SAN PABLO -- Cristian Diaz has never had a more exciting summer.
"I run blood specimens (through a centrifuge) and prepare them and send them on for analysis," the 18-year-old De Anza High School senior said, ending his sentence with a smile as broad and white as his lab coat. "But I am always watched by a supervisor," he quickly added, noting hospital regulations.
Diaz is one of 22 West Contra Costa teenagers who graduated Friday from the Summer Youth Employment Program, a five-week course of hands-on experience in the labs, X-ray rooms and other facilities at Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo.
The program is a cooperative effort by the city, county and the hospital to get students into paid internships in the health care field, which is projected to be the fastest growing sector of the state's economy over the next decade.
"Some of the fastest growing and most secure jobs are in health care," said Bob Redlo, vice president of patient relations at Doctors Medical Center. "The opportunity for young people is enormous right now, not just as nurses and doctors, but in support positions, technology positions, therapy and radiology."
Redlo cited recent economic forecasts projecting 400,000 new jobs in the health care sector statewide in the next five to eight years, and more than one million by 2030.
"Workforce training is crucial" to meet the labor demands, he said.
While Doctors Medical Center is the biggest draw for summer interns in Contra Costa County, it's not alone.
About 100 internships are being provided around the county this summer, said Catherine Giacalone, director of youth development services in the Contra Costa County Office of Education. Health care, manufacturing and technology are the sectors in which students are placed. Other internships include helping more efficiently harvesting rainwater at Martinez Adult School, organic farming at Mt. Diablo High School, and studying pollution and developing mitigation strategies in Pittsburg.
Interns also hold positions assisting in county government and with local and regional political leaders, including County Supervisor John Gioia and Congressman George Miller (D-Martinez).
All interns are paid $8 per hour for about 100 hours of work, Giacalone said. About $50,000 in funding for the program comes from the federal Workforce Investment Act, with additional contributions from cities, including San Pablo and Richmond.
But key to the program's success is the participation of small businesses and private enterprise, which agree to take on the interns and help them learn, Giacalone said.
"Employers really shoulder a lot of the work in this program," she said. "It's quite a responsibility."
At Doctors Medical Center, interns were able to work hands-on in a fast-paced, high-volume health care environment.
Alexxis Johnson, a high school junior who hopes to go to college at the University of Tennessee, said her time at the hospital has her aspiring to a career in medicine.
"I want to be a neurosurgeon," Johnson said. "It wasn't just one thing that inspired me, but watching minor surgeries and ultrasounds has been incredible."
Back in the medical center lab, which processes more than 800,000 blood tests per year, lab Director Maureen Fitzgibbons said the youthful energy of interns such as Diaz has been a "shot in the arm" for her and her more than 40 employees since the internship program began last year.
"Feedback from my staff on the program is very positive," Fitzgibbons said. "If I could hire (Diaz) today I would."
But Diaz has other plans, at least in the short term. He is set to study biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz in the fall.
"What I have been able to do here this summer has me really happy about the future," Diaz said.