Heading into 2020, college students pursuing STEM degrees had a positive job outlook in Minnesota. A leader in the medical technology and computing industries, Minnesota is home to a diverse range of Fortune 1000 and Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, and small but established companies at the forefront of science, technology, engineering and math. Clean energy jobs are also increasing, as are skilled positions in engineering and manufacturing. According to Greater MSP, 8.5% of all jobs in the state are in science and technology, with all indicators pointing to STEM jobs rising as the need for sustainable business practices grow.

So what’s the challenge? Maintaining a workforce of trained professionals to staff those STEM positions – an area to watch even before COVID-19 started to change business in Minnesota as we know it.

Based in Detroit Lakes, RMB Environmental Laboratories has been testing water quality throughout Minnesota since their doors opened in 1995. The business of around 35 full-time employees has grown to include consulting, on-site water monitoring and sample collection. They have also opened two additional labs within the last few years – one in Bloomington and another in Hibbing. Those labs are used to test water samples from all over the state, many of which are collected by state agency employees. When state agencies required most staff to work from home, the volume of samples coming in to RMB Laboratories dropped significantly, affecting finances.

RMB Environmental Laboratories usually depends on interns to help with sample collection and processing, with the goal of paying them well for their work. Tracy Borash is COO of RMB Environmental Laboratories and coordinates interns’ payments with SciTech – a STEM internship reimbursement program offered through the Minnesota Technology Association and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

“The people that we get in here are so amazing, and they’re looking for the experience,” said Borash, who notes that the STEM interns they hire tend to come in with résumés that already reflect their dedication to the work they do at RMB. “But along with that, we can also pay them in a competitive market, too, because we want to be able to compensate these kids. We know they’re paying for college expenses, and so we want to pay them as much if not more than if they were to go to a box department store.”

Borash credits the SciTech program with allowing her company to continue to hire interns, even with the financial uncertainty that has become one of the trademarks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies that qualify for the reimbursements can receive up to $2,500 as a wage match per intern, an amount that allows RMB to hire interns Borash calls the “pick of the litter.”

“We found that [the interns] were so highly qualified, that they could go to work right away,” said Wayne Vander Vort, CFO of ISurTec. “And we felt that, for the success of the scientific world, we must give young students that opportunity.” ISurTec has hired SciTech interns for many years, and some of those interns have become full-time employees immediately after graduating.

STEM internships serve another important function by giving students a chance to get paid for working in their field, sometimes for the first time. Ariana Campanaro is a former SciTech intern who got matched with ISurTec, but opted to pursue a PhD instead of accepting a job. Part of that decision was influenced by her former supervisor at ISurTec, with whom Campanaro still keeps in touch. As for life after a PhD?

“Minnesota is a great place for me to figure out what my career as a scientist is going to be,” said Campanaro. “Being an intern really showed me that I really want to be in the lab for my future career, so at this point I really do see myself staying in Minnesota.”

And that’s good news for the future of STEM in Minnesota.

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Produced in collaboration with the Minnesota Technology Association.

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