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Law student Corey McCarthy is spending his summer working as a law clerk at law firm of Lanahan and Reilley in Santa Rosa. Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat

Summer internships for college students get increasingly competitive in Sonoma County

Paid, unpaid.

For credit, not for credit.

Private sector, public sector.

The kinds of summer internships available in Sonoma County today are as diverse as the students who seek them.

But one thing they all have in common is they're getting increasingly competitive as more and more employers are looking favorably upon -- even requiring -- job applicants to have internships on their resumes.

A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed more than a quarter of new hires by Fortune 500 companies had participated in an internship program while students.

At Sonoma State University, majors such as environmental science, criminal justice, physical education and wine business strategy now require internships for graduation. Several of the two-year degrees and certificate programs at Santa Rosa Junior College also require them.

When combined with local students who attend out-of-area schools but return home to look for summer internships, the competition for local internships can be fierce and their impact on the local labor market significant.

"I wish I had more internships to offer, because it's hard to turn students away when you can't take them all," said Renée Rutan-Garrison, coordinator of the County of Sonoma's fast-growing internship program.

Sonoma County government hired 289 interns during 2006, a 23 percent increase over 2005 and a 300 percent increase over 2000, Rutan-Garrison said.

But even with all the new openings -- offering everything from crime-scene investigation to answering phones at a health clinic -- demand continues to outstrip supply and competition is on the rise, Rutan-Garrison said.

"When you are learning something from a textbook in a classroom, you need to be able to apply that knowledge to a working environment, and that's where a paid or an unpaid internship is very valuable," she said.

The county's internships generally pay between $8 and $17 per hour, which is generous compared to what goes in some part of the private sector, Rutan-Garrison said. "Let's face it. Students get exploited," she said.

Low or no pay combined with mindless, repetitive tasks can make some internships hell.

The high demand for legal internships allows some firms to offer no pay combined with crushing workloads, said Corey McCarthy, who grew up in Forestville and is now entering his third year at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

McCarthy says he feels lucky to have landed a paid clerkship -- the legal equivalent of an internship -- at Lanahan & Reilley, Sonoma County's largest law firm.

He has seen friends and fellow law students dive even deeper into debt enduring unpaid summer internships. With his own law school loans likely to approach $100,000, that wasn't a terribly attractive option.

"I wasn't really in a position to take an unpaid internship this summer," said McCarthy, 25.

McCarthy is a research assistant to five of the firm's litigators. While the work is challenging, McCarthy said he is treated well, his opinions are respected, and his contributions are appreciated.

"Everything that I am doing is something that they would have to do themselves were I not here," McCarthy said. "If something isn't the most exciting thing in the world, then you just suck it up."

Others feel they don't have a choice but to take an unpaid internship.

Betty Hermone, 62, was laid off from her job at Agilent Technologies last year and enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College studying hospitality.

She took an unpaid internship with Pegi Ball Catering Co., a small Santa Rosa-based catering company, where she's done everything from scrubbing the kitchen to attending workshops on new workplace regulations.

She says the trade-off is well worth it.

"She's not paying me anything because I'm learning at her expense," Hermone said. "I'm asking questions. I'm slowing her down."

Hermone expects to work about 120 hours this summer -- or 12 hours a week -- and another 260 hours in the fall for the company. While it's a financial drain, she said the experience will pay off in the long run.

"It's going to be a lot easier for me when I look for a job to say 'I've actually done this,' " Hermone said.

The majority of the 240 SRJC students who enrolled in internships last year were actually not the 18-to 21-year-olds people might assume, but rather are adults changing careers like Hermone, said Bev Henningsen, who oversees the school's program.

But unlike Hermone, most are paid for the work they do during internships.

"We feel that our students are bringing a skill-set to an internship and that it's only right for the business to reimburse them for that skill-set," said Chuck Robbins, director of the college's Economic and Workforce Development department.

Larry Brackett, president of Frank Howard Allen Realtors, agrees, and adds that interns contribute something to the organization that can't be measured monetarily.

"The exposure that we receive from interacting with the attitudes and enthusiasm that young people bring into an organization is also a very positive thing for a business," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer

Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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