Mi STEM Forward Program Connects Employers with Talented Students

How do we prepare and attract the next generation of highly skilled, in-demand talent needed by Michigan’s top industries?  The University Research Corridor (URC) has a response: recruiting Michigan students from university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs for internships with Michigan companies.

Michigan industries in areas such as mobility and life sciences are competing for the nation’s top STEM talent. Here in Michigan, the University Research Corridor (URC) – an alliance of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University – prepares graduates for the field. In fact, the three URC universities graduate more students with degrees in demand by the mobility industry each year than any other top university innovation cluster in the nation, including North Carolina’s Research Triangle and California’s Silicon Valley.  Many of these students benefit from internships while completing their degrees. Such internships often become pathways to jobs after graduation and encourage graduates to stay in Michigan when making decisions about where they want to live, work and play. Internships at Michigan companies have helped many graduates from URC universities find their way to career-leading jobs in Michigan’s top industries.

Not all companies, however, have the know-how or resources to launch an effective internship program. This is especially true for small businesses. To bridge the gap and broaden the number of opportunities, the Michigan STEM Forward program was created. 

Michigan STEM Forward, a statewide effort funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and administered by Ann Arbor SPARK, connects university students with innovative companies across the state through high-quality internships. It helps companies develop meaningful internship programs, manage hiring paperwork and timesheets and supplement internship stipends. Companies benefit from a single source of expertise and administration as well as a ready resource for ensuring their internship is mutually beneficial to both the company and the student. Michigan STEM Forward has helped provide students with a clear path to internship opportunities with innovative companies across the state.

“From May 2021 through February 2023, we’ve had 426 separate employers who have signed up, and they have submitted 650 individual job postings,” says Ben Ernst, Michigan STEM Forward program manager. “We’ve got 2,532 student applicants, and we’ve placed more than 550 interns around the state.”

For Michigan State University (MSU) graduate Alex Grotjohn, the Michigan STEM Forward internship program led to a promotion and a new full-time role. Grotjohn is now a senior technician and facilities lead at Great Lakes Crystal Technologies (GLCT).

Courtesy imageGLCT President and CEO Keith Evans says connecting with talented students such as Grotjohn enables the four-year-old company to grow and meet its mission to become the leading provider of high-performance diamond materials for high-technology applications. He added that getting the help of offsetting staffing costs has proved to be a fantastic benefit for a young company such as GLCT. 

“We have had Michigan STEM Forward support for process technicians and engineers, hardware technicians and engineers and data science engineers,” Evans says. “On the process side, they help us manufacture and characterize diamond materials; on the hardware side, they help us build and maintain innovative diamond manufacturing and characterization equipment. Our data science engineers help us collect a range of different data sets, use cloud storage and help us evaluate data trends that could help us continuously improve our processes.”

Evans says all the work completed by interns is critical to the startup’s success. 

“The Michigan STEM Forward program is a wonderful way to get students involved in a startup and especially wonderful when it leads to full-time employment,” he says.

Providing interesting internships with innovative companies is the name of the game for Michigan STEM Forward, which has been an integral part of Orb Aerospace, an accessible aviation company based in Lowell. 

“Our mission is to make aviation accessible to all mankind. We do that by designing, building, testing, and flying eVTOL aircraft. We’re currently building prototypes at the R&D Campus, at the Lowell City Airport,” says Jason Taylor, team architect and director of the Orbship program at Orb Aerospace.

Orb Aerospace refers to its program as a fellowship rather than an internship, and the Orbship pilot program began in 2021, with nine fellows from five different states and three different countries.  

Courtesy image“We wanted to create a different model that is more merit-based and allows engineers and builders to be free to use their skills in any way they want to,” Taylor says. “We want them to be as creative and innovative as possible with their gifts and abilities. We try to create an environment here that encourages that and sustains it in a way that’s beneficial for both the fellow we bring on while accomplishing what we see as mission-critical priorities for Orb Aerospace going forward.”

Joe Hayden is a mechanical engineer at Orb Aerospace, and has mentored two fellows. Within Orbship, fellows experience the freedom of self-initiated work. Hayden says the team identifies the top valuable company projects, and pitches them to each student, who chooses which one they want to be a part of.

Hayden has witnessed the fellows’ high level of motivation since they are choosing the exciting tasks that best suit them. “If you have that enthusiasm and energy behind it, I think you’re inherently going to do better work,” he says.

The projects are serious for both the fellows and the company, which sees the effort as part of its long-term growth and competitiveness. 

“We see the fellowship as preparing humans to go be humans somewhere else,” says Orb Aerospace Chief of Staff, Ashley Read. “In whatever role that is, we want them to develop character, work ethic, team collaboration, communication skills, problem-solving, and all of these layers. The mentorship piece goes far beyond the skills they’re developing here, we’re really trying to help craft them into people that we want out in the world.”

Courtesy imageThe medical field also is benefiting from the Michigan STEM Forward program, says Beltran Figueroa, CEO of Yerbba and graduate of the University of Michigan’s health informatics master’s program. The company, based in Ann Arbor, was founded in 2018 to provide personalized medical treatment information. The company uses artificial intelligence (A.I.) to cross-reference patient medical records with research to generate a personalized report and unique treatment options. 

Figueroa says working with Michigan STEM Forward to help build the small, innovative team at Yerbba has greatly reduced the risk of hiring interns.

“Student internships give us a great opportunity to find these future leaders,” he says. “Hiring student interns is the best way to find young talent. It allows the student to learn and the hiring company to evaluate their skills and capabilities.”

Yerbba has worked with the program since December 2021 to help find highly skilled interns needed by this niche company. 

“The medical informatics or medical A.I. industry is quite complex,” Figueroa says. “It sits at the crossroads of regulation, high tech and medicine, making the learning curve for any new team members quite steep.”

Interns have worked in digital marketing, software development, and UX design at Yerbba. Five have been hired full-time, while three students work as interns part-time while finishing school.

Interested companies can connect with Michigan’s aspiring candidates by contacting Ann Arbor SPARK to post job openings, review resumes and hire the next generation of industry leaders.

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