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How a state-funded internship program is trying to keep tech workers in Minnesota

The program gives students experience. But it also helps retain the sort of workers needed for 155,000 high-tech jobs in Minnesota that will need to be filled by 2020. 

SciTechsperience connected Phong Nguyen and Liheang Prom to internships at Virteva, an independent IT consulting and managed services firm.
Courtesy of the Minnesota High Tech Association

It’s an old conundrum for new college graduates: How do you get a decent job without yet having any of the experience needed to get a decent job? How do you find an employer who’s willing to be the first to give you an opportunity?

For the last five years, however, that task has been made a little easier for thousands of Minnesota college juniors and seniors pursuing degrees science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). That’s thanks to a program created by the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA), a nonprofit that works to advance technology and science in the state. Called SciTechsperience, it connects college students to paid internships at small and midsize companies in Minnesota. 

“We’ve been able to place students successfully in paid internships in the STEM field,” said MHTA President and CEO Margaret Anderson Kelliher. “Those were jobs in information technology, high-end manufacturing, medical devices and medical IT.”

The program is not just beneficial for the students, though. The state-funded program is also meant to help Minnesota retain skilled workers for the 155,000 high-tech jobs in Minnesota that will need to be filled by 2020. 

The idea behind SciTechsperience

When leaders of the MHTA launched the SciTechsperience program five years ago, they wanted the program to accomplish several goals, Kelliher said.

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First, they wanted to give college juniors and seniors an opportunity to access “high quality” internships — those that would prepare them for the workforce while earning income. That means internships where students actually attain problem-solving skills and develop hands-on experience in the STEM field. 

But MHTA also wanted to help keep STEM grads in Minnesota. So not only are all the internships based in the state, but the program tries to recruit Minnesotan students attending colleges in other states to return for the summer internships — and entice them to work here after graduation. 

The SciTechsperience program, Kelliher said, was also created to educate and inform young people about the broad spectrum of the specialized STEM fields and their typical earning incomes. In Minnesota, for example, the average wage for a STEM worker is about $78,000 per year, compared to $43,000 for non-STEM fields.

Internship placement

The SciTechsperience program is open for STEM students pursuing associate programs in community colleges or bachelor’s degrees in universities who have a grade point average of 2.5 and higher.

Since it was launched in 2012, the SciTechsperience program has placed nearly 880 people in jobs at scores of STEM companies across the Twin Cities metro area and in Greater Minnesota.

And it’s growing in popularity. Last year, the organization received 1,100 applications from students, with 230 of them placed in paid internships. This year, there were 1,400 student applicants, 280 of whom were accepted.

“It’s a great chance to get people trained in specific areas to do specific projects,” said Steve Yanda, a vice president with The Actives Factory, which has hired four interns to assist with specific projects. “You know, it’d be difficult for us to contact someone else to do that.”

The program, which has enjoyed bipartisan support at the state Capitol, received $2.7 million in this year’s session to provide 650 students summer internships over the next two years. Part of the money is used to reimburse companies that hire students though the program at 50 percent of the intern’s wages, capped at $2,500 a month.