CoOp Program Breeds Professionals

    GRAND RAPIDS — Kettering University sprang from industry rather than academia, and spent its first 15 years as a training center for major industrial corporations.

    That tie-in with industry is still strong, and the emphasis  of the 84-year-old university located in Flint remains on full-time cooperative education, training future business professionals and meeting the needs of business.

    Today, Kettering is one of only a handful of educational institutions in the country offering professional co-op programs. Kettering students spend their four years of college alternating every three months between attending classes on campus and working full-time for co-op employers.

    “Students who come to Kettering University come there because they understand the value of working and applying what they’ve learned at school to real world solutions and problems,” Carmon Liversedge, the university’s cooperative education manager, said during a recent presentation hosted by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and The Right Place Program.

    “We have students working in insurance, health care, railroad, transportation, as well as automotive suppliers, manufacturing — you name it, our students are contributing to the cause.”

    Kettering has a student population of about 2,500 and works with more than 700 co-op partner employers. Its West Michigan co-op employee partners included Siemens Dematic, Cascade Engineering, Gill Industries, Lescoa Inc., Paulstra CRC Corp., Rapid Design Service, Smiths Aerospace, Steelcase, X-Rite, Johnson Controls and Donnelly Corp., among others.

    Employers participating in the co-op program range from companies with 10 employees to multinational corporations and represent every standard industrial classification, Leversedge noted.

    Kettering offers nine B.S degrees, and all its programs emphasize “applied,” he added. The nine fields include concentrations, specialties and cognate study areas.

    “We can specialize and tailor that student’s courseware with your work input so they can specialize in accounting, or information systems, or marketing or other areas,” Liversedge explained.

    A cognate is essentially an individually designed program in which a student and a faculty adviser work with the co-op employer to set up a special area of training that fits the company’s needs.

    All Kettering students complete a thesis project that belongs to the company they train with, Liversedge said. The average value of a thesis project to the co-op employer is about $60,000, he added.

    “We had 11 employers who estimated the value of the thesis project alone to be in excess of $1 million. That’s not too bad for a 22-year-old kid.”

    Liversedge said companies interested in participating in co-op education should figure out which academic areas they can best accommodate, how many students they can support, and should identify potential on-the-job mentors in their workplace.

    “The more effort you put into planning and preparation, the bigger the payoff is going to be,” he said, adding that Kettering staff will help companies design student work plans. “The better job you do of that the more productive these students will become for you. We will work with you to help design a progressive and robust work plan for your students.”

    Companies should have a function that complements the student’s area of study and should be willing to pay students a competitive wage, but there is never an obligation to hire co-op students after their graduation, Liversedge stressed. The current wage range for incoming freshmen is $10 to $11 an hour.

    “Your company must acknowledge that it’s a major part of the student’s educational process. That’s really what they’re looking for most from you — that way to apply what they’re learning at school with real world problems.”

    The university has a host of ways to connect students with companies, including an online site with student resume postings, on-campus interviews and annual regional co-op interview fairs. A West Michigan interview fair is scheduled for March 19 at Centennial Country Club in Grand Rapids.

    Paul Rau, education manager for Siemens Dematic Corp. Rapistan Material Handling Automation Division, said his company has a large, well-conceived co-op program that currently involves 30 students from about a half dozen universities.

    A successful co-op program requires management commitment and somebody on staff willing to run it — somebody to hire the students, make the arrangements and set the policies.

    “Somebody, preferably, who can be passionate about it,” Rau said. “If you have that kind of person in charge of the program, it will work and it will work well.”

    A co-op program is a win-win situation on all fronts, he said. Students get hands-on experience, the university gets real world training for its students, and the co-op company gets good, cheap help right off the bat, Rau explained.

    “Then, if you do hire them, you really have got something: You’ve got somebody that you know; you’ve got somebody who knows you; you’ve got somebody who’s going to stick around and start up immediately and start earning all their pay right from day one. It’s a good payback program.”

    Rau said Siemens Dematic has an understanding with its co-op students: If they stick around, the company hires them as permanent, full-time employees. Siemens Dematic retains 80 percent of all the students that complete their co-op program with the company.

    He encouraged companies in the area to start co-op programs because “it’s healthy for us all.” He offered to personally help any local company interested in starting a program or ramping up an existing one.

    Kettering senior Brian Ulanch, who is training to be an electrical engineer, said his co-op experience with Siemens has really boosted his confidence.

    “Just sitting in a room with professional people talking about what we can do to make a product better and me actually getting in and voicing my opinion with all these professionals — it has raised my confidence so much,” he said.

    “Now I know I can do this. I can take a meeting and run with it because I’ve been in so many of them. That is one huge benefit that people might not understand about hiring an 18-year-old student right out of high school.”

    Chamber President John Brown noted that the Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland metropolitan statistical area has the highest concentration of manufacturing market share in the United States.

    From 1970 to 2000, growth in manufacturing employment declined across the United States. In the 10 super regions of the upper Midwest — Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Dayton, Cleveland and Columbus — the decline ranged from 11 to 34 percent.

    But over that same period the Grand Rapids MSA saw a “staggering” 60 percent increase in manufacturing employment growth, Brown noted.

    “Grand Rapids led the way not only across the 30 years, but also across the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, so it was a consistent performance over time,” he said. “You’re looking at a manufacturing economic juggernaut at work.”

    Grand Rapids also is unusual in respect to its diversity of manufacturing employment. Of the 20 standard industrial manufacturing classifications, 19 are represented in the Grand Rapids MSA. There’s no other U.S. region that can claim more and few that can approximate that, Brown noted.

    “We all know that to succeed you have to have the right people. Today we do have the right people but we need to keep getting the right people in our region in order to compete worldwide, and that’s why were so delighted to host this meeting with Kettering, because it’s one more way to attract the best and the brightest to Grand Rapids.”

    Brown said the Chamber of Commerce is open to hosting additional Kettering presentations for area companies.           

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