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Amanda Miller - 5/25/2012

Summer internships were once a good way for ambitious students to get a jump on their career, but these days they’re an essential career ingredient.

And while opportunities for on-the-job experience are growing, bosses are divided about whether students should be paid, though the prospect carries some legal ramifications.

Boston-based Experience, Inc., which tracks college graduate’s career progress, recently conducted a survey of employers in which 91 percent said they believed students should have at least one internship under their belts by the time they graduate.

UCCS Director of Internships and Career Placement Lisanne McNew agrees and said students who are finding career employment aren’t stumbling upon it.

They’re aggressively pursuing it and usually laying the groundwork early in their college careers, she said. “Graduates aren’t just competing with their own peers for entry-level jobs anymore. They’re competing against people who have experience,” she said.

McNew estimates that 85 percent of the students she places in internships get a job based on the experience.

That’s how it worked for John Graaf, long before he founded his Springs-based merger and acquisition firm, Core Capital Group.

He studied electrical engineering as a young man in the 1960s and opted for a five-year degree instead of a four-year program so he could get career experience. A key internship landed him a job with Honeywell Aerospace, which was working on the Apollo Spacecraft at the time.

The experience made him a believer in internships, which he offers through is business today, and he said students aren’t the only ones who benefit.

When the recession hit, he saw a gap in his operations that could be filled with interns.

“We got hit pretty hard,” Graaf said. “The interns have filled in just about right.”

He created a program to allow students to spend 40 hours over four weeks in the first tier of the internship, an introduction to the business and a lot of administrative work. The second tier is more hands on, working with deal-makers and tracking leads.

Local accounting firm Stockman Kast Ryan & Co. also runs a successful internship program.

Senior Tax Manager Bernie Benyak hires up to seven students each year during tax season for a 10-week program that allows students to work 30 hours a week processing tax filings.

A few find full-time jobs.

“There were three this year that really stood out,” Benyak said. “And we extended them full-time job offers.”

The internships are a test and a recruiting tool, Benyak said. It allows the firm to see whether students have what it takes to endure tax season and allows them to discover whether they like accounting.

Amy Dinofrio, Pikes Peak United Way vice president of human resources, for Pikes Peak United Way, also believes internships are a good recruiting tool.

They gain valuable work experience and good references, she said, and it gives them a chance to see whether they like the field.

While an internship is often a good path to finding a job, it’s now always a paying job itself.

To pay or not to pay

Graff pays his interns, and so does Benyak. But, Dinofrio does not.

However, one difference lies in the fact that Graff and Benyak operate and work at for-profit entities. The Pikes Peak United Way is nonprofit.

Colorado College Internship Coordinator Andrea Culp said it’s illegal in most cases for for-profit businesses to not pay student interns, unless they are receiving academic credit.

But, some students are so hungry for job experience, they’re willing to work for free, legal considerations aside.

Culp said many CC students take on part-time unpaid internships and add a part-time paying job to their schedules.

McNew said that about 70 percent of UCCS internships are paid opportunities.

“Of course, more of them are going to be paid in a better market,” McNew said. “But that’s probably about where we are right now.”

She screens employers before posting their listings to make sure they’re not just looking for free or cheap labor.

While opinions about pay and internships likely vary, everyone agrees they’re a precursor to a career, in one way or another.

“Across the board, students with internships are more likely to get jobs and many get positions because of their internship experience,” Culp said.