Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) _ The number of applicants for internships in South Dakota state agencies is down about 17 percent compared with last year, a decline the program’s administrator says is partly due to an improved job market.

The state received 707 applications, down from 854 last year, and state offices are welcoming 202 interns to Pierre this summer, also down from 251 last year, about a 20 percent change.

The South Dakota internship program is a way for state offices to recruit employees, as many departments hire former interns into full-time positions. Interns are typically college students with ties to South Dakota who arrive in May after the end of their spring semesters.

Bureau of Human Resources Commissioner Laurie Gill said each agency determines how many interns to hire according to need, budget and existing staff.

Gill attributes the decrease in applicants is partially due to the state’s workforce climate, saying there are more jobs than available people.

“Finding workers … is an issue across the state for both the private and the public sector,” Gill said. “When people weren’t hiring, state government internships, we would have potentially had more people looking at that as a viable summer job. But now there are more options.”

South Dakota unemployment rates over the past 15 years peaked around 2009 and 2010. Current rates are dropping near 2004 levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The pay rate for most interns has not changed since 2004, when it was set at $9 per hour for new interns and $9.45 for returning interns.

The exception are legal interns, who tend to make around $15 per hour, and departments are allowed to determine the wage to draw competitive candidates. State officials say they will soon review the pay structure for the interns, considering the pay has not changed in 10 years.

Education Secretary Melody Schopp called her department’s intern program a “win-win.” She said it helps employees with their busy summer work load and gives students a broad view of education in the state.

Matt Gill is a program specialist in the Education Department, and he started as an intern there while he was still in college. He is the son of Laurie Gill.

Matt Gill spent four summers interning in different state offices. He said the experiences provided him with insight and connections that brought him back to the Department of Education after he worked a few years as a teacher.

Health Secretary Doneen Hollingsworth said interns in that department do much more than make coffee and copies. Every summer an intern studying the West Nile virus learns to determine the sex and species of mosquitoes, and others work in labs doing chemical and microbiology analyses.

Some former interns from her agency have made their way into leadership positions in correctional health care.

During an interview with one, Hollingswoth asked the intern where she wanted to end up in her career.

“`I want to be sitting right there in your chair,”’ Hollingsworth said the young woman told her. “You know what? She sure could be.”