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For years, Omaha-based online auction provider Proxibid has maintained an internship program. The interns are valuable assets for the growing, 9-year-old company because they are able to handle the same workload as most full-time employees at a fraction of the salary.
And if the interns perform well, Proxibid has first dibs on bringing them into the fold as permanent workers, said Ryan Downs, Proxibid's president.
But starting last June, the program began to change. Proxibid started adding more structure to its internship positions, making them more focused and efficient. It also increased pay for its interns and expanded the number of internships it offers annually.
Those changes, Downs said, are a direct reflection of the InternNE program, a state-funded initiative that gives for-profit businesses in certain industries financial incentives for offering internships with the hope of exposing young Nebraskans to career opportunities available across the state.
In the first nine months of the programs, 391 total internships at 130 different Nebraska companies have gotten the green light from the state.
The internship reimbursement funds can be up to $5,000 per intern if the business is in an economically "distressed" areas with an unemployment rate above the state average of 4 percent, has a per capita income lower than the Nebraska mean, or has experienced a population decline.
Most other businesses can receive up to $3,500.
"We are a fast-growing company with a lot of investment demands," Downs said. "With this program we're able to get about $3,500 per intern annually.
"That money may not sound like a lot to a large company, but for a smaller, fast-growing company, it really does make a difference and it allows us to give a fair wage to the interns."
InternNE is part of the spring 2011 legislation known as the Talent & Innovation Initiative. Other parts of the initiative include an angel investment tax credit, a grant program for fostering university research and new products and a fund to prepare industrial and commercial sites that are immediately ready for business development.
Catherine Lang, who heads the Nebraska Labor Department and Nebraska Department of Economic Development, which administers and distributes the funds for the program, said InternNE is a "very exciting" initiative that's affecting businesses in Nebraska's urban and rural areas.
One of the rural companies hoping to take advantage of the incentive is Brehmer Manufacturing in Lyons, Neb.
The company makes silage boxes, trucking equipment, tire recycling machinery and stainless steel hog feeders. But since Brehmer is in a small town with not a lot of nightlife or other activities to offer recent college graduates, it has had a difficult time recruiting young talent, said Dennis Metz, a manager at the company.
"You're talking about a town that's less than 1,000 people," Metz said. "There's not a lot to do from a young person's standpoint.
"The business will always be here, but we feel like without a growing talent pool, it will be hard to complete our growth strategies."
Brehmer plans to file for a pair of internships in April. The company has been working with program officials on its applications and has two internship candidates, one who will work in engineering and project management, and the other in marketing.
The company, Metz said, would have filed earlier, but it's waiting on the candidates to complete their sophomore year of college. To qualify, students must have achieved junior or senior status at an accredited four- or two-year Nebraska university or must be an upperclassman from an out-of-state institution with Nebraska residency.
Of the internships approved by the state, 111 have been filled, with 47 at businesses in Lincoln, 28 in Omaha and eight in Kearney.
According to state figures, 43 of the participating businesses are in manufacturing; 22 are in the information sector, which includes sales, telecommunications, data management, software and publishing; 21 are in professional and technical services; and 18 are in finance and insurance.
The internships offered include positions in communications, marketing, software development, engineering, human resources, information technology, accounting and Web design, to name a few.
After qualified businesses submit their intern applications, which include specific information about the duties of the position, and are approved, the internship is listed on a state website. Students can skim through openings and apply.
The process of filing applications, conducting intern reviews and filling out a total of a half-dozen documents required by the program can be time-consuming, but is seen by Proxibid as well worth the effort.
"The reward is being able to hire terrific talent that we might not otherwise be able to bring on," said Dana Kaufman, a company spokeswoman.
Roughly one-third of the approved internships are in rural areas in communities outside Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties.
Lang said that figure is a good sign for the program, which was developed to invest broadly across Nebraska, not just in the state's main population centers.
"Now, companies across Nebraska have an opportunity to reach young people and show them the kind of opportunities that are available," Lang said.
Last year, the Nebraska Legislature approved $3 million for the program through the 2013 budget year. So far, $403,000 has been paid out to companies, but $1.8 million has been allocated, meaning more than half of the two-year allotment is already accounted for.
Allison Hatch, a business development consultant who helps oversee InternNE, said the state eventually will need to turn interested businesses away because of a lack of funds.
But it's still too early to tell whether funding for the initiative needs to be expanded. Lang said officials will analyze the status and success of the program in 2013 before making a decision on whether to request more funding.
Rachel Gulden, a junior majoring in communications at Creighton University, is one of seven students currently serving internships at Proxibid. Five of those are partially financed by InternNE, the maximum for one company. Downs said Proxibid in 2012 is planning for 10 positions split between two office locations.
The gig is Gulden's fourth internship, but the first in which she's been paid. The average wage for students with InternNE positions is $11.30 per hour.
On a typical day, Gulden writes press releases, meets with members of the news media and conducts interviews. Her desk is across the hall from Proxibid's executives, with whom she's able to interact regularly during meetings.
"Interns here truly do have a unique experience," Gulden said. "I get to interact with executives multiple times a day and give input during meetings."
But there could be longer-term ramifications for Gulden if she continues to perform at a high level. One of the company's directors and at least five other employees, Downs said, started at Proxibid as interns.
Said Gulden: "They will give back to you if you make a difference in the company."
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Interested in applying for the InternNE program? Here's the skinny on eligibility requirements for businesses and potential interns.
Must be a Nebraska-based, for-profit business in one of the following groups: research, development and testing; data processing; telecommunications; insurance; financial services; manufacturing; storage, warehousing, distribution, transportation and sales; data center operations; Internet-based website or business; software development and sales; or an operation serving as a company headquarters.
The internships funded by the state must be "net new" positions, meaning they must be created by the business in addition to any full-year, paid internships that were offered previously. For example, in the previous year if a company had two paid interns in the fall, and one in the spring, it would have to furnish two paid internships the following year before it could be funded by InternNE.
The internships must pay at least the federal minimum wage, $7.25, and be a minimum of 200 hours over a 12-week period.
InternNE positions cannot account for more than half of a company's workforce.
Eligibility extends to juniors and seniors enrolled full time at an accredited four-year or two-year Nebraska college or university and to Nebraska residents attending out-of-state institutions as upperclassmen. Individuals who have graduated from college or are pursuing an advanced degree also qualify.
To view available internships, go to http://internne.com/student