HOBOKEN Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give a boost to New Jersey’s tech economy by helping people with science and engineering jobs pay off college loans. That is, if they stick around the state long enough.

Murphy on Tuesday visited Stevens Institute of Technology to pitch a two-part plan to boost what he calls the “innovation economy.” It includes loan forgiveness and paid internship programs focused on keeping people in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields in New Jersey.

Murphy said 57 percent of Stevens’ undergraduate students are from New Jersey.

“And if we are to grow the innovation economy again, we cannot lose them after they graduate,” Murphy said. “I don’t want other places to prosper from the skills they are learning here.”

“These are the jobs we need to capture to build New Jersey’s future,” he said. “To not only pull more of these jobs to New Jersey but also to keep the New Jerseyans training for these jobs here.”

The loan forgiveness plan would provide $1,000 a year in loan forgiveness to people in 16 high-growth STEM occupations, matched by their employers. They’d have to live in New Jersey and be on the job for four years, but could then get $8,000 in benefits for years five through eight.

“Given that the average New Jersey college grad leaves school with student debts totaling just under $30,000, this program – needless to say, if you take $8,000 off the top – could help wipe away a significant percentage of the outstanding balances,” Murphy said.

Because the program would be focused on retaining STEM workers, the loan forgiveness wouldn’t kick in until a worker’s fifth year on the job. The expenses to the state budget, then, wouldn’t start until 2022. By 2025, they’re projected to cost a little over $12 million a year.

“We think a small down payment for the tremendous overall economic benefit these employees – and employers, I might add – would return,” Murphy said.

Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, will be co-sponsoring the legislation that would create the loan forgiveness program.

“The question is not: How much is this going to cost us?” said Sarlo, the chairman of the Senate budget committee. “The question should be is: How much are we going to generate from these dynamic young researchers, dynamic young engineers, dynamic young programmers, by keeping them here in the state of New Jersey?”

The NJ Career Accelerator Internship Program would reimburse employers for up to 50 percent of wages paid to new interns enrolled in New Jersey high schools, colleges or universities, up to $1,500 per student. There is currently an internship grant program costing $1.5 million, so this triples the program with a STEM focus at a cost of $3 million.

Murphy said internships have become a prerequisite for employment in STEM fields.

“However, when internships are unpaid, a lot of the great potential employees are not identified because they can’t afford it,” Murphy said. “Not every student has the financial means to take an unpaid internship. This internship program has the ability to not only introduce untapped talent to employers but also to increase the diversity of the STEM workforce.”

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Somerset, said research has shown that about 90 percent of people who get an internship stay in a STEM field.

“So if we really want to keep and retain the best and the brightest, that piece of this is critically, critically important,” Zwicker said.

Chris Sullens, the president and chief executive officer of WorkWave, said his Holmdel-based software company has added 270 employees in the last 10 years, more than 200 of them in New Jersey, and expects to double or triple its revenues in the next few years.

“When I look out over the next three to five years and think about trying to find 200, 300, 400, 500 employees to help us fuel that growth, they’ve got to come from somewhere and they should come from here in New Jersey,” Sullens said.

Sullens said the proposed programs would help encourage and retain STEM workers.

“That’s the fuel that allows us to continue to grow. It’s the fuel that allows New Jersey to continue to grow,” Sullen said.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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