Traverse City News and Events

Make Me A Match: Inside The New STEM Internship Matchmaking Program At 20Fathoms

By Craig Manning | March 1, 2024

The number of Michigan college students pursuing degrees in fields like science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has increased in the past half-decade, and that growth has the potential to address statewide shortfalls in high-skill STEM workers. How can Traverse City get its share of that young talent? Gretchen Swanson, director of workforce development for 20Fathoms, thinks she has the answer.

20Fathoms announced last week Swanson will helm a new internship matchmaking program to help forge connections “between students in STEM fields and regional employers.” Swanson hopes the program will help position northwest Michigan as a more attractive draw to young professionals in the STEM fields.

Swanson joined 20Fathoms two years ago, her position funded by a $250,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) that supported “the expansion of workforce development initiatives at 20Fathoms.”

“I was brought in as part of this LEO grant, which was really intended to grow tech talent [in northwest Michigan],” Swanson tells The Ticker. Through early work with Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), the Northwest Education Services Career-Tech Center (CTC), and other training programs, Swanson soon noticed a recurring trend.

“It just kept coming up that there were students that were looking for internship placements,” she says. Some were locals who had gone away to college, but were weighing whether to stay in their university towns or come home for the summer. Others were enrolled in the NMC computer information technology (CIT) program, which requires an internship to graduate. Some were CTC graduates looking to get their foot in the door at local STEM companies. All had the same challenge: Finding local employers ready, willing, and able to hire interns.

“These students just needed an introduction,” Swanson says. “They needed some help making that connection.”

While some local companies have long-standing internship programs they recruit for every year, Swanson says they are the exception rather than the rule.

“I found myself telling students that, even if you don’t see an internship role posted online, you can just reach out to the employer directly and ask,” Swanson says. “If you’ve identified an organization that you really want to work with, there is no harm in asking.”

That advice proved fruitful: Swanson saw one student after another land good internships with local STEM companies simply because they sent thoughtful,well-timed emails. The experience got her thinking: What if, in its pursuit of developing local tech talent, 20Fathoms became the middle man between prospective interns and employers?

An informal version of the matchmaking program was born. Over the past two years, Swanson and her team have helped connect interns to companies like SafetyNet, a local IT services firm; or MeetingMaker, a Traverse City startup that makes a meeting attendance verification app. MeetingMaker founder and CEO Jodie Schanhals says the program has been a huge boon for her business, crediting 20Fathoms for “fostering a fun, collaborative environment at the workspace, with really talented tech interns who helped shape the direction of MeetingMaker.”

Now 20Fathoms has officially formalized internship matchmaking as one of the core services offered by its Tech Career Hub.

On the employer side, Swanson is hoping to start a local dialogue that leads to a proliferation of new internship opportunities in northern Michigan. She says many business leaders see roadblocks when they think about internships. From helping those businesses design their internship programs to connecting them with the right candidates, Swanson sees the new 20Fathoms program as the hands-on partner employers need to get started.

There’s also an education piece to the puzzle. Not long ago, Swanson notes, a lot of internships were unpaid. “So, there might be some work to be done, in helping employers understand that it is customary nowadays for interns to be paid,” she says. Swanson plans to spread the word about a Michigan program called STEM Forward that allows Michigan-based employers offering paid internships in STEM careers to get 50 percent of their intern wages covered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

As for prospective interns – whether they’re high school students, college students, recent grads, or adults in the midst of career changes – Swanson hopes making northern Michigan a more internship-friendly place will have a long-tail effect on the region’s recruitment and retention power.

“At a lot of the big colleges and universities in Michigan, the advising departments are encouraging students to go intern for big corporations downstate,” Swanson says. “Those companies have robust recruiting, they have formalized internship programs, and they’re showing up. They're able to afford to be at all the career fairs to be down there. And then there are big recruiters of talent from out of the state, too, and they’re doing all the same things.”

“We have to realize that we are exporting talent and losing talent just because we don't have a way to connect them here regionally. To be protective of our northern Michigan region and our industries here, we have to retain that talent. It's so much easier to retain it than it is to bring it back. So, that’s our goal. It’s figuring out: How do we retain the talent that we’re training?”

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