Duke Energy interns bring much-needed skills to business

Internships that provide a college student genuine insight into how a business is run while providing the company someone with a valuable skillset are the most beneficial for all involved.

That’s been the case for businesses involved with the Duke Energy Powers the Workforce program, now in its second year. Duke Energy has provided $424,000 in grants to the Small Business and Technology Development Center, a University of North Carolina business extension service that administers the internship program on six of the UNC campuses – East Carolina University, Fayetteville State University, North Carolina State University, UNC Asheville, UNC Pembroke and UNC Wilmington. The SBTDC offers a similar internship program funded by the UNC Board of Governors for the system’s remaining 10 university campuses.

“We know from our conversations with businesses across the state that they want to hire students who have had internship experience,” said Leslie Boney, Vice President for International, Community and Economic Engagement for the UNC system. “At the same time, most businesses don’t offer internships. So if we want more students and businesses to benefit from this experience, we have to make the experience as easy as possible. Having a partner like the SBTDC, with hundreds of clients across the state and a commitment to our students, makes everything possible.”

Many small- and medium-sized businesses in North Carolina need the extra help, not just to add to the company’s workforce, but also to gain the skillsets the student brings with them.

That was the case at the National Wiper Alliance, a company that makes dry wipe products in Swannanoa, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Working with the Duke Energy internship program for the first time, the company requested a student with computer skills, especially in the areas of web design and social media.

“It was a great opportunity for us,” said David Kline, the company’s controller. “We asked for someone who had a background in social media, marketing and IT.”

The solution for National Wiper was in intern Keenan Devaney, now a senior at UNC Asheville, who immediately developed a social media plan and updated the company’s website, which it desperately needed according to Kline.

“We went through a period where our site was just not updated,” Kline said. “For example, when a congressman visited our plant, and his visit was noted on his website, but not ours. Keenan was a very good intern and put together a real plan to keep us on track. We had like Facebook and Twitter, but nothing was up-to-date. He explained everything and even created some classes in social media, working with our owner, Jeff Slosman.”

Devaney wasn’t just limited to social media, however. He helped with the marketing of the company’s new product line, Rhino Wipes, and even modeled the product in some ads.

“I worked a lot,” said Devaney, who is majoring in Spanish and minoring in management. “I did a lot of research into Amazon because National Wiper was going to be releasing a new product. So I researched distribution lines and how they could get the new product out there.”

Devaney noted that while he was teaching the company about social media, he also was learning about how a business is run – something that will prove invaluable since he plans to attend graduate school to earn an MBA.

“I learned a great deal about dealing with the media,” he said. “I learned how to do press releases and how to contact media outlets. I got to know Jeff and I got to know the industry. A small business has such a family feel to it. The culture of working in a small business is awesome; everyone is on a first-name basis. It’s just a real cool culture. I was a lucky guy to be chosen.”

Also considering herself lucky to be chosen for one of the internships is Alexis Schimelfenig, a senior business administration major at UNC Wilmington. Schimelfenig interned at Tri-Tech Forensics, located in Southport.

Like Devaney, Schimelfenig was asked to improve the company’s social media presence.

“I did a complete analysis of their social media, what was successful, and what they wanted to do better,” she said. “Based on that initial analysis, we built the social media strategy they are now using.”

In fact, the company was so pleased with Schimelfenig’s work that she did some transition work for them once the internship had ended.

“Alexis spent a lot of time doing research, seeing what others were doing and what was trending,” said Emma Davis, the company’s marketing manager. “She put that in a template for us. We’ve seen a huge increase in our social media interaction. She was very professional, very knowledgeable – a real go-getter. We gave her the freedom to work independently.”

Schimelfenig benefitted from her experience of seeing how Tri-Tech operates as a company. She noted that she plans on attending graduate school in a couple of years, and wants as much real-world experience as she can get to decide what post-graduate degree she will pursue.

Summing up the program, Boney said, “In the end, everybody wins, and once our program concludes, we believe the businesses that have been participating will be willing to continue it on their own.”