Program helps place interns with tech companies [St. Cloud Times, Minn.]By Kevin Allenspach, St. Cloud Times, Minn.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 29--Garrett Brennan grew up watching his father, a software engineer for Wolters Kluwer, work magic on a computer.
So perhaps it's not surprising that by the time Garrett was a student at Sartell Middle School, he was creating his own websites.
He came up with "Garrett's Intelligence Machine," a computerized version of Magic 8-Ball, into which you could ask any question and get some sort of appropriate answer. He also fashioned a "Jeopardy!" program based on the game show.
"Some of my earliest memories are sitting in my father's lap, watching him do what he did on computers," said Brennan, a 20-year-old entering his junior year at St. Cloud State University. "Doing those sorts of things has always been a hobby."
It's a hobby that Brennan, after a false start in a different pursuit, is likely to make his profession. After spending two years on track toward a chemical engineering major at the University of Minnesota, Brennan decided computer science was what he really wanted to study. Thanks to a new internship program administered by the Minnesota High Tech Association, he's already gaining workplace experience with riteSOFT, a St. Cloud software company.
Brennan is one of 65 Minnesota college students in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines who have been placed in Minnesota's first SciTechsperience internship program. It is designed to provide hands-on experience at businesses with fewer than 100 employees and keep talented students in Minnesota after they graduate.
Businesses receive a state-funded match to cover half of the intern's wages -- up to $2,500 for 400 hours -- and every last cent of the first $150,000 appropriation has been spent.
And it looks like each of three interests might come out a winner. Students get experience that can act as a springboard into their first job. Small businesses get assistance and access to bright, young individuals they might not otherwise attract. And Minnesota is taking steps to keep up with other states in the STEM arms race.
Brennan has traded his $900-a-month rent near the U of M's Minneapolis campus for a return home. He likes the idea of saving some money and getting his meals for free. But most important is that he's energized by what he's learning.
"A friend of mine was in the computer science major at St. Cloud State, and I'd decided chemical engineering wasn't what I wanted to do," said Brennan, a 2010 Sartell High School graduate. "... I want to enjoy what I do. My dad ... preached to me to keep your hobbies separate, but my goal is to have fun with my job and I think this is the way to do that."
Unlike some internships, where making coffee and filing papers might be the order of the day, Brennan was immediately enlisted to help with the programming of riteSOFT's latest release of riteSCAN, a mobile warehouse solution for tracking inventory. At his desk, he works with a device that will be the implement for reading bar codes on items. A couple of computer screens reflect his interaction with the device.
"My fingerprints are going to be all over what the customer is getting," Brennan said of the riteSCAN upgrade ? which is expected to go live within a few days. "It's cool knowing that what I'm working on is going to be in their hands. I know people who are interns at 3M or places like that and they're basically doing menial tasks."
Brennan is the only one of the 65 interns working in Central Minnesota. However, two other students with ties to the area also have been placed.
Jonathon Ray, a St. Cloud State graduate student in information assurance, was hired as a programmer by Seward Inc. in Minneapolis. The company provides custom e-learning and digital marketing products to help clients improve training, marketing and operations.
And Ben Eidenschink, a St. John's University senior majoring in chemistry, was hired as a research intern by Syntiron, a St. Paul company that is developing vaccines and therapeutics to fight bacterial diseases.
Seven other St. Cloud State students and one from the College of St. Benedict applied for the SciTechsperience program but were not placed. There were 242 applications from Minnesota.
What makes Brennan's achievement all the more special is that he has yet to take many computer science classes. Much of what he's doing for riteSOFT, he's learned on his own.
"It's a great opportunity because technology moves so fast," he said. "Businesses like this are on the vanguard of that. That's why I think it's so valuable what you learn here because you might not get it in the classroom. I'd like to stay in the workforce if I can. It's a good way to expose yourself to what's happening."
Bruce Hagberg doesn't want to think about where he'd be without Brennan. Hagberg, riteSOFT's CEO, has 80 customers spread across five countries, which much more growth in the offing.
A map outside his office has pins stuck wherever there's a client or a carrier of his company's software. While a cluster of the pins are stuck in Minnesota, including for example a local client in Goldleaf Plastics, others dot the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom. About 40 percent of the business is international.
To accommodate all those clients, he has 10 employees.
"We're a small company with big plans," said Hagberg, who started his career in 1982 with Bankers Systems, forerunner of Wolters Kluwer. Six years ago, he bought RT Enterprises and, about a year ago, moved it from Waite Park to a suite of offices at 220 Park Ave. S in St. Cloud. On Jan. 1, it became riteSOFT.
RiteSOFT produces two primary products: riteTIME, a touchscreen labor data collection system, and riteSCAN Mobile Warehouse for SYSPRO, which is designed to work with the widely used business planning and management software.
A typical riteSOFT system can cost $20,000, though that's a fraction of what custom designers charge.
RiteSCAN is about to go into its 27th version, under the direction of developer Chris Sieben. Hagberg knew he needed to increase his staffing, but there was doubt as to how fast he could hire the right full-time employee.
"Chris is really sharp, but he needed more help," Hagberg said. "Every day, every person counts when you're trying to roll out the enhancement requests we have. Without Garrett, this release would've at least been delayed."
Sieben said he gave Brennan a good 20 minutes to get acclimated, showed him his desk and the breakroom. Then it was into testing and coding.
"We needed someone to produce for us and, happily, that's what happened," said Sieben, a St. Cloud State graduate who is in his sixth year with the company after working for Bankers Systems. "Garrett has also helped with information technology needs around the office. He's got some very rich experience in what he's doing. It's not going to replace his education ... But it's really going to supplement what he gets in school."
Hagberg already has more in mind for Brennan, if it works out. Hagberg said an internship like the SciTechsperience program allows a company like riteSOFT to identify a prospect who could be five to 10 times more productive than the average person.
"He's a keeper, absolutely," Hagberg said. "He's sharper than the average bear and has a good personality. Developers don't always have good communication and people skills."
A group of St. Cloud-area legislators toured riteSOFT recently, learning about the business from Hagberg. But it was Brennan they really came to see. Representatives Steve Gottwalt and King Banaian and Senators John Pederson and Michelle Fischbach checked in to see how the state's investment, part of a one-time $500,000 appropriation to the Minnesota Science and Technology Authority, was paying off.
They were pleased.
"We don't have enough international business in this community and this also creates jobs for someone like Garrett," said Banaian, an economics professor at St. Cloud State. "Technical jobs like this represent about 1 1/2 percent of the employment in the area and that's a figure we need to grow if we're going to prosper."
Representatives from the MHTA hope other legislators will feel the same way. Earlier this year, legislation to fund the SciTechsperience program for 2013 was not approved. The MHTA is looking to privately fund the internships next year.
It's an uphill battle. Ohio has a STEM internship program that placed 692 interns at 167 companies this year, receiving $2.6 million in state funding. Nebraska has a program funded at $1.5 million annually. According to the MHTA, Minnesota will need 188,000 additional STEM professionals by 2018, not including health care workers.
The average high-tech salary in Minnesota is $79,200 ? 74 percent higher than the average private sector wage.
"Our goal is to make Minnesota more prosperous," said Joanna Dornfield, public policy manager for the MHTA. "RiteSOFT is a prime example of what we want to promote and, in an ideal world, our interns will get jobs at the places they're working."
(c)2012 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.)
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