennifer Wagner is already scouring Web sites for her son Justin, a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston. She wants him to get a job related to his graphic arts major, but wonders if that's possible anymore.

"Jobs that normally would have gone to teenagers or college students are going to be filled by people who are out of work or just graduated. They're going to be taking jobs they normally wouldn't take," said Wagner, a 51-year-old resident of New York City.

While the search might prove frustrating, there are still ways to ensure that the kids stay busy and off your couch this summer. Here are three ways students can get an edge.

Use the career center

For college students, the university career center is a great place to start the hunt. The centers can help spit-shine résumés and hone interview skills. They maintain databases of job openings too, some of which are posted by alumni who might give students priority as candidates.

Recruiters looking to fill summer openings typically start heading to campus around early March, but companies seem to be waiting a little longer this year, said Rebecca Sparrow, director of Career Services at Cornell. "That might make it hard for students who like to have their plans sealed up," she said.

The upside is that it's not too late for college students who haven't yet found a job or internship.

Launch a business

Of course, not every student is suited to this option. Running a business, whether it is mowing lawns or Web design, takes discipline.

"You have to be a self-starter and know how to market yourself," said Jennifer Hartman, certified financial planner and principal of Greenleaf Financial Group in Los Angeles.

Hartman suggests drawing up a business plan to bring the business goal into focus. It doesn't have to be elaborate — it could be a one-page document stating the objective, target market, and any costs that might be incurred. You might also want to set up a simple electronic accounting sheet.

Spread the word among friends and family. Word-of-mouth advertising is often more successful than a formal advertising campaign.

Create an internship

If you can't land an internship at a major organization, ask around at smaller, independent operations. They might not have formal programs, but that doesn't mean they won't be open to the idea.

"Internships used to be a benefit for students. Now it's a benefit for the company that is getting that kid for free," said Lisa Jacobson, president of Inspirica, a tutoring company based in New York.

Even if the internship isn't paid, it shows colleges the student has initiative and interests beyond school.

"What they do during the summers really factors in. That all adds up, even if you're not making money," Jacobsen said.

Generally, companies must offer either minimum pay or credits to interns, but smaller operations often skirt this rule, and interns might be asked to work for no compensation.