CITRIS Workforce Innovation empowers the next generation of STEM leaders

Collage of three photos: young woman in machine shop working with equipment; two UC Merced students holding a drone; a young woman in a green t-shirt in a greenhouse.

With its third cohort, the University of California summer internship program launches new tracks in cybersecurity and data for social impact and welcomes its first graduate students.

The CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program, which connects University of California (UC) students of all majors to summer internships at national and university laboratories, startups, established companies and nonprofit organizations, has returned for its third year. 

During their eight-week placements, the CITRIS Workforce Innovation interns will attend weekly workshops to build vital workplace skills, network with peers and experienced professionals, and tackle real-world tasks assigned to them by their on-the-job mentors.

The workforce development program launched in 2022 with funding from a one-time state award to support students from the four campuses affiliated with the Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS): UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz. 

“The CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program has served nearly 200 UC students over the past two years, helping them to gain experiential learning as well as critical professional skills,” said Jill Finlayson, managing director of the CITRIS Innovation Hub, which operates the Workforce Innovation Program. 

“Our generous host organizations have benefited from student talent and can take pride in their role in creating a diverse and capable workforce for the hiring searches of tomorrow.”

To combat equity gaps in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce, students who identify as women, first-generation college attendees, and Pell Grant–eligible and undocumented students were especially encouraged to apply.

Graduate students were welcome to apply for the first time this year, for a select number of positions in the semiconductor track. In addition to semiconductors and other existing tracks in aviation, climate and energy, and digital health, the program also debuted two new areas in 2024, cybersecurity and data for social impact, to help address growing demand for skilled workers in these fields. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment rates for data scientists and information security analysts are both projected to grow by more than 30 percent by 2032 — an order of magnitude greater than the projected average growth rate of 3 percent for all jobs.

“Quantum computing is collectively experiencing a talent shortage, so when an employee proposed partnering with the CITRIS program, it took little convincing to move forward,” said Jackie Kaweck, senior vice president of human resources at Rigetti Computing. The Bay Area-based company develops quantum integrated circuits and systems and is serving as a CITRIS Workforce Innovation host organization for the first time this year. 

“As an employer, we know that candidates with experience working at a fabrication facility are extremely valuable,” said Kaweck. “Beyond Rigetti’s ability to provide that experience for students, we seek to support our own employees by helping them continue to grow and develop as mentors. They’re very excited for the opportunity!”

Bringing imagination and energy

More than 475 students submitted applications during this year’s internship recruitment period, with the new tracks of cybersecurity and data for social impact attracting particular attention. 

Despite matching a record 141 students, including four graduate students, with 70 host organizations, the state’s budget shortfall has curtailed the number of students and hosts that will be able to participate this year. A total of 76 students, including three graduate students, will serve as 2024 CITRIS Workforce Innovation interns.

The semiconductor track, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program, along with support from Intel, is unaffected by the state budget cuts and has expanded by nearly 170 percent this year.

The program’s third year saw several returning host organizations ready to put UC students to work, including startup Siloxit, which develops secure Internet of Things (IoT) devices and systems for enterprise infrastructure monitoring.

“Based on the previous year, we are expecting that interns will bring imagination and energy to the task of edge-AI systems that improve efficiency and reliability of the electric grid,” said CEO Harry Peterson. 

At the Berkeley Marvell Nanofabrication Laboratory at CITRIS, students will learn basic nanofabrication techniques, such as lithography and chemical vapor deposition, and then dive into improving and documenting more advanced processes.

“The NanoLab has had an internship program for many years,” said process engineer Allison Dove, “but we opted to work with the CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program because it gives us access to a broader candidate pool, and it ensures that our program is aligned with the overall national goals regarding workforce development.”

Building a sense of belonging

Most of the CITRIS internship cohort, between 63 and 67 percent depending on varying definitions, self-identifies as nonwhite, contrasting sharply with the predominantly white makeup of the broader STEM workforce. The selected interns also show socioeconomic diversity: More than one-quarter stated that they are eligible for a Pell Grant or described themselves as first-generation college students.

“I have been impressed with the professional growth that students have experienced not only over the course of the summer but beyond graduation, based on self-reported feedback from program alumni,” said Workforce Innovation Program manager Nicole-Marie Cotton.

“CITRIS Workforce Innovation truly enables transformation in students’ understanding of themselves as STEM professionals and opens their eyes to opportunities they may not otherwise have considered.”

To further prepare the next generation of the STEM workforce, program leadership is working to evaluate its effect on the career trajectories of previous participants and confirm a return on the state’s investment over time.

The program’s efforts appear to be producing positive results thus far. According to a report commissioned by CITRIS and conducted by the Lawrence Hall of Science, students from the 2023 cohort felt a greater sense of belonging and professional identity in STEM after their internships, and the cohort overall expressed a stronger commitment to science and technology careers. In particular, survey respondents mentioned building a workplace community and growing in confidence.

“We have established a strong track record for the Workforce Innovation Program over the past two years and look forward to serving students in the additional tracks of cybersecurity and data for social impact,” said CITRIS Executive Director Camille Crittenden. “We are grateful to the campus leaders CITRIS-wide for financially supporting the students, in the absence of state funding this year. 

“We invite donors and partner organizations interested in nurturing the future STEM workforce to get involved.”