Students packed the Campus Center at Richard Stockton College’s Career and Internship Fair in Galloway Township earlier this month, with many looking not for jobs but for summer internships.

Marine biology major Haley Heffley, 22, of Mullica Township, was excited about a possible paid internship with Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, Ocean County.

“There are lots of great internships, but they don’t pay anything,” she said of opportunities in Florida and at the Baltimore Aquarium. “I can’t afford to travel somewhere and not get paid. But I really want to do something in my field.”

Heffley has also contacted the Atlantic City Aquarium, the Wetlands Institute in Middle Township and Cape May Whale Watcher about summer jobs in her field.

Nationally, more than half of all graduates in the Class of 2012 had some type of internship experience, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE.

Students who did internships were far more likely to get jobs. The survey found that 63 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer upon graduation, compared with 36 percent of graduates who had no internship experience.

But finding an internship that is paid can be difficult in some fields, and there have been concerns during the economic downturn that businesses were replacing paid workers with unpaid or low-paid interns. The 2012 survey by NACE found employers reporting an 8.5 percent increase in internships, with almost all expecting to pay. The average salary was listed at $16.21 per hour for 2012, down slightly from $16.68 in 2011.

The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act in 2010 put out a fact sheet outlining the difference between a job and an unpaid internship. It says an unpaid internship must be a training position that works under existing staff and does not provide any advantage to the employer. Nationally, a few lawsuits have been filed by former interns claiming they were treated as unpaid employees.

College officials said an unpaid internship can still provide a good experience, especially if it is the student’s first on-the-job exposure. Traditional college programs, such as teaching and nursing, require clinical experiences that include college credit.

Stockton’s semester through the Washington Center allows students to spend time in the nation’s capital interning at a federal agency. Students get as many as 12 college credits and lots of networking opportunities at about the same cost as a semester at college. About 15 to 20 Stockton students participate each year, professor and program coordinator Michael Rodriguez said.

Business major Nicole Lanzoni, 20, of Galloway, is interning at the U.S. Department of Interior this semester doing a variety of things in different parts of the agency, including the budget office. She also takes a class once a week.

“It’s very different being here than in Galloway,” she said by phone. “I’m not sure I’d want to work here, but I really wanted the hands-on experience, and this is a great opportunity.”

Christy Cunningham, associate director of the Career Center at Stockton, said the school encourages businesses to offer paid internships because students often get a better experience since it is more like a job. An unpaid internship should be more like job shadowing, she said.

About 46 percent of Stockton’s 2012 graduating class reported doing an internship, up from 40 percent of the Class of 2011, Cunningham said. That percentage does not include students who did academically required clinical work, such as student teaching.

Lizziel Sullivan-Williams, director of Rowan University’s Career Center, said even an unpaid internship is an opportunity to network and build up a resume while students are still in college, so she encourages students to weigh all the opportunities they get carefully.

Cunningham said liberal arts majors in particular can benefit from trying internships in different fields to see what they might like.

Brian Sena, 25, of Hammonton, a 2010 Stockton graduate, did an unpaid internship with the Courtyard at Marriott his senior year, then got a part-time job at the front desk. He moved to sales after he graduated and a year ago was named sales manager at the Atlantic City property.

“This is what I want to do,” said Sena, who majored in hospitality management. “The unpaid internship was a way to get my foot in the door. It gave me the opportunity to show the skills I had and what I had learned at Stockton. Everyone wants a paid internship, but in this economy it’s worth it to start unpaid and work your way up.”

Employers at the Stockton Career and Internship Fair said many of their internships are paid, and provide both summer employment and a learning experience for college students.

Jim Drew, employment center manager at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, said the casino typically hires 20 to 25 interns for the summer, in addition to hundreds of summer workers. He said he works with professor Donna Albano in the Stockton Hospitality and Tourism Management program but also gets applicants from throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

“And every year, a couple stay and get jobs,” he said, “especially the Stockton students who are local and can work weekends.”

Cape Resorts Groups offers a half-dozen paid summer internships working at its hotel properties in Atlantic and Cape May counties. Interns rotate through different aspects of the business, from front desk to food and beverage. Human Resources Director Jenna Andrews said the company pays because the interns are doing an actual job.

Six Flags offers both paid internships and summer jobs. Human Resource supervisor Lisa Bruce said the interns work in specific areas, and students can also get college credit. She said internships can definitely lead to a job, and Six Flags offers opportunities at all of its properties, one reason Heffley is interested.

“Most of our hires are internal,” said Bruce, who started her Six Flags career as an intern.

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241