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Two engineers work in a sewer pipe area at a construction site.

STEM Forward Michigan gives college students interested in science, technology, engineering and math careers paid work experiences.

Amorn Suriyan/iStock/Getty Images Plus

To provide hands-on and meaningful career opportunities for local students, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) created STEM Forward Michigan in 2021, providing paid work opportunities for college students interested in science, technology, engineering or math careers.

The initiative supports local businesses in establishing a talent pipeline, increases visibility of available roles within Michigan for early-career professionals and contributes to the state’s overall STEM industry development.

“We believe having an internship in the state, you’re going to fall in love here, you’re going to accept a job here [and] want to make your life here,” says Kerry Ebersole, executive vice president and chief talent solutions officer at MEDC. “So we want to create those opportunities between employers and schools and students to really create that avenue of opportunity.”

The program has benefited hundreds of students and employers, and MEDC staff are growing STEM Forward’s footprint with new, larger corporate partners and diverse student involvement.

What’s the need: Michigan experiences a mild “brain drain” from its colleges and universities; the state has a negative 13.7 percent difference between college graduates produced in the state and college graduates who live in Michigan, according to 2022 data.

MEDC prioritized STEM positions as leaders recognized “those are obviously the key areas or skill sets that are going to lead our future forward, not only here in the state of Michigan, but across the globe,” Ebersole says.

Internship-access issues have gotten attention across the country. Institutions have stepped up to support students in underpaid or unpaid internship experiences, as research has shown that underrepresented minority students, community college students and first-generation students are more likely to participate in unpaid experiences or lack internship experience entirely. National data point to students working in paid internships receiving more job offers.

How it works: MEDC provides employers with $3,000 or $1,500 for an intern’s hourly pay, depending on if the student is working full- or part-time, respectively. Students earn at least $15 an hour, but businesses can set wages higher if they want.

To qualify as a STEM Forward internship, businesses must be in the STEM industry and headquartered or operating in Michigan. Students obtain the internship and then are enrolled in STEM Forward via the employer. During the experience, students work under a direct supervisor and have at least one week—which MEDC qualifies as five workdays—of on-site work.

On-site experience is critical for Gen Z interns, because company culture, fit and work-life balance are important values to this generation, Ebersole explains.

Initially, the program targeted start-ups in the semiconductor, life sciences, medical device, clean energy, defense and aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and electronic vehicle and mobility sectors.

Eligibility requirements for students include being a current student or recent graduate with some kind of connection to Michigan. An intern could be from the state, attending a college or university in-state or have a familial tie to the state.

Scaling up: Since 2021, the program has supported 800 interns working at 400 companies, with 200 interns participating in the past year alone. Most interns participate during the summer, but the program supports students year-round.

Previously, STEM Forward was co-hosted by SPARK Ann Arbor, which provided the program model. This year, the program moved in-house and has contributed to some larger process changes.

Intentional marketing and outreach have grown the program’s reach among business from just southeast Michigan to across the state and of varying sizes. STEM Forward has also seen increased participation among community college and out-of-state students and hopes to increase recruitment among affinity groups (such as the Black Engineering Society or Girls Who Code).

MEDC collects data on the number of internships available, number of employers participating, geographic locations of the internships and the number of returning employers.

“Ideally, we want to be able to support the growing of internships with these companies,” says Avazeh Attari, MEDC’s director of higher education partnerships.

The program does not measure the number of interns who transition to full-time roles with their employers or in the state, but “that’s something I’d be interested in us looking into moving forward,” Attari adds.

Next steps: Looking ahead, Attari is hoping to smooth out operational challenges for employers participating in STEM Forward, making payroll management more efficient and onboarding of interns easier to process.

MEDC staffers are considering opening up the program to Michigan high school students interested in STEM careers or offering a micro-internship experience for students who can’t commit to working for a whole academic term. The organization is also hoping to expand internships to include art and design work.

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