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State chamber plans internship matching program

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The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry is taking the lead on a statewide internship-matching program to potentially bring together thousands of employers and students. The goal is to keep younger workers in the state.

Missouri Intern Connect is a free program under a statewide focus on workforce development and worker retention, said Dan Mehan, Missouri chamber president.

“It’s a link between the business and education worlds,” he said.

The program, which he said would launch in the next two months, will allow employers and students to search an online database of internship postings by companies statewide. Students can then apply through the website.

Chamber representatives plan to soon pitch the program to schools and businesses. The only school on board yet is the University of Missouri, Mehan said.

“We’d love to see several thousand kids utilizing this portal and matching up with thousands of employers across Missouri to try and hone their skills that those employers need for the workforce today and tomorrow,” he said.

Karen Buschmann, Missouri chamber’s vice president of communications, said Missouri Intern Connect is one of the organization’s Missouri 2030 action items. That’s the chamber’s 15-year strategic plan developed in 2015 with the goal of repositioning the state as a global economic leader. Part of the identified framework of the plan includes focusing on workforce development, creating a competitive business climate and improving infrastructure.

“We, like every other state, are trying to figure that out,” Mehan said. “We aspire to be among the best at developing workforce and retaining it.”

Talent retention
When embarking on Missouri 2030, chamber leaders say some of the data the chamber gathered from the Missouri Census Data Center revealed an alarming trend.

“We’re losing more 24-44 year olds than we’re gaining or retaining,” Mehan said. “That’s a population shift that’s not in our favor.”

According to the Missouri Census, the state’s projected growth rate for ages 24-44 between 2016 and 2026 is 2.5 percent – well below the national average of 4.4 percent. More than 50 counties are projected to see that population segment shrink over the 10-year period.

“One of the tools we’re using to counter that is Missouri Intern Connect,” he said. “The hope is that if younger people – whether in high school, college or two-year programs – are able to find opportunities and begin them while they’re in school, they will get linked to that employer or that job or that opportunity and be more apt to stay here.”

Missouri Higher Education Commissioner Zora Mulligan said she’s had ongoing conversations about workforce development and talent retention with the Missouri chamber since the launch of Missouri 2030 a few years ago. The slow-growth projections for 24-44 year olds was a surprise to her.

“That’s a real concern because we make such an investment in them,” she said. “It’s important to think proactively, not passively, about what we need to do to retain them.”

Mulligan believes the intern program will serve as a step forward for the state in addressing talent retention.

“The opportunity for the students to have workplace experience while earning their degree is really exciting,” she said.

Indiana inspiration
Missouri’s intern program is patterned after one employed in Indiana since 2001.

Indiana INTERNnet is a free internship-matching program managed by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce that links employers, students, high schools, colleges and universities. It utilizes a searchable database, matching and reporting system that also provides a hotline to answer questions and provide internship guidance and resource materials, according to its website.

The Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce initiated the program in partnership with the University of Indianapolis. With continued funding from the Lilly Endowment, the organization was granted 501(c)3 tax-exempt status in 2004.

The net results in Indiana: More than 7,700 employers and 4,000 students are registered at IndianaIntern.net, and 730 internship positions currently are posted on the site.

He learned of Indiana’s program two years ago, and after some research, Missouri chamber officials were sold on the idea. Negotiations with the program developer, Indianapolis-based Rare Bird Inc., and the Indiana Chamber Foundation, which oversees the intern portal, were ongoing for about a year, he said.

Declining to disclose the initial investment, Mehan estimated program costs for the next few years will approach $300,000.

The chamber will foot the bill, Buschmann said, noting much like Indiana, additional funding opportunities from endowments and foundations will be sought. She said the chamber is committed to providing the program for the duration of the Missouri 2030 plan, if not longer.

Mehan said the chamber would spread the word, in part, through the Missouri Chamber Federation, which comprises 135 chambers of commerce, including the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

Mulligan, at the Missouri Department of Higher Education, said she’s optimistic Missouri Intern Connect will be able to grow the pool of qualified job candidates over time.

“This will be a project that ramps up over a period of time and has the potential to be as impactful, if not more, than the one in Indiana,” she said.

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