Carlos Lopez had an electrifying entry to the world of software.
Several years ago, he was a maintenance man at a senior apartment complex when the air conditioning failed on a sultry day.
While trying to fix the AC, he shocked himself, which would have been fatal had it not been for a colleague who flipped the off switch.
“I went home and thought about things, and my wife said I should go to school full time and finish my degree,” he said.
Lopez, 31, graduated in software development from Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He took an internship this summer at a small business in the Grain Exchange Building called Mobile Composer.
The owners of the 3-year-old company say Lopez and three other interns were critical this summer.
And Mobile Composer’s founders just hired Lopez as a permanent employee. In fact, the now nine-person company also retained two other interns part-time who are still in school. And they would have hired a fourth had he not faced a full-time courseload and extra projects this fall.
Mobile Composer paid the interns $12.50 an hour for full-time jobs for 10 weeks this summer, plus free lunch on Fridays.
“The interns are part of our team and they contributed,” said Catherine Gillis, a founding partner and chief marketing officer of Mobile. “We didn’t have gobs of cash or big conference tables.”
In fact, Loren Horsager, a veteran software developer who, like Gillis, came out of the corporate world to start the company in 2013, even made the work tables. And the chairs were donated by family and friends at this firm started with owner cash and sweat.
Now, something is working.
Horsager and Gillis are expecting their first $1 million-plus revenue year. The growing client list includes Veritas and U.S. Bancorp.
And the Mobile Composer interns proved, among other things, that interns increasingly matter, particularly at small technology enterprises.
During and after the Great Recession of 2008-09, companies were rapped for hiring smart college kids, paying them nothing for internships, working them like dogs, all as they laid off workers. And the young ones were supposed to be thankful for the experience.
Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chief executive of the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA) said employers generally are compensating, appreciating and grooming interns more. Moreover, young people add value, diverse perspectives and are viewed as potential hires as companies replace retiring baby boomers.
The MHTA board decided to help qualifying small companies hire interns through a subsidized program that helped Mobile Composer afford four interns this summer. MHTA’s “Scitechsperience” internship program targets small engineering and technology companies that don’t have the resources to pay full-time interns. It has grown from 67 interns around the state to 223 interns at 132 companies this year.
“The goal is to give the student a high-quality, high-impact experience in their field and let them … infuse into the company new learning that comes from the intern working on a real project,” Kelliher said. “Small companies sometimes don’t even have an HR person. So, we do some of the administration.
“I was recently on the Iron Range with [Jasper Engineering] and the interns helped the company on projects it never would have gotten to. And the students got the experience.”
Interns are paid at least $12.50 an hour, or a minimum of $2,500 by the company. MHTA provides another $2,500 to extend the internship up to 400 hours, spread over 10 or more weeks. Most interns work in high-demand IT, engineering services, manufacturing, life sciences and food science jobs.
The Minnesota Legislature, in a bipartisan move, agreed in 2015 to fund some of MHTA’s expenses, including the cost of two program managers and a program employee. The state’s $2 million, two-year grant helped businesses hire nearly 500 interns over that period. Kelliher hopes to renew the grant during the 2017 legislative session.
MHTA said recently that there are about 9,000 IT jobs alone open in Minnesota, and it will be an increasing challenge to fill them.
That also has led to outreach to a more diverse pool of employees, evident at Mobile Composer and elsewhere in the Twin Cities.
Minorities accounted for about 9 percent of the 143,000 workers in the professional, technical and scientific job category according to 2015 statistics from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. But their ranks are growing fast.
Mobile Composer software helps marketing and sales staff build presentations in a couple hours in the field through a built-in navigation tool that allows multiple story paths including slides, calculations and personalization compared with a day on PowerPoint in the office.
Horsager, a veteran software developer, and Gillis, a marketer, are corporate and consulting vets. Mobile Composer sales were up 300 percent in 2015 as the product went from development after a couple of years to commercialization. They started the business with $68,000 in cash and hundreds of hours for which they didn’t pay themselves.
The four interns worked on an expanded, more functional client dashboard, and other features that Horsager had a hand in or started but lacked time to complete.
Kameren Lymon, 21, one of the interns who scored a part-time job at Mobile after the summer internship, is a senior at the University of St. Thomas. He earlier had an internship at Travelers Insurance but corporate life wasn’t for him. He’s studying computer science and entrepreneurship.
“I wanted a culture shift,” Lymon said. “This job allows us to wear many hats.”
Kyle Blackburn, 27, spent four years in the Marines and worked as a personal trainer before attending Anoka Technical College.
“We interviewed a lot of students who could code,” Gillis said. “These four were special. They cannot only make code, but they can problem-solve and hang in there if they didn’t figure something out right away. And this eclectic bunch helped us move forward. We want more interns next summer.”