GRAND RAPIDS — Given the demand for more engineers in West Michigan, two local universities hope to be the institutions that can step up and fill that need.
Grand Valley State University and Cornerstone University announced a new partnership last month that aims to create an entirely new program for the increasing number of students interested in not just engineering, but broader STEM-focused education, according to Bob Sack, Cornerstone University’s vice president of university advancement.
“There’s no question the market here in West Michigan is demanding more engineers. I think we’re responding to the market on that,” Sack said. “There’s no question we’ve seen an increase in the past few years — as I would assume most schools have — in students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. All we have to do is look at the applications and the inquiries that come in to know that’s what kids are interested in.”
Under the terms of the deal — which still requires approval from the Higher Learning Commission, expected later this year — GVSU will expand its engineering department to include four new areas of curriculum, and it would partner with Cornerstone to offer engineering classes for the first time.
The proposed four areas of emphasis include environmental engineering, design and innovation engineering, engineering management, and data science and engineering.
“Those were engineering strands where both universities saw a void and thought that not only is there a market void, but also the respective schools can add these to our programs,” Sack said of the program’s major areas of emphasis. “We have the infrastructure in place and continue to enhance the infrastructure that will complement those programs.”
Courses will be taught at GVSU and at Cornerstone University’s campus on the East Beltline Avenue, on the northeast side of Grand Rapids.
Both Sack and Charles Standridge, a professor and associate dean at GVSU’s Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, told MiBiz that they believe the two institutions will offer a variety of complementary services to students.
Moreover, the changing nature and convergence of engineering and technology bodes well for the program. Standridge noted that more of the region’s private-sector employers require a combination of skills, most notably bridging soft and hard skills.
“Design and innovation are a big issue on our campus,” Standridge said. “The combination of the two, with the technology background, students can pursue these from an engineering perspective. That’s helpful to a variety of companies.”
Overall, officials at the two universities believe the creation of the program will help fill a void in the engineering talent pipeline across the West Michigan region. It comes at a time when the surging private sector is in need of engineers of all kinds.
A recent white paper released by Milwaukee-based human resources consulting firm ManpowerGroup spoke to the need for more engineering talent. The 2016 report notes that engineering has ranked among the top 10 hardest jobs to fill for the eighth consecutive year. Moreover, 82 percent of engineering employers say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to fill engineering jobs and 95 percent say they are likely to hire engineers at some point in 2016.
Indeed, sources in the private sector cite a broad need for more engineers, particularly in sectors other than the automotive and oil and gas industries.
“There are just not enough (engineering) students,” said Jenny Waugh, marketing operations director at Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber Inc. (FTC&H), a Grand Rapids-based architectural and engineering firm with offices across Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. “We even see it in our Ohio office. There’s such a lack of students considering engineering consulting. We see it across state lines. There’s just not enough students.”
Given the difficulty in filling positions, the emergence of another engineering program in the region is appealing to employers like FTC&H, Waugh said.
Cornerstone University’s Sack said the stakeholders have had preliminary conversations with private-sector employers about how to build a pipeline of talent. But given the infancy of the discussions, he was hesitant to go into specific details.
“I think (private-sector) partnerships will develop,” Sack said. “We’ve got some plans in the works for those collaborations to get deeper and I think that will develop.”