For STEM, a small step in a big direction

Few issues in the New Jersey business community generate more luncheon speeches, more position papers and more hand-wringing than the need to reverse the outmigration of millennials from the state.

Keeping young people, particularly STEM graduates, in New Jersey is seen by virtually everyone as the key to growing the economy — or, rather, growing a new economy based on innovation and technology.

Having more highly-educated millennials in the talent pool is critical to attracting growing technology companies to New Jersey. And having more young people with good jobs living in our state is key to revitalizing and re-energizing our communities. (Not to mention that getting these young people to run for office would revitalize and re-energize the state’s moribund politics.) So, it was encouraging to see Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent announcement of two new programs designed to encourage New Jersey students trained in science, technology, engineering and math to stick around and make the state a better place.

As we said, there’s been a lot of talk about keeping STEM students in the state, so it was good to finally see some concrete plans. It was also welcome, ironically enough, to see that Murphy is starting small. That means these two new programs can actually be instituted quickly and, hopefully, with little controversy and not at major expense to the already beleaguered state budget.

Announcing a big, expensive “grand plan” to “solve” the problem once and for all would inevitably have only delayed concrete action.

Murphy has focused on two key areas — student loans and internships, which increasingly are a critical first step to employment in tech fields.

Under the proposed STEM Loan Forgiveness Program, New Jersey STEM graduates who have worked for a New Jersey company in an “approved high-growth STEM occupation” for at least four years would be eligible to apply for $4,000 in loan forgiveness from the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority. Eligible STEM employees would have to work for an additional one to four years in an approved STEM occupation at a New Jersey employer, and the employers would be expected to match the state’s $4,000, for a total of $8,000 in loan forgiveness.

When fully phased in, the program is expected to cost the state $12 million a year, according to NJ Spotlight.

Under the NJ Career Accelerator Internship Program announced by Murphy, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development would provide employers with up to $1,500 for each paid first-time STEM intern. The program would cost about $4.5 million, NJ Spotlight reported.

An added benefit to the internship program is that it would help diversify the state’s STEM labor pool. Helping companies pay interns would help the many students who cannot afford to take unpaid internships.

This is a modest start — but a good start. Neither program will break the budget. But they do amount to what Murphy called “a critical investment in human capital” in the effort to attract more of the other kind of capital to a state that desperately needs it.

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