New state program aims to facilitate college hires for small tech companies

Internships are a common way for big companies to bring on new talent and to decide on possible future hires. But running an internship program can be financially impossible for many of Connecticut’s small technology companies. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports on a program that aims to change that.

Strain Measurement in Wallingford is an engineering firm that makes sensors, primarily for medical devices.

“Everything we do is custom designed and very highly engineered.”

 That’s president of Strain Measurement, Fred Jackson – he’s giving me a tour of the company’s production floor.

“Let’s see, oh this, this is an interesting…. This sensor is used to measure contractions of women who are delivering babies. So the sensor is mounted into a little housing that looks like a computer mouse, and it’s velcro’d around her waist and it measures her contractions.

This one – this is called a tonometer tip sensor, and this is used by opticians and opthalmologists to measure the pressure in your eye for glaucoma screening.”

The company’s clients include all of the major medical device makers, as well as IBM, Intel and Disney.

“There are lots of challenges usually. There are cost challenges, there are accuracy challenges, there are size challenges.”

A precision engineering environment with demanding multinational clients might not be where you’d picture interns thriving. Think again, says Jackson.

“There’s a lot of new engineering, and that’s why we like to have new interns. Younger engineers with a modern engineering education have a different outlook that somebody who graduated ten years ago, or twenty years ago, or like some of us, thirty years ago.”

And interns here aren’t broken in gently.

“Our philosophy is to give them a problem and let them have at it. We kinda throw them in the water and see if they can swim.” 

“Close the line, and we can compare the flow meter measurements…..”

For example, when intern Ivan Kiriloff arrived from Yale this summer, he was tasked with designing a flow sensor that the company could offer to clients in the industrial or food service industries – new markets Strain Measurement hopes to break into. His supervisor was Lingli Liu 

“I give him some papers and say here is a current design people use. Whether you want repeat one of them or you want to come out with something that’s totally different, you can decide.”

Liu says Kiriloff wasn’t intimidated.

“He sit there for about one week and then come up with a design that I never expected. It’s totally different … I would say it’s very beautiful.”

Strain Measurement had hired Kiriloff as an intern through the Talent Bridge program, a new initiative of Connecticut Innovations the state’s technology investment agency.

“Connecticut has a brain drain. We’re not retaining our kids here.”

CI’s Deb Santy says Talent Bridge addresses a fundamental disconnect in Connecticut’s economy – we produce some of the country’s most talented graduates in technical fields – but most of them go elsewhere to begin their careers. She’s also seen the problem from the other side, visiting the state’s small technology companies.

“And I kept hearing over and over that they would really love to have some college students working with them, but they really couldn’t afford an internship program. Most big companies have internship programs, but small to mid size companies felt a financial strain to do that.”

Talent Bridge began four months ago, giving grants of up to $25,000 to small companies to allow them to compensate an intern for a specific, practical project. A quarter of a million dollars was committed to the program in the first round of funding, and most of it was snapped up by small businesses within three months. Santy says the program also aims to help in partnering likely candidates with companies they may not even know exist.

“I started on my senior year of college. I needed some intern hours to graduate.”

Former intern Neil Wostbrock confirms it can be a challenge to find a position.

“So I was looking all over the place and it was kind of hard for me to find an intern position – there wasn’t a lot out there.”

Once Wostbrock found Strain Measurement he interned through the rest of his course at University of New Haven, and then was hired full time after graduation. Sam Matus, a former student at the University of Rhode Island, followed the same route.

“This is a small company so all of the engineers, including the interns have a lot of responsibilities. So I mean, yeah, I think it’s a great experience.”

Strain Measurement is looking to bring in a second intern through Talent Bridge, and it’s one of ten companies around the state to benefit from a second round of funding for the program. President Fred Jackson says he has high hopes of finding future employees.

“When we brought these interns back after a year back at school they came back really lightening fast. Able to just attack problems because they’d done things before. “

Connecticut Innovations says a successful hire is the bottom line for the Talent Bridge program – and they can only hope that all of their placements work out so well.

For WNPR, I’m Harriet Jones.