Photo: Jenna Ebbers, intern at The Valley Voice in Cambridge, NE

What’s one of the challenges for any small town that wants to grow? To convince teens and young adults to stick around — or at least to move back home after college.

Easier said than done, right? Maybe. But in Cambridge, Nebraska, local leaders have shown that they’re up to the challenge.

What’s their secret?

“Just like older adults, young people are seeking opportunities and a great quality of life,” said Melissa Jackson, Executive Director of Economic Development for the City of Cambridge. “If we truly want to attract and retain our workforce, our job is not only to keep striving to create economic opportunities, but to raise awareness that we want and need our young professionals to remain in the community and take up tomorrow’s leadership roles.”

In Cambridge, all this talk about opportunity is more than just hot air. In fact, in 2015 the City developed and self-funded a grant program specifically designed to help young people achieve their personal and professional goals — giving them one more reason to make “home,” and where their heart is, in Cambridge.

Since its inception, the Cambridge Internship Grant Program has been forging lasting connections between employers and local youth by providing $1,000 grants to help area businesses create student internships. The City has financed the program with funding from its LB840 program. To date, $15,000 has been awarded to local businesses.

“We have devoted resources to this program because we know what the payoff will be,” Jackson said. “Investing in internships is an investment in our future workforce. It not only addresses the challenge of attraction and retention, but that of developing and sustaining the talent level that our businesses and industries need to thrive.”

There’s plenty of research to back up Jackson’s claim. Internships have been shown time and again to benefit young people, their employers and their communities by creating real opportunities for career and skills development. The National Association of Colleges and Employers, for example, reports that companies convert almost 60 percent of their interns into full-time employees, while more than 80 percent of students stay in the region where they intern.

Bria Tomlin is one of nearly a dozen students who have participated in Cambridge’s program thus far. Working as a pharmacy intern at Tri Valley Health System, she says the skills she learned will help propel her into a health care career in rural Nebraska.

“Along with the pharmaceutical skills I gained, I am taking away skills that are imperative to any job setting,” Tomlin said. “This experience has not only driven my passion toward my desired career path of pharmacy, but has made me feel even more certain in my dreams to come back to rural Nebraska to serve as a pharmacist in the near future.”

Matt Pearson interned at Twin Valleys Public Power District after his first year at Northeast Community College. He says he sees the value in showing young people that there are rewarding careers waiting for them in small towns, and that the program has helped him learn new skills that will vault him into a rewarding career.

“I really appreciated and benefitted from everyone’s patience and willingness to teach,” Pearson said. “I learned something valuable from everyone I worked with.”

Jackson says she sees the Cambridge Internship Program as having the potential to be replicated in other communities. Meanwhile, the State’s Intern Nebraska (InternNE) program, administered by the Department of Economic Development (DED), is another way local businesses can offset the costs of new internships.

“Resources are of course important, but in a way it’s also a mindset,” Jackson said. “There’s no doubt that we can create opportunities that will encourage young people to stay and obtain the skills that our local employers are demanding. Our job as community and business leaders is to work together and find a way. That’s what our program is all about.”