No lounging in the lifeguard's chair or busing restaurant tables. When Harvard sophomore Amy Heinzerling begins her summer job this month...

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No lounging in the lifeguard’s chair or busing restaurant tables. When Harvard sophomore Amy Heinzerling begins her summer job this month, she’ll be at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, trying to protect natural resources — and working for no pay.

The unpaid internship will probably offer valuable experience for Heinzerling, an environmental-studies major.

But as students go out to develop real-world skills of building a career and making money during the summer, many face a perennial dilemma: Should they go for the cash offered by a traditional summer job or the career experience of a poorly paid or volunteer internship?

The answer depends on individual circumstances, experts say. But it’s telling that more and more students are forgoing the money altogether to move ahead academically.

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So should teens focus on internships? A lot hinges on where students are on the educational ladder.

“When you are in high school up through your sophomore year in college, you want a diversity of jobs on your résumé,” says Shawn Boyer, cofounder of, an online site for part-time and hourly jobs.

“Early on, internships aren’t important. But when you are a junior or senior in college, you need experience in the field.”

Working summers is less popular with young people than in recent decades. For example: A smaller share of youths ages 16 to 24 worked last July than at any time since 1966, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One reason: an increased focus on academics. A decade ago, one-sixth of youths (ages 16 to 24) were enrolled in school in July, the bureau found. By last year, nearly one-third were enrolled.

Even among those who do work, the motivation is slowly shifting toward academics. This summer more teens will be working to save for college than to make extra spending money, according to a Junior Achievement survey of 1,155 teens. This marks the first time in the six years of the survey that college savings were No. 1.

Ultimately, the right summer job needs to fit a student’s career path.

For example, if someone is studying to be an investment banker, working in a mailroom is not an internship, says Steven Rothberg, president of the job-hunting Web site,

“They might call it an internship, but it’s really a job because your career path is not to work in a mailroom.”

Students who need the money that a summer job provides can turn it into a career advantage, Boyer says.

Many workers in corporate offices initially started out by working at a summer or hourly job with the company and were later hired for full-time work in their field.

“It’s like you get into a club when you work for one of these organizations,” Boyer says, adding that if you work hard, you’ll probably receive a job offer when you graduate.