Engineering placements reflect better economy


    The placement of GVSU School of Engineering co-op students this year appears to reflect good news on two fronts: There still is a need for highly trained manufacturing engineers in West Michigan, and some of the local manufacturers that were battered last year are doing better now.

    Some of the largest local manufacturers that a few years ago typically would hire several co-op students each year apparently still are “not as strong as they used to be,” said Tom Demmon, associate director of career services at GVSU. Demmon, who works mainly with engineering students, said those larger companies, in some cases, still aren’t hiring co-op students.

    “But we have a lot more small to medium-size companies” hiring co-op students, he said.

    GVSU engineering students accepted for the co-op program start their junior year in May, working full time as assistants to professional engineers in factories. The following semester, they are back full time in classes at GVSU. That rotation continues until the student graduates. The program helps the student two ways: with a full-time paying job during part of their last two years in school, and with valuable hands-on engineering experience.

    The manufacturing companies that hire the students benefit because it gives them the chance to get to know students they might want to hire upon graduation.

    The 2008-2009 school year was rough for the GVSU co-op program; some of the 69 students who began the program in May 2008 had their jobs eliminated.

    Demmon said the number of students accepted into the engineering co-op program that begins in May (for graduation in 2012) is the largest ever: 87 students, compared to 59 last year.

    Although some American manufacturing is now done overseas, there is still demand for American-trained engineers, said Demmon.

    “The future doesn’t have less technology in it: It’s got a lot more,” he said. “Engineers still have a bright future, even though 2009 was one of the toughest years in our lifetime — if not the toughest.”

    He said in late January that about 45 companies responded to inquiries made in late 2009 by GVSU, indicating an interest in hiring a co-op student or two this spring. He said that number of interested companies typically increases dramatically by May.

    One company that had not had any GVSU co-op students for a few years but hired two for the current school year is the Burke E. Porter Machinery Co. at 730 Plymouth Ave. NE in Grand Rapids. Kevin Hykin, director of engineering at Porter, said the company’s co-op students are in electrical and mechanical engineering, and it hopes to add a software engineering student by the next semester.

    “Our intention is to prepare to grow,” said Hykin.

    Porter has been a global leader in supplying specialized testing equipment to the automotive industry. The downsizing in the worldwide auto industry “caught us, as well,” said Hykin, so now Porter is diversifying: designing and building test stands for commercial wind turbine manufacturers.

    Hykin said the effective life of a large commercial wind turbine ideally is 20 years, but some turbine gearboxes fail after a few years and have to be repaired or replaced. He said the gearboxes on the largest turbines weigh up to 40,000 pounds, and taking one down from its tall tower and putting it back up again costs up to $200,000.

    Porter is making equipment that permits testing of the gearbox on the ground at full-load capacity.

    Co-op students at Porter will work with a team, which interviews a prospective student. The process is the same one Porter uses when hiring permanent engineers. The company’s intention is to hire co-op students permanently, once they graduate, said Hykin.

    Gentex was one of those companies that had to eliminate some of its co-op students — along with up to 400 full-time jobs — in late 2008. The good news is, Gentex is regaining its strength; it is again hiring full-time workers as well as co-op engineering students from GVSU.

    “Our plan for 2010 is to be back in the mid-teens, maybe close to 20,” said Los.

    In January, Gentex made news by holding a job fair, in its search for 100 new factory workers. “We’ve actually hired over a couple hundred people in the last six months,” said Los. He said Gentex hiring had previously been “below the radar,” but that changed with the need for a high-volume job fair to find highly skilled workers.

    Los said the Gentex Rear Camera Display and its SmartBeam headlamp control system, both of which are incorporated in the interior rearview mirror, have seen a “significant” increase in sales in the last six months.

    Los said the diversity of Gentex products and markets have enabled the company to bounce back more quickly than other automotive suppliers.

    “We’re an invention machine,” he said. “We’re creating a great deal of intellectual property. We’re not a commodity company — we don’t compete on price. We bring unbelievable innovation, quality and technology that the customers can’t get anywhere else.”

    “Our secret recipe is to hire the brightest people that we can find,” said Los, and give them a place “where they can invent stuff.”

    “Guys like Eric are part of our special sauce,” he quipped.

    He was referring to Eric Domke, a GVSU engineering co-op student who has been working rotating semesters at Gentex since May 2008. He survived the downsizing of late 2008, perhaps in part because of his intellectual ability: As of late January, his GVSU grade point average was holding steady at 4.0, and when he took the ACT test in high school, he scored a perfect 36.

    At Gentex, he’s been working in support of manufacturing lines, developing software solutions for various problems, trouble-shooting machine operations and designing fixtures.

    Domke will graduate from GVSU in August. The 21-year-old Grand Haven native will earn a degree in mechanical engineering and hopes to land a permanent job at Gentex.

    His co-op experience was good for him, because he had a chance to get to know the Gentex corporate culture, which he describes as “very innovative.”

    “I have felt empowered while working at Gentex because I was treated like any other employee and was able to make meaningful contributions to important projects,” said Domke. “I also was not limited to the projects assigned to me, but was allowed to work on machine and process improvements that I proposed myself.”

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