Alexis Jackson, 20, works with the Unum Scholars internship program.

Austin Anthony spent most of his undergraduate college career working as a waiter to help pay bills, but once he started his masters program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the 29-year-old said he knew he had to get internship experience so there wasn't a "blank spot" on his resume.

Anthony is still in school and won't be entering the workforce for another few years, but a new report from the Economic Policy Institute in May shows the job outlook for 2018 recent college graduates is still recovering from the Great Recession. Analyzing data on recent college grads ages 21-24, EPI found that while the unemployment rate has fallen to pre-recession levels at 5.3 percent, it is still higher than the 4.3 percent unemployment rate recorded in 2000.

"While by many measures the labor market for young college graduates is now almost or fully back to where it was before the recession, we should be striving for a stronger labor market than 2007," said Elise Gould, senior economist at EPI. "We should instead be striving for the high-pressure economy of the late 1990s and 2000, in which an extended period of labor market strength translated into better opportunities for workers across the board."

While internships on their resumes make recent graduates more appealing, employers and interns alike agree it can also be a good way for a student to test out a potential career option before it becomes permanent.

This summer, Anthony is working as a full-time, paid intern at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce where he spends most of his time writing articles about the different businesses at the Chamber's Business INCubator located inside the Hamilton County Business Development Center.

"This is the first time I've actually started to write articles in a professional setting, and I really like it," he said, sitting at a conference table inside the Chamber's downtown office on Broad Street. "I think I wouldn't have known that if I had never had this internship. I think [internships] help develop a person's ambitions."

EPI's study also found more persons are underemployed today than a decade ago. The underemployment rate includes those who work part time but want full-time work and those who have looked for work in the last year but have given up actively seeking it.

"This, along with research on other forms of under-utilization, suggests that young graduates have fewer opportunities than they did before the Great Recession hit," EPI states.

Anthony's boss, marketing and communications manager Amanda Ellis, said she had several internships in college, and she believes all of that experience helped her land her current position at the Chamber.

"There are pretty few actual entry-level jobs," she said. "I think if you have had a few internships then you can leverage that into one or two years of experience."

The Chamber hired three interns for the summer, which include Anthony, a high school intern and 23-year-old Jess York, who works part-time helping out with social media and events. York is in the same English master's program as Anthony but with a "creative writing" concentration, she said.

Before York became a student intern at the Chamber, her only work experience was life guarding in high school. As a student athlete during her undergraduate years at UTC, there wasn't a lot of extra time to build her resume. She also worked as an intern for the Chamber during the previous school year.

"I really want to be a professor but that's incredibly competitive with creative writing, so my professors gave their honest advice and said I needed a safety net," York said. "This internship was a way to get myself out of the academic world, and I actually really enjoyed it and now I'm interested in publishing."

Eric Anderson, hiring manager at Unum's Chattanooga campus, said seeing a candidate's resume for a full-time position that includes internship experience can make them a lot more desirable of an applicant than someone who doesn't.

"It's definitely a good way to see how serious somebody is if they are applying for a full-time position because they understand what they are getting into," Anderson said. "You have somebody who has essentially already tested out the career."

Unum has two internship programs across its six, national campuses. Their "Scholars" program is a year-long program and the Chattanooga campus focuses on recruiting local students from the UTC campus, Lee University, Covenant College and Chattanooga State Community College. The company's general summer internship program is open to students nationwide and is 10 weeks long.

Anderson said about 65 percent of their interns convert to full-time employees upon graduation. But that number can fluctuate. This summer, there are nearly 100 scholar interns across the company's campuses.

"One of the best parts of the Scholar program is not that we are just able to get work out of them, but we are also able to identify young, potential talent in the local community before it's too late and they get an offer somewhere else," he said.

For Alexis Jackson, Unum's Scholar program was attractive, but the Actuarial Sciences major at UTC was looking ahead to another professional development program the company offers for full-time employees. After graduation, she hopes to go into Unum's Actuarial Development Program to attain her ASA, "Associate of the Society of Actuaries," and then an FSA, which stands for "Fellow of the Society of Actuaries."

Right now, Jackson processes maternity claims in Unum's short-term disability department as a full-time scholar. She said UTC broadcasts several different internship opportunities for their students.

"I think it's really encouraged, but it's not necessarily that a lot of people have internships," Jackson said. "They have a set job they've been working at a couple years and they don't want to leave. Most the time they just have a job they work in for the summers or to help put them through school."

The 20-year-old student said learning a business' day-to-day operations and best customer service practices are practical skills that a lot of students won't gain if they don't do a internship.

"I've only been here four months, but I feel like I've learned so much," she said. "It has just really opened my eyes to the opportunities there are in the insurance industry that people probably wouldn't consider without actually getting to work in it."