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Sunday, 15 September 2013 22:00

An answer to the talent crunch? State’s engineering schools see growing enrollment

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Western Michigan University’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, which includes the school’s paper engineering program, had a 4-percent increase in freshman enrollment this fall. The CEAS also saw a 15.5-percent spike in graduate enrollment, which now stands at around 400 students. Western Michigan University’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, which includes the school’s paper engineering program, had a 4-percent increase in freshman enrollment this fall. The CEAS also saw a 15.5-percent spike in graduate enrollment, which now stands at around 400 students. COURTESY PHOTO

The message for West Michigan manufacturers who have help wanted signs out at their shops is clear: Help is on the way.

As the economy improves and the demand rises for automotive parts, office furniture and other products made in West Michigan, manufacturers have struggled to hire qualified personnel. Anecdotally, they complain that they’re just poaching engineering talent from other local companies. Manufacturing executives and hiring managers say what’s really needed is a new infusion of talent.

Luckily, engineering programs around the state are experiencing a spike in enrollment and interest that eventually will help companies expand their ranks with highly skilled workers.

While official data won’t be available until October, initial statistics from the Michigan State University College of Engineering show that it’s experiencing its highest enrollment in years as the school welcomed approximately 1,300 freshman or transfer students to campus in late August.

Officials at the engineering school told MiBiz that the increase in enrollment brings the college to double its 2006 enrollment. The engineering school also had 225 women as part of its 2013 freshman class, a 30-percent increase from 2012. The school also brought in 10 new faculty members to accommodate the new students.

Overall, the MSU College of Engineering has 4,200 undergraduate students and 700 graduate students.

The increased enrollment can be attributed in part to students being conscious of what educational programs can offer them the most lucrative career after graduation, said Dr. Tom Wolff, assistant dean of engineering for undergraduate studies at MSU.

“There probably isn’t another degree program where you can get your (student) loans paid off in a couple of years,” Wolff said. “Engineering is a field where you can make good money with a bachelor’s degree.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2012, mechanical engineers in Michigan made an average annual salary of $86,280, while industrial engineers made on average $78,690 per year.

“As we have had a poor economy, more students have paid attention to the cost-benefit (of their degrees),” Wolff said.

A January 2013 report by Forbes noted six of the top ten majors as ranked by the highest entry-level salaries were in engineering.

MSU is not the only West Michigan-area university experiencing growth within its engineering program. Overall enrollment at Grand Valley State University’s Padnos College of Engineering rose more than 21 percent from 866 students in 2012 to 1,051 this year. Meanwhile, the Western Michigan University College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) had what Assistant Dean Paul V. Engelmann classified as “strong enrollment.”

Data provided by WMU show a 4-percent increase in freshman engineering students to 524 enrollees — these figures were provided a week before the school’s official census — which brought the total enrollment for the CEAS to 2,585 as of Sept. 3, an increase of 2.3 percent from the same time last year.

Engelmann, who focuses on advising and retention, noted that 22 percent of this year’s entering freshmen are also enrolled in WMU’s Lee Honors College, more than double the percentage from just five years ago. WMU also has 400 graduate students — including 67 doctorate-level students — a 15.5-percent increase.

The Ferris State University College of Engineering Technology in Big Rapids also reported an increase of 148 students, bringing its total enrollment to 2,063.

On a smaller scale, the Hope College School of Engineering has enjoyed modest success, said Dr. Roger Veldman, associate professor of engineering for Hope. Although he did not have exact figures available, he put Hope’s total engineering enrollment at approximately 250 students, a number that’s seen growth each year.

“One thing that is a distinction at Hope is that all classes and labs are taught by professors (as opposed to graduate students),” Veldman said. “You have smaller classes all taught by faculty.”

To accompany growth in student population, Hope opened a new engineering building in mid-September. The Haworth Engineering Center is a 9,000-square-foot addition to the existing VanderWerf Hall and is the result of a $3.5 million gift from Holland furniture manufacturer, Haworth Inc.

“This expansion is a direct result of (Hope’s) increased enrollment in engineering,” Veldman told MiBiz in an email.

The growth that West Michigan schools are experiencing fit in with national trends as well. Data collected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) show bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering “(have) risen steadily over the past 15 years, reaching a new peak of about half a million in 2009.”

While the earning potential of an engineer is strong compared to many other fields, school officials said students also like the flexibility of being able to work in a range of industries after graduating with the degree.

Michigan State’s Wolff said that while the school offers 10 undergraduate degrees in engineering, the most popular disciplines have traditionally been mechanical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering.

“All of this is cyclical based on jobs, after all,” Wolf said, referring to the types of industries hiring engineers. “We tell students to make sure they understand all the opportunities and that they are doing something they like and are good at.”

He added that many companies are looking to hire talented engineers regardless of their specific major and that larger organizations will hire across four or five majors to build strength in their internal teams.

Veldman from Hope said he is seeing many students major in biomedical engineering, needed for jobs in industries such as medical device manufacturing and the life sciences, two growing sectors in Michigan.

A large school like Michigan State also has a number of resources at its disposal to support students as they make their way through the process of classroom and social life, internships and ultimately graduation — and in many cases post-graduate work. For freshman students, the university attempts to provide a full “living-learning experience,” Wolff said.

MSU’s engineering school makes use of a program it calls the Cornerstone Residential Experience (CoRe). The program aims to combine the social aspects of higher education with the academics as a means of “building the whole engineer.”

Students live and work together in their early college years as a way of building a support network. CoRe also makes use of corporate partnerships with companies such as Bosch, Consumers Energy and General Electric to bring a real-world aspect to the college engineering major.

That real-world experience is key to the success of the programs, sources said. MSU’s Wolff said part of the role for professors and advisers is to ensure that internships and other academic necessities are the right fit for the students.

Dan Riggs, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering at MSU, said he’s discovered some internships don’t match up to his ultimate career goals.

Having spent the summer at the Nissan Technical Center in Farmington Hills, he found the internship focused more on improving company efficiency than his “fascination with moving parts.”

“(The internship) was less technical than a mechanical engineer is used to,” Riggs told MiBiz, noting he still found the internship to be good hands-on experience. His desire to graduate with a degree in engineering remains. “There is a high demand for engineers right now. I can see myself working in the automotive or aeronautical industries.”

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