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Investing in interns: State program funds internships, but it's unclear whether ND grads stay

Ross Dunnigan is interning with McFarlane in Grand Forks.

GRAND FORKS -- The state of North Dakota has invested millions of dollars over the past few years trying to develop interns into the state's future workforce.

Through the Department of Commerce's Operation Intern, companies can receive up to $3,000 for each intern they hire, but have to match the state's contribution. More than a dozen Grand Forks companies took advantage of the program in the last funding cycle with varying success.

One local company that has used the program is McFarlane, a Grand Forks-based heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineering company. There, University of North Dakota mechanical engineering student Ross Dunnigan helps design HVAC systems for industrial and commercial buildings.

"I've learned how the office works," Dunnigan said.

Thirteen Grand Forks businesses participated in the program from 2011 to 2013. They ranged from manufacturers like LM Wind Power to health care company WelCore Health. Bergstrom Electric Inc. was approved to use up to $30,000 for 10 interns, the most in Grand Forks.

Developing a workforce

North Dakota began the Operation Intern program in 2007 with the goal of developing the state's future workforce. When the program started, the Legislature appropriated $600,000, which has grown to $1.5 million in the 2013-15 biennium.

Operation Intern targets five industries: energy, advanced manufacturing, value-added agriculture, tourism and technology, said Ryan Volk, who administers the program for the state Department of Commerce. But whether the program is accomplishing one of its stated goals of keeping new graduates in North Dakota's workforce is unclear.

Volk said the state has asked that businesses notify them if they hired an intern, but hasn't received many responses. He said the state is working on a more efficient way to track where former interns find permanent employment in the future.

While several local companies said they've had success with the program and will continue applying for funds, Benjamin Dorman said his company would rather hire full-time employees in the future. Dorman, president of Valley Med Flight Inc., said a marketing intern left for another job opportunity shortly after being hired with funds from the state program last year.

"I think we'd rather pay someone normal money and get what we pay for," said Dorman, who added that he thought Operation Intern was a good program nonetheless.

Gaining experience

Dunnigan said he hopes the experience at McFarlane will help him find work after school.

"That'll definitely help," he said.

And being paid for his services may mean Dunnigan will be more likely to be successful in that quest. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 63 percent of college graduates who had a paid internship received at least one job offer. That's compared to 37 percent with an unpaid internship and 35 percent of those with no internship experience.

At PS Doors, where interns help design fall protection systems and industrial doors, at least one intern has become a full-time employee, according to the company's human resources director, Melissa Arnold.

"Every time we bring on an intern, one of our goals is that they will decide to stay with us," Arnold said. "It hasn't always been the case."

The program appears to be a popular one among the state's employers. Volk said that since July, the start of the current biennium, the state has already dispersed $800,000. In the 2011-13 funding cycle, more than 200 companies used the program.

Still, some like Arnold said their company's ability to pay interns isn't affected by the state grant.

"We're a small organization," Arnold said. "It's not a be-all, end-all, but it's ... certainly something we want to take advantage of."