Each year, Greg Aguilar said the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce surveys its network of interns before they head back to college in the fall. The main question is "would you choose to live in the Quad-Cities after graduation?"
"And year after year, that number increases," said Aguilar, who leads the InternQC program. "If people have a job, that's one thing. But if they're happy about where the job is, they're more likely to stay. And that's good for business and good for the workforce. We want interns to love the Quad-Cities as much as the people here already do."
This summer, more than 270 college students and recent graduates are experiencing all the Quad-Cities has to offer through the InternQC program, which is in its sixth year. Aguilar, who was recently named director of Q2030 for the chamber, said the program helps interns make connections outside of their 9-to-5 jobs.
According to a recent study by the American Institute for Economic Research, around 70 percent of young college graduates prioritize quality-of-life factors when deciding where to relocate for work. Companies like Deere & Co., Kone, Von Maur, Russell Construction and others bring dozens of interns to the Quad-Cities each summer. And as more industries, including construction and retail, struggle to attract a skilled, younger workforce, Aguilar said showcasing the community's amenities can make all the difference.
Caleb Mueller, 22, will graduate from Iowa State University in December. His marketing internship with Kone brought him to the Quad-Cities for the first time last month. Along with the other interns, he's gone on a Celebration Belle river cruise, joined the Young Professionals network, watched a game at Modern Woodmen Park and tested out the local nightlife.
"It's kind of funny because I'm from a small southwestern Iowa town, and so for me, the Quad-Cities is like big city life for me," he said. "In a little over two weeks, I've eaten at five different restaurants and gone to a different bar every time. It's a really fun place to make new friends and meet people. We're having a ton of fun finding the next place to go."
For Mueller, being immediately connected to the Young Professionals group has helped him get out of his comfort zone in a new place. Others, like interns at Von Maur, share housing over the summer, according to Recruiting Manager Lauren Corwin.
“They work together and also live together at St. Ambrose over the summer, and that creates really tight bonds,” she said. “So we’ve had super great success rates with people returning to us with this program. We think this is a step in the right direction. Some of them have never heard of the Quad-Cities. But once they get here and experience it and go to the different downtowns and festivals, that’s when they figure out if they’d like to live here long-term.”
Jill Niebuhr, of Russell Construction, said spotlighting amenities and having a network of young talent attracts more workers to the company’s internship program. In turn, it makes it easier for Russell to hire a skilled workforce.
“We’re finding that the best way for us to secure talent is to nurture it in this way, through internships and the potential to come on board full-time,” she said. “It’s tough to get individuals to this area when they’re not already established here. But this way, they learn about us and our culture. And it gives them a realistic preview of whether or not this is the industry they truly want to be in.”
Von Maur hires around 10 Q-C interns each summer, Corwin said, and along with working in the area, they also travel to New York City to experience life as a fashion buyer. And signing up the interns for the Chamber program, she said, has helped improve retention rates.
“We do see really high retention rates through our internships. And a lot of them, if they do the internship, we automatically offer them a job when they graduate,” she said. “And they definitely like having a job their entire senior year of school, too. We really do train our interns like buyers. So when they come back with us, they’re fully functioning and it helps with the learning curve.”
For the chamber, Aguilar said the InternQC program is a way of securing the Quad-Cities’ next workforce. He’s helped grow the program from 88 participants in its first year to 273 this summer, including workers from 23 states and one other country.
"It's a way to attract and retain talent through internships. Members of the business community bring in interns and we want them to experience the quality of life in the region," Aguilar said. "It helps them plug into the community after 5 p.m. and make connections."
Now connecting with several colleges, Aguilar said the group is helping more companies start internship programs. And with internships popping up across more industries, and with the group’s success over the past few years, he’s set the goal of extending the program past the summer months.