December 13, 2017
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If you build internships, young people will stay. Here’s how Bangor-area colleges, businesses, legislators can get started

By Christopher Burns, Special to the BDN

Bangor has found its bellwether in City Council Chairman Ben Sprague and his population growth strategy. When I first read Sprague’s 38-point plan in February, it seemed Bangor’s ship had finally arrived. Out of all 38 points, one point really grabbed me — “promoting internships between businesses, nonprofits and schools.”

Even as more people than ever attend college, students aren’t learning what’s needed to succeed in the job market. To employers, it shows. Just how will students gain the skills they need?

Enter internships.

I worked hard to land a number of internships — four in all — without which my education would’ve been incomplete. At these internships, employers challenged my knowledge, tested my skills and instilled in me the confidence to get the job done. I succeeded at times and failed miserably at others, but without those internships I would’ve neither discovered my limitations nor the courage to push against them.

Not only do students gain much needed skills as interns, internships boost employability. Student interns apply their book smarts, navigate workplace politics and learn the lingo needed to show future employers just why they’re the best fit for the job. Often an internship is a student’s foot in the door to a long, vibrant career in a company and community.

With Maine’s need for a skilled and young workforce, Bangor — and the state — can’t afford to wait any longer to see the value in an internship economy. But promoting opportunities for young Mainers will take more than one person to get it done. Sprague needs the support of schools, businesses, community members, and legislators to ensure Maine’s youth can find the opportunities they need at home.

Wall Street Journal blogger Melissa Korn found schools use a number of strategies to get companies to open up internship positions for their students. Wesley College, for example, partnered with the Delaware Chamber of Commerce and 800-plus businesses to build a comprehensive internship network. The program made finding internships easy by centralizing that information.

Other states took steps to create a network and support system for businesses looking to start an internship program. The Nebraska Department of Economic Development’s Intern Nebraska Program published a “how-to” guide that walks employers through the process of making an effective internship program that will be an “impactful strategy for investing in [a] business’s future.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers have worked to reward businesses for creating internship programs. In 2012, Rep. Kathleen Hochul, D-N.Y., wrote the Workforce-Ready Educate America Act as an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 that would give employers a tax credit per intern hired at $1,000 per student with a max credit of $3,000. The bill died in committee.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest problems with internships is most don’t pay. ProPublica has dedicated much time and energy into investigating the economic cost of unpaid internships.

In order to comply with fair labor laws, University of Maine students who want to intern must register for course credit — which for three credit hours costs $837.

Often students forgo the long-term benefits of an internship because of the financial burden of course credit without compensation. Perhaps in the spirit of Hochul’s bill, businesses can earn tax credits for giving interns a stipend, making an internship feasible for Maine’s cash-strapped students.

Bangor — and the state — needs more young people if we wish to prosper. But they are forced to look elsewhere to find the experience needed to succeed. To retain our youth, there have to be opportunities to grow, learn and earn here. Now more than ever an internship opens the gate to success.

Let’s work with Sprague to bring Maine’s millennials opportunities to find meaningful work. And as more students graduating from our universities stick around, they will no doubt make Bangor — and Maine — a better place to live and work.

Christopher Burns is an undergraduate in English at the University of Maine where he writes for The Maine Campus and The Key Reporter. He will work as a Bangor Daily News intern this summer.


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