Braving Upper Peninsula winters, Michigan Tech grads strike gold

The call has been a shout, not a whisper: We need more kids to get science and engineering degrees! America’s place in the world’s economy is in jeopardy!

Amid the clamor there are serious questions about whether a problem exists, with some experts suggesting there are plenty of qualified STEM graduates in the country already and that expanding STEM programs may create an unnecessary glut of STEM graduates.

“I think this drumbeat of ‘more STEM, more STEM’ has led to hyperbole,” said Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University. “Are we setting kids up for bad expectations? The answer is yes.”

But Salzman adds that when STEM grads are needed, employers would be wise to recruit workers from “a school that...has a history.”

A school, for instance, like Michigan Tech , which has been attracting bright students and producing engineers and geologists for decades. While a recent U.S. Census report shows STEM grads are often find work outside their fields of study, ninety-five percent of Tech grads are either working or in grad school or the military six months after graduating, earning competitive salaries. The four largest majors, according to a 2012-13 survey, averaged $58,500 in starting salary in civil, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering.

Heading north

In late September, hundreds of recruiters descended upon tiny Houghton, filling every hotel and motel room in this remote area in the northernmost reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Recruiters filled a four-basketball-court recreation floor with tables and displays, so many that the two-day event spilled over to the school’s basketball arena.

“We have had great success with grads from here,” said Brian Cowell, a mechanical engineer from Plexus, an international electronics manufacturing services company based in Wisconsin. Plexus sent about 10 people to talk with students, collect resumes and schedule interviews. It was a big commitment made by more than 340 other companies who saw Tech’s students as golden economic opportunities.

Companies like Plexus can pick and choose where they go for talent and, recently, another Michigan school was scratched from Plexus’ recruiting list because its grads hadn’t performed. But Tech remains on the list of schools the company visits.

“We hit the ones where we’ve had the best success recruiting at,” Cowell said.

Plexus was joined by companies from across the spectrum, from Ford and 3M to Caterpillar, GM, Kimberly-Clark and Kohler. They were looking for interns and new hires, ready to commit to students, many still too young to legally drink.

Although tiny compared to Michigan State and the University of Michigan, Tech has been producing STEM graduates for decades and is focused on engineering and the sciences. You don’t head to Houghton to get an English degree; the No. 1 degree is mechanical engineering – and the next four are also engineering: chemical, civil, electrical and biomedical. Next after that is computer science. Of the 1,193 first-year students in 2013, roughly 90 percent chose STEM fields.

It’s the type of school Salzman is talking about when he says it “has a history.” Michigan Tech, second to UM in STEM grads in the state and roughly tied with MSU, is largely focused on undergraduate education. It has PhD programs and conducts research, but its professors’ main job is creating a skilled undergraduate able to handle what today’s high-tech world demands.

Judging by the career fair, it’s doing a pretty good job.

Recruiters fill the athletic halls in matching shirts, some with have T-shirts that read “No Data, No Change.” They hand out tote bags, water bottles, sunglasses and T-shirts while standing in front of displays with sayings like “We don’t fill positions, we engineer opportunities.” When the fair officially opened, a wave of students – even freshmen trying to snag their first internship – pour into the rooms in ill-fitting suits, waiting for the chance to drop off a resume and score an interview.

For those wondering if the economy is thawing, the evidence was in these two rooms, even as the temperature outside was plummeting. More companies came this year than had ever visited before.
“This has by far blown away any other years,” said Steve Patchin, director of career services at Tech. It was the greatest number of companies the campus had ever seen, he said, well more than double the 140 companies that came in 2009.

A tough road

In 2011, Apple chief Steve Jobs told President Obama the nation needed to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year to keep pace internationally, which would mean hundreds more STEM graduates from Michigan colleges, including Michigan Tech.

Yet there are fewer kids graduating from Michigan high schools every year. And although Tech’s undergraduate enrollment is up, it’s only slightly up, in part because it has raised its female student population from 17 percent several years ago to 26 percent this year, President Glenn Mroz said.

Nationally, a greater percentage of high school graduates are going to college, yet only a small fraction are interested in STEM fields. Compounding the problem of finding kids interested in STEM, is finding kids interested and capable enough to handle STEM’s demanding coursework.

“It ain’t easy,” said Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education and organizational change at UCLA in California. “It’s different from other majors.”

Consider Tech freshmen Ben Bergeron of East Lansing. His courses at Tech include calculus 3, honors composition, programming and non-Euclidean geometry ‒ and that’s in his first semester. Just weeks after settling in on campus, Bergeron was at the career fair, resume in hand. “If they have positions open, I wanted to get my name known to them,” he said.

Bergeron knew what to expect when he got to Houghton, and he was glad that a lot of math and computer work awaited him. But clearly, it’s not for everyone. In Michigan, the group of students considered ready to tackle those challenges isn’t growing: On the state’s Michigan Merit Exam,  given annually to high school juniors, only 27 percent were considered proficient in math last spring, and 25 percent were rated proficient in science.

Those figures make it difficult on schools like Michigan Tech to recruit qualified students. One, school officials have to convince this small slice of prospective students to travel to far northern Michigan, where the region averages almost 220 inches (or 18 feet) of snow each winter. One bonus: the university owns a ski hill less than a mile from campus and maintains acres of cross-country skiing trails.

And then, well, students enrolling at Tech must be prepared to work hard. The school has the second highest ACT scores among incoming freshmen of the state’s 15 public universities, second only to UM.

“You don’t want to accept people who don’t have a chance to graduate,” Mroz said.

Why Tech works

On the Monday night before the career fair, the Tech main library was full. Nearly every computer terminal had a student in front of it, most rooms set aside for groups were full of students trying to solve problems.

Tech’s focus on undergraduate students has been in place for years. But the school is still evolving: it’s changing the curriculum to give engineering students an earlier peek at engineering, rather than making them slog through all of the foundational courses before they get the reward of applying their knowledge.And it is emphasizing its “enterprise” program,  in which teams of students work on solving companies’ real-world problems, be it in prosthetics or electronics. The students get their hands dirty and the companies get a marketable solution.

The result has been days like the career fair, when the product of the school is up for sale – and there are hundreds of bidders.

“They really like (our) people because they’re ready to go to work,” Mroz said.

Tom Rossmeissl, piping design manager for Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., a 70,000 employee international company, was more succinct about why his company keeps making the drive from Wisconsin to Houghton: “We’ve never had a dud,” he said.

Of 122 Michigan Tech mechanical engineer grads who got offers in the last year, the average salary was just over $61,000, with the highest offer at $100,000, according to a recent graduate survey.  Among other majors where at least 50 graduates got offers, civil engineers were averaging $49,300; chemical engineers $67,400 and electrical engineers $59,100.

Nearly half of Tech grads stay in Michigan, with Wisconsin (16 percent) and Minnesota (9 percent) the next most likely landing places, according to a 2012-13 report.

Not all STEM degrees are gold

Unfortunately, not every school that offers a STEM education is minting degrees as promising as those at Tech, UM and MSU. The push to add students has created new programs across the country, many at schools that don’t have a singular focus or a culture of science and engineering.

“A low-quality STEM program is not going to do you very good,” warned Salzman, the Rutgers professor. “Buyer beware because they’re not all created equal.”

Because of the rigor associated with STEM, dropout rates are high in the first two years. What Chang of UCLA said he has discovered, however, is those schools that specialize in STEM, like MIT, California Tech and Michigan Tech, do a better job at keeping those students who enroll (Tech has an 87 percent retention rate). First, they select kids who want that type of degree and secondly, when adversity arrives, there are fewer non-STEM degrees to fall back on.

That’s not necessarily the case at a school with a broader set of course offerings. “When they switch majors, they don’t switch within science,” Chang said. They may opt for business, or law.

Tech has other programs besides engineering – business, psychology and forestry, for instance – but the school’s bread-and-butter degrees remain tech related, with more than 86 percent of all majors anchored in STEM.

It’s that focus that attracts both STEM students and STEM employers. Senior A.J. Suneson, 21, of Wichita Falls, Texas, traveled a long way to get to Houghton, where he has majored in computer engineering. He handed out seven resumes during the job fair – nearly 90 companies were seeking people with his major – and was hoping to interview with several on the second day of the fair.

In the weeks after the fair, he had a couple of interviews, one solid offer – pay in the $65,000 range – and intends to soon fly to Wisconsin for another interview. Other prospects loom, he said, and he may expand his search. “Market still feels very strong for computer engineers,” he said in a recent email.

The interest from recruiters was a partial reward for more than three years of tough classes and cold weather – he had to knock a foot of snow off his car as he left for Thanksgiving break. But to have one job offer in hand, and the prospect for more?

“It certainly validates the work that you’re doing,” he said.

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Doug Curry
Tue, 12/02/2014 - 3:20pm
My son graduated from Tech in 2003. Going there was one of the best decisions he ever made. As a parent, I was extremely impressed with the commitment that the university made to its students and of the high quality of students that attended there. Unlike other STEM universities you got the impression that at Tech everyone wanted everyone to be successful. Cooperation not competition seemed to be the key of Tech's success. It is a fact that Tech grads take care of Tech grads. The Tech connection is strong. GO HUSKIES!!!!
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 2:21am
This article and others like it are contributing to kids avoiding STEM curriculums. Engineering doesn't take the brightest, if you have ever met many you would realize they aren't the few at the top of their class, they are the ones who were persistent and willing to sacrifice (study). Employers want the innovators that can make ideas work, that can communicte the ideas to others that will apply them, they want those who have learned to work through problems not the ones who have simply succeed because the learned faster and easier than others. The successful engineers and scientists aren't the ones that have THE ANSWER, they are the ones that ask the right questions and to listen to the answers, choosing the most effective ones. It is too bad that Mr. Wilkinson didn't talk to a few graduates working in industry and ask them why theychose engineering. I suspect that many would say they had an idea what engineers do and relate to doing it. They would also say that many people were discouraging them taking math and science classes claining it was for the 'brightest' and told them how hard it would be in college. This is especially true for girls. How many times do you think kids in K-12 hear teachers or parents or adults say when they have an arithmatic problem that they 'aren't good with numbers' or that science and math are hard or that algerbra and even science aren't used in the everyday? The realities of earning a BS in engineering are average intelligence, persistance, sacrifice (studying), and self confidence. This also applies to other science degrees, chemistry, biology. If you want to increase the college enrollments in STEM subjects then get K-12 students talking to non academic engineers and scientists, get them on production plant tours, get them into research facilities, get them talking about how they use science, engineering, math (algerbra) in their everyday lives. Get the students seeing how STEM is part of their everyday. Expose the kids to as many of the different STEM professions as possible starting in the 5th grade. If you want to keep the students in the STEM curriculums expand the coop programs, getting students to work with science in real jobs they could be trainging for. Establish programs with local businesses where the students are taught about the science they will be using in their jobs. Think about a student working with a local small business that does work on HVAC system and have the student learn the (physical) chemistry, the mechanical principles, the physics, the science and math of the system they would be working with. STEM needs to be made real and personal if you want to expand the enrollment and graduations. It is a bit disappointing that Mr. Wilkinson could find the opportunity to talk technology companies in Michigan. There are many such global companies headquartered here that hire many STEM graduates from all around the US and around the world that can describe the realities of science and engineering. I worked for one of these companies and learned how the engineers and scientists work at solving problems and that was more important than brilliance, how they came from all kinds of brackgrounds and schools.
Thu, 12/04/2014 - 9:46am
Perhaps it was not explicitly stated, but a first semester undergraduate student at a career fair (described in the story) is in fact looking for a coop or internship. Companies are at Career Fairs explicitly to hire undergrads for coops and internships, as well as graduates. Most students have several during their education, as well as being able to work for Tech companies while taking classes.
Fri, 12/05/2014 - 12:22am
Glenn, I am far removed, but as I recalled the internships and cooping were provided by the employers. The ones I was thinking about were effective full time employment (with commensurate compensation) at the employers facilities which made it difficult for students to be taking classes, though with online courses that is surely do able. The interns and coops I had contact with or saw working were commonly six months (time enough for the employer and student) to develop and complete some technically related projects/activities so both would gain, so I am surprise that "Most students have several during their education". What I had seen and learned is that during an internship students were able to see the science they were learning out into practice and they were able to experieince the different ways/categories of work that their STEM degree is applied. I would encourage taking that concept and applying to high school students, let them see how science and math is applied everyday.
Wed, 12/10/2014 - 9:45am
Duane, What you describe as ideal student relevant employment with co-ops and internships to gain industry experience is the norm for these current students. I am one of the academic advisors in mechanical engineering here at Michigan Tech and can vouch for this 100%. They may or may not take classes while working through these opportunities, and that is one of the reasons it takes most engineering students more than 4 years to graduate (4.5-5 years is typical), but they are certainly including these critical experiences in their academic planning almost without exception.