Phil Murphy proposes paying interns, cutting student debt to help boost STEM jobs
In a twofold effort to reinvigorate the innovation economy he so frequently talks about, Gov. Phil Murphy announced plans Tuesday to pay interns and help relieve the college debt of workers in the science and technology fields known as STEM.
"Innovation is in our state's DNA. This is not an unnatural act for us," Murphy said during a news conference at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. "We're trying to reclaim that space."
Murphy intends to achieve that goal in two ways.
First, he wants to pay up to $1,000 annually for four years toward eligible workers' student debt through the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority. Employees must live in New Jersey and work in eligible science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields for four years before becoming eligible. The state would then pay for the next four years. And Murphy's office said employers would have to match the cost, giving the worker $8,000 toward student debt.
Average student debt in New Jersey is $30,000, Murphy said. His program, if approved, “could help wipe away a significant percentage of the outstanding balance" for former students, he said.
That initiative would cost about $12 million a year, but because of the structure of the program the state would not begin paying until 2022, Murphy said.
Despite the employer mandate, Murphy said, companies have already shown interest in partnering with the state for what would be known as the STEM Loan Forgiveness Program.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo, an engineer by trade who heads the Senate Budget Committee, has signed on as a sponsor of the bill. During Tuesday's news conference, Sarlo pointed to New Jersey's reputation for spending nation-leading amounts on public education only to see many of its students leave the state for college or soon after graduating.
The loan forgiveness policy, he said, makes financial sense if the state wants to retain its students and increase the chances they will purchase homes and raise families in New Jersey — and in doing so contribute to the tax base.
"The question is not: How much is this going to cost? The question should be: How much are we going to generate from these dynamic young researchers, dynamic young engineers, dynamic young programmers?" said Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Mercer, has committed to sponsoring a companion version of the bill in his chamber, giving Murphy significant support in both chambers.
Paid STEM internships
Murphy's paid internship proposal would also apply to the STEM fields. Through the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the state would reimburse participating employers up to 50 percent of wages paid to student interns in information technology, life science and health care fields. The program would cap employer reimbursements at $1,500 per student, Murphy's office said.
Murphy has proposed in his 2019 fiscal year budget increasing the department's line item for its Career Accelerator Internship Program from $1.5 million to $4.5 million to cover the paid internships.
Murphy speaks often about his vision to make the state a leader in the so-called innovation economy driven by STEM fields, saying hundreds of times through his campaign and since taking office that "New Jersey was Silicon Valley before there was Silicon Valley." But the number of jobs in STEM fields has dwindled as competition from states like Tennessee has increased, Murphy said.
"We got complacent, and it’s time to reset that," Murphy said. "These two programs, God willing, could be a big piece in that direction."
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the annual spending estimate for the loan forgiveness program. It is $12 million.