Internships a focus among Grand Forks business leaders and educators

By John Hageman, Grand Forks Herald
June 28, 2014

As a UND graduate student seeking a master’s degree in public administration, Allyssa Wall needed an internship in her field.

So she sent an email to Todd Feland, the Grand Forks city administrator. And even though the city wasn’t advertising for an internship, she got an interview and the job.

Now, she’s developing a plan for how city departments can better plan and budget for internships.

“It’s more created on a whim versus having the resources available for prior planning,” she said of the current internship structure at City Hall. “And talking to departments, it’s something everyone wants to do, it’s just no one has really had the time to sit down and develop a program.”

Wall hopes that by developing more ties between the city and UND, students will have a chance to see Grand Forks as “more than just the town where UND is.”

Wall’s efforts are part of a larger focus on the part of city, education and business leaders in Grand Forks to bolster internship programs. Wall is part of a workforce development committee led by local business groups, and is preparing a survey for local businesses on their internship programs.

Educators say internships are becoming an increasingly indispensable way to get real-world experience in a student’s field of choice. And business leaders are hopeful that the more opportunities students and graduates have to intern at local companies, the more likely they’ll choose to stay here and become part of the workforce once they finish their studies.

“At the end of the day, we hope to be able to keep more of our graduates of (Northland Community and Technical College) and UND in our community,” said Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.


One of the biggest barriers for a company setting up an internship is simply deciding that they’re going to offer one, said Ilene Odegard, director of UND Career Services. She said they provide companies with information on how to set up internship programs, including advice on creating a program that includes daily responsibilities, evaluation procedures and identifying specific skills needed for a particular internship.

“It can be a little daunting,” Odegard said.

Wilfahrt said it takes some effort to set up an internship within a business and to know exactly what that intern will be doing.

“I think once they do it once, they’ll find that they can kind of develop a template, so that it’s actually relatively easy to host an intern once they’ve done it once or twice,” he said. “And then it becomes part of your workflow planning and part of your business.”

One company that has taken that to heart is Black Gold Farms potato growers. Tami Martin, the company’s human resources director, said they’ve been offering internships for years, but it was only about four years ago that the program became more structured.

“We would sporadically have an intern at our remote locations,” Martin said. “We certainly always recognized the value of having interns, but we just needed more structure and tracking and consistency on how we promoted and offered the positions.”

Intern to full time

Martin said interns there occasionally become full-timers. People like Wilfahrt are hopeful that more interns follow in those footsteps and become part of the workforce here.

Companies in the region consistently cite a thin labor market as their biggest obstacle, and one key to easing that could be recruiting and retaining more talent locally. Wall said interns also can also contribute to the business where they work.

“It’s an opportunity to get involved with the younger professionals that are coming into your field to give them a chance to get going and also give you that additional help you need,” she said.

And having an internship on a resume is a big boost for those entering the job market. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers made full-time job offers to 56.5 percent of their interns in 2013.

Odegard said employers will almost always choose a job candidate who has some kind of hands-on experience in that field rather than one who doesn’t.

“Often that internship is testing the waters for the graduate, for the employer,” Odegard said, and that internships often lead to full-time job opportunities. “Students will then call Grand Forks their home and everybody’s happy.”

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