Competition for internships becoming intense

The summer internship has always been the proverbial win-win of the work force.

A student gets needed on-the-job experience. An employer gets valuable, but cheap, labor.

But during the recession, even the time-tested tradition of summer internships has taken a hit. Last year, internships fell by more than 20 percent from 2008, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Industries such as the financial sector have been hard-hit, and paid internships are more difficult to find than their unpaid counterparts.

At the same time, the competition for internships has increased as students realize they need work experience more than ever to land a post-graduation job. With unemployment in Stanislaus County at 18.3 percent, students also find themselves competing with recent graduates and even laid-off workers for open spots.

Brandon Hunt, an economics major at California State University, Stanislaus, started looking for an internship a year ago. He wanted a paid position, but couldn't find any. Instead, he took an unpaid spot for college credit only at Valley Wealth Inc. in Modesto.

"It was pretty difficult. There weren't many available," said Hunt, a former Army sergeant who returned to school after serving in Iraq in 2005. "They weren't offering them at Edward Jones, Schwab, SmithBarney — I did the whole rounds. I actually was surprised. I was hoping the first person I pointed to in the phone book would be offering them."

Things have started to turn around nationally. The National Association of colleges and Employers study found that companies expect to hire 2.9 percent more interns this year than last. Locally, programs seem to be holding their ground, too.

"I think they've stayed about the same as last year. Employers are starting to bounce back," said Juanita Cruthird, Cal State Stanislaus career services coordinator. "And, more and more employers are interested in interns to help meet their long-range goals. Employers who find students before graduation get better-quality employees."

Students who have found positions said they started looking early and often for internships. University of California at Merced student Rafael Maravilla has two programs lined up this summer before the start of his senior year.

Working hard for a chance at summer work

The sociology and political science major will take part in an eight-week program through the university's Center of Excellence for the Study of Health Disparities. The paid internship begins in June. He also will attend a weeklong leadership program through the Center of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.

"There weren't as many (internship opportunities) as I hoped for," Maravilla said. "But you have to be very proactive. I'm constantly looking out for something to advance my academic career. Unlike most students, I can't wait to work in the summer."

The single father said that while he looked at some unpaid internships, he really needed a paid position to help support himself this summer. During his search he was a regular at the UC Merced career center.

Leslie Lawson, an employer relations and internship coordinator at the UC career center, said federal stimulus money has helped open up some internships. Ongoing government budget cuts have made local, state and federal governments more willing to offer unpaid internships.

"There seems to be a lot more trend toward the unpaid internships, but there are a lot of rules and regulations that the employers must follow," Lawson said. "If they're not going to get paid because the company can't afford it, then students are definitely looking for academic credit. If they're not getting paid or giving academic credit, then it is just working for free. Those very rarely happen."

Cal State Stanislaus graduating senior Jessica Censoplano has been interning at the county coroner's office since February. While her unpaid internship ends in June, she plans to stay on past the date to get more experience.

She started looking for her first internship as a junior and found few options in her field. She applied to work at the coroner's office last summer, but there were too many applicants. But she got the spot for the spring semester.

"I feel like because of the economy interns are more valued than they were before," she said. "Anytime a company hires someone, they are spending X amount of dollars to train them. Interns have become so valuable because you get to have them work for free most of the time. So then you can see if they work out and can decide if they're hireable. It's a lot harder for employers to take risks right now."

It's a sentiment shared by employers such as Valley Wealth Inc. The wealth management and financial planning company has had a program with Cal State Stanislaus and the University of the Pacific for several years offering unpaid, college credit internships to economic and business majors. They pick one to two interns a semester.

Valley Wealth principal adviser Jeff Burrow said the program has worked as a tool to help students and get a few extra hands around the office.

"Their work runs the gamut," Burrow said. "They learn about the investment market, do a lot of reports, look at mutual funds and user software, monitor how well the fund is doing. They really help us. We don't make them do dishes."

Hunt, who just completed his internship, said his semester working at Valley Wealth has been invaluable. It reaffirmed his career path.

"I just have a better understanding of real-world investing," he said. "You can only get so much from a book and a classroom. This has set me directly on the path I want to go."