Internship Program Matches UNC students and Small Businesses

Finding internships that give practical work experience to students while helping small businesses and start-ups be more productive is the goal of a new pilot program launched at six of the University of North Carolina’s campuses.

Earlier this year, Duke Energy awarded six UNC campuses and UNC General Administration grants totaling $2 million to help increase our ability to meet the needs of regional employers. UNC General Administration is using its grant of $424,000 over three years to place about 130 undergraduate students across those six campuses – the University of North Carolina at Asheville, University of North Carolina-Wilmington, North Carolina State University, East Carolina University, Fayetteville State University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke – with small- and medium-sized businesses that will benefit from the extra help.

“We named it the ‘Duke Energy Powers the Workforce’ Internship Program for good reason, as this win-win project provides rewarding opportunities for our students and talent for new and existing industries across the state,” said Tim Moore, overall program manager at UNC General Administration.

The three-year summer internship pilot program is administered by the General Administration’s community and economic engagement office, and coordinated through the system’s Small Business and Technology Development Center, or SBTDC, and campus Career Services offices to connect students to internships in six targeted geographic areas across the state.

The idea of the program is to help enhance the quality and readiness of undergraduates to join the workforce once they have graduated. A series of focus groups with state employers last spring indicated that students are well-prepared academically but needed more job readiness skills and characteristics.

 The funding will allow interns to be paid $10 an hour for a maximum of 320 hours during the first year of the program, with businesses contributing a greater portion of the wage in the second and third years.

“We’re able to vet companies for the desired outcome,” said Carol McLaurin, director of leadership and program development at the SBTDC. “We’re key intermediaries. … There’s a win-win aspect to it. Lots of medium-sized businesses want to have UNC grads but they don’t have a formal internship program in place. We can coach them. And we want students to have a good experience.”

Career Services on the six campuses are also seeing benefits from the program.

“It gives the students a hands-on opportunity experience,” said Amber Lennon, assistant director of employer relations at UNC-Pembroke. “Because our area is smaller than some of the other campuses, we have some smaller companies where the students can get great experience because of what they are exposed to. It’s a great way for the student to build his or her resume up. It also feeds back into the community, because those students aren’t leaving.”


Student turns internship into full-time job offer

Dave Scott thought so much of Arielle Emery as an intern that he’s keeping her around.

Originally, Emery, a UNC-Wilmington senior, was only going to work with Wrightsville Beach Landscaping for the 320 hours of her Duke Energy University Workforce Development Grant Program internship experience.

But Scott, her supervisor with the business, said Emery accomplished so much during her internship that he has hired her part-time to continue to the manage the company’s social media.

“She was a very big help,” Scott said. “She exceeded all of our expectations. She helped develop the employee handbook; she created forms for our new HR department and for doing preventative maintenance on the small machines we use for our landscaping business. She helped install our time-tracking software system.”

If that sounds like a lot for an intern to handle over the course of a couple of months, Scott said he would agree.

“She didn’t require much training at all, and she showed a lot of initiative,” he said. “She required very little supervision, but also did her tasks much quicker than expected. … She always kept me on my toes. She did about 12 weeks worth of work in six weeks.”

Emery, a double-major at UNC-Wilmington in psychology and business administration, said the experience with the company was invaluable as she decides what to do career-wise once she graduates.

“It was great,” she said. “I really liked working for them. … I learned how to implement policies in a place where everything had been done the same way. You have to work people into the changes, do it in a way where it’s beneficial to everyone.”

Scott said the 65-employee business is small enough that everyone wears many hats in the operation, so Emery was asked to do a variety of things during the internship.

“You have to be willing to do a lot of different things,” he said. “You have to be willing to do anything that is asked. She learned mostly on her own, but she’d ask questions and also do research. Her biggest skill was being able to figure things out on her own – that’s what you want in an employee.”

Emery said her internship experience was a two-way street with regards to her education. She was able to apply some of her classes in social media at UNC-Wilmington to the company, and she said she’ll use what she learned as an intern for the next stage in her career.

Because she’s still a full-time student and already works one part-time job at a restaurant for 20 hours a week, the flexibility of maintaining Wrightsville Beach Landscaping’s social media fits perfectly, because she can do it on her own time.

While Emery decides what she wants to do in her future, she’ll have at least one option when she graduates.

“We’d hire her in a heartbeat, but she can’t work for us while she’s going to school,” Scott said. “But when she left, we told her that there was a job waiting for her when she graduated.”


Internship gives budding UNC-Asheville filmmaker opportunity to roll cameras

It’s rare that a student can apply his exact skillset during an internship, but for Dusty Abernathy, his ambition to be a filmmaker fit perfectly with the needs of Outrider USA.

Abernathy, who will graduate from UNC-Asheville in December with a degree in mass communications with a focus on filmmaking, found out about the “Duke Energy Powers the Workforce” internship with Outrider USA through the Small Business and Technology Development Center office at Western Carolina. Abernathy had already secured a shorter internship with the company before extending his time with the Duke Energy-funded internship, thus allowing him to gain much more experience.

It looked to be a good fit from Day 1, when his supervisors asked him to shoot video demonstrating one of the key products for Outrider USA, which manufactures electric recumbent bikes.

Tommy Ausherman, co-founder and lead designer for the company, said that quickly bringing the intern into a project was the best way for him to learn. He said he basically gave total control of the project to Abernathy on his first day.

“I was working right away,” Abernathy said. “It was pretty crazy.”

“He looked at us and said, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Ausherman recalled with a laugh. “We said, ‘You run the show.’ He did a really great job. … We were thinking we’d have him only for a couple of months, but the extra time (with the Duke Energy-funded internship) helped Dusty really excel.”

Abernathy is still working as an intern, wrapping up in late October or early November. He continues to oversee all of the video work for the seven-person business. Abernathy was able to adjust his class schedule so that he takes his courses on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while working for Outrider Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“Basically, I control all of the media equipment,” he said. “I shoot all of the videos for advertising and for YouTube. All of the skills I’ve learned at UNC-Asheville I’ve applied here at Outrider.”

Abernathy said that while his ultimate ambition is to work in the TV or motion picture industry, his commercial work with Outrider has given him valuable experience.

Ausherman, an Appalachian State University graduate, said Abernathy’s humility, teachability and curiosity were traits that helped him fit really well into the small company.

“He has a good sense of humor too,” Ausherman said. “He’s been an awesome addition to the team.”

“It’s a lot like a family,” Abernathy said of his co-workers. “It’s amazing how quickly you get to know each person. … A lot of great people work here at Outrider.”


Intern introduces small business to global market

The timing of Laura Gomez’s internship was indeed fortuitous.

Feelgoodz, the company for which the North Carolina State senior would be working as part of the “Duke Energy Powers the Workforce” internship program, was looking to expand its brand of flip-flops internationally.

Gomez is majoring in business administration with a concentration in marketing and minoring in International Studies. In addition to English, she’s fluent in Spanish and also knows Portugese.

Daniel Whittaker, the international business manager for Feelgoodz, said Gomez was particularly attractive as an intern because of her background and experience.

“We’re definitely a unique case because we’re just developing an international sales program,” he said. “I was actually hired to help build the international portion of Feelgoodz, which is still considered very much to be a start-up brand. … A lot of my work gets done outside of the office, calling overseas, going to trade shows. And so having an intern was helpful in this initial stage, which was building an export plan.”

The internship, which is still going on, has provided valuable real-world experience to her studies at N.C. State.

“Basically, I’m getting a hands-on experience in the real world, learning about international business, about the long process,” she said. “It’s a long process getting in contact with distributors (and) clients, and I’m getting experience working on an export plan, flow charts, creating product lines, and all that.”

Gomez was responsible for building a flow chart that outlined all of the steps the international portion of the operation would take. That included compiling a list of contacts in other countries that would serve as the point people in terms of fulfilling contracts.

Whittaker said he and Gomez ended up spending a lot of time with each of the 12 employees of the company to figure out how the business was structured. Gomez’s duties moved from completing tasks to a broader scope of responsibilities.

“I thought at first I was just going to be in charge of helping create an export plan, but it became ‘Can you help with this? Can you look at this? Can you help us create this?’ ” she said. “So, it added on. And it’s a great experience because you’re seeing how a small business is trying to grow, things you need to work on and things you already have but need improvement. So it was great.”

Whittaker said Gomez had to work independently, which can often be a problem for regular employees, let alone interns. He said Gomez needed little training, and suggested that there were resources at N.C. State that could help her with her tasks, such as building the flow chart.

Gomez said she has learned both patience in waiting for things like returned phone calls as well as being ready for rapid changes when things develop unexpectedly. The internship is a perfect opportunity to further her career goals.

“This is something I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to work with a company that wants to branch out globally. Since I have a minor in international studies, I have always been into cultures and how it works with business and globalization. So this was a great experience for me because I want to do that after I graduate and get that opportunity.”


Story by Phillip Ramati
Homepage image: Dusty Abernathy

Published: September 11, 2015