Neal St. Anthony
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Khalique Rogers and Tatem Rios are the embodiment of the Minnesota SciTech internship program that's expanding the essential pool of talented young interns and employees in technical jobs at small companies.

They and 2,000 other such interns also have provided a good return on a modest public investment.

In 2019, Rogers, then a University of Minnesota business school student with a technical bent, joined fledgling NCXT as an intern. Today, he's one of five employees of the Minneapolis company, which provides digital design services.

"As a digital automation intern, Khalique played a pivotal role in our design and research processes," said NCXT co-founder Jeff Aguy. "In addition to using digital tools to conduct research, one of his projects was to create a better framework to capture user experiences. Khalique is now a valued management analyst."

Rios riveted members of a Minnesota Senate committee last week with her story of breaking barriers to become a valued intern at St. Paul's Innovative Surface Technologies, known as ISurTec. A 2019 graduate of Inver Hills Community College, Rios is a junior in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota.

"This internship changed my life," said Rios, who is now on a second internship at ISurTec. "There was a time I didn't think I was capable of becoming an engineer. I am a minority, first-generation college student. I didn't believe that I [would] fit in.

"At ISurTec, I have learned and gained an incredible amount of confidence. I have been able to accomplish things I never thought. Because ISurTec is a small company, I was in a hands-on environment. I was surrounded by people who believed in me. I analyzed coating solutions and solid reagents for quality control using various laboratory techniques, developed a new quality analysis method, and assisted in quality investigations. During my second internship, currently, I get to formulate experimental batches of coating solutions, dip coat and friction test substrates, and work with a pipe-fitting robot to coat cell culture plates.''

Got that?

The Minnesota SciTech internship program has topped 2,000 placements since 2012 and expanded the talent pool that is so in demand by the small concerns that need it the most.

"We went from 60 internships in 2012 to 295 last year, in the middle of a pandemic," said Becky Siekmeier, program manager. SciTech is funded partly by the state economic development department and administered by MnTech, a tech industry association.

The SciTech program and supportive employers are asking the Legislature for another $1.75 million over the next two fiscal years. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development pays up to $2,500 for a 10-week internship, or $6.25 an hour, which must be at least matched. The average pay is $18 an hour for interns, many of whom have internships extended completely on employer pay, or end up as employees.

Wayne Vander Vort, chief financial officer of ISurTec, said the 18-employee business has benefited from eight interns. Several have become employees.

Nearly 100% of the community college and university students who land an internship through SciTech stay in science, engineering and math fields after graduation and 80% take jobs within Minnesota, including some who hail from outside the state. DEED estimates a $2.62 return for every dollar it spends on the program.

There is a chronic shortage of Minnesota workers with technical and scientific backgrounds. Nearly 50% of the student interns are women and minorities.

And Minnesota competes with surrounding states and Nebraska, each of which invests more in their programs, including recruitment of Minnesota students. Women and people of color are rising as participants.

"The demand for talent keeps going up," Siekmeier said. "The $2,500 no longer covers half the wages. And many students work more than a summer. That makes the employer contribution much more than that.''

SciTech targets small companies with less than 250 employees in engineering, mining, food, agriculture, technology and energy. The median size is 21 workers.

Rogers was struggling financially when he landed the internship at NCXT, which paid $20 an hour.

"Some internships don't pay," Rogers noted. "The work was real, customer-facing work. It was applying technology in a new way through people. It validated what I was doing. It's been a great experience. To apply all the theoretical things I learned in school to our business and customers. That's been rewarding."

Rogers worked alongside NCXT's UX designer Carina Lofgren. He surprised Aguy with his technical skill. His interpersonal skills helped extract what customers needed and he helped Lofgren build software.

Aguy started NCXT in 2019 with Jonathan Banks, an IT professional who once worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

"Khalique had a good attitude," Aguy said. "And he was learning at the same level as we were learning.''

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.