Co-op/Internship Experience vs. GPA . . . . Which Wins?

Company conversion rate co-op/intern to full-time employee:

61% (median – 80%)

A recent survey of career services directors at STEM focused universities found that over 85% were experiencing increased interest in participating in co-ops or internships during their collegiate experience. Students and their parents are getting the message, corporate recruiters are seeing increasing value of students that have shown they can successfully apply what they have learned. The Michigan Tech led STEM Collaborative sought out to seek a greater understanding of this ‘hands-on’ value by surveying student co-op/interns and the corporate recruiters that recruit them.

Will your company be increasing the number of internships it offers?

77% – YES!

In the search for a strong college full-time hire, employers are reviewing and redefining characteristics on what makes an engineering candidate stand out. Is it the student’s performance in academics, which might translate to the understanding of basic engineering fundamentals? Or, is it the practical hands-on experience obtained through internships and co-ops, which showcases real-world complex problem solving abilities, interpersonal and communication skills? With companies increasing the number of internship/co-op positions each year, the more vital considerations are: 1) which of these might give the STEM student the advantage in his or her job search, and 2) which of these might benefit the company in the long-term strategy.

What do co-ops/internship experience mean to companies?

Charlie Kramer from Meyer Contracting, “Understanding our culture, our work ethic expectations, our demands of our employees and corresponding rewards.”

Josh Szymanski from Owen Ames Kimball, “Students learn to work with others through problems, politics, and conflict on projects. They also see real world application on concepts they are learning during the school year.”

What value do students see in participating in co-ops/internships?

“The level of project autonomy I have and the incredible learning experiences are the most satisfying while on co-op.” – Ryan, Michigan Tech co-op, Bemis

“The greatest value a co-op brings to a company is their point of view and the way they look at the world. They are new to the company and are not yet accustomed to the way things have been, which is why they are more open to ideas of change and trying new ideas which might help. Another value that co-op students bring to a company is to show the type of work ethic and knowledge that comes from being at a specific college to aid the co-op hiring process in the future.” Jenna, Michigan Tech co-op, Greenheck

What do recruiters value most?

Co-op/Internship Experience – 51% | GPA – 13% | Both – 36%

When asked if internships/co-op were more valuable, a respondent from Twitter stated, “Yes – I believe so. Although I believe college is a test of how well an individual can approach, learning from, and retain new information. I do believe real work experience is more valuable. The ability to navigate through an organization or even understand what navigating through an organization means, is key in quick success at any company.”

Although employers recognized that some companies in the selection criteria might use a minimum GPA, many more stated that once this was met, experience would take precedence in their choice, especially with upperclassmen seeking full-time jobs. For example, a student who has a 3.0 GPA with experience would more often than not be chosen over a student with a 4.0 and no experience. As stated by a respondent from Caterpillar, “Both are very valuable to have but students considered for Caterpillar internships must meet the minimum GPA specified on the job opening in order to be considered. However, involvement in extracurricular activities and other work experiences, even if it is not related to their major, is more important than the higher GPA. We are looking for well-rounded students that have demonstrated the ability to balance their time. The experience gained working, while applying what they have learned in class, demonstrates they have the ability to do that and work with others in a full-time position. For these reasons, we seek out individuals that have had co-op, internship, and/or extracurricular experiences on their resumes.”

Will you make room for top talent?

88% – YES!

We then asked company recruiters “If you find strong candidates on the recruiting trail, will you make a position for them?” – 88% responded with a resounding YES! Corporate America manages budgets to maximized profits and drive share price. Its most precious and scarce commodity is the graduates our STEM focused institutions are producing, so much so that they will make space for them on their teams, regardless of budget. A student with co-op/internship experience qualifies as a strong candidate. That is the definition of a valued asset!

From Fudge to Financial Aid: Customer Service is Key

In the northernmost city in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the most well-known and popular product for tourists is fudge. From plain chocolate fudge to more unique flavors, such as cookies and cream, Mackinaw City has tons of options that appeal to and draw in tourists all year round. But why fudge?
The Straits of Mackinac were originally a trading hub for resources such as fish and fur, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this area was reinventing itself into a popular tourist destination. Candy makers took advantage of this and before long fudge was the sought after product in the area.

Fast forward more than a hundred years to the fall of 2002 when a young college student began working his first summer at Marshall’s Fudge in Mackinaw City. That college student was me, of course, and I had no idea what this “summer job” would do for my personal and professional development.

First, I learned the history. I was working at Marshall’s Fudge, Mackinaw City’s oldest fudge shop. It originated on Mackinac Island and at one time had as many as six stores in the area. Marshall’s, a family business, was created by Jim Marshall in 1923. The business grew and Jim, his wife (Oradelle), and his son (Dean) continued growing their operations. As of the early 2000s, Marshall’s operates one main store in Mackinaw City and also ships fudge and candies worldwide for mail and Internet orders. Dean, who had taken over the business from his father, Jim, passed on the business to his daughter and son-in-law who still own and operate it today. Their teenage daughter also works in the store, just as Dean did for his father when he was that age.

From 2002 – 2006, I worked every summer from May – August in Marshall’s Fudge and learned from Dean while he was passing on the business to his kids. I sold fudge and all sorts of sweet treats, I scooped (and ate) more ice cream than one could ever imagine, I learned to make fancy coffee drinks, and I also got to help make certain things, such as caramel corn, almond bark, and caramel apples. (The secret fudge recipe and process was reserved for only the candy makers, who were either part of the Marshall family, or another individual who had been working there for more than 25 years at the time.) But the most impactful thing I did was customer service. I talked to customers. I listened to customers. We talked about the Mackinac Bridge, the weather, their kids, their upbringing, and everything in between. Best of all, this was encouraged. Dean (Mr. Marshall) always wanted us to build relationships with customers, as he was confident this would give them an experience as good as the fudge itself and encourage them to be lifelong customers. He was absolutely right.

Some of the incredibly valuable lessons that I learned while at this summer job are:

Treat others on your team like family.
This was more than just a job – it was a family for me in the summers I was there. As an 18 year old my first summer there, I was invited to multiple “family” dinners and outings, and in general I was treated like family. I felt appreciated and it was clearly conveyed that I was a valuable member of the team. I even celebrated my 21st birthday with the Marshall family. (I won’t go into those details!)

Believe in the product.
“Taste the difference.” Dean and his wife, Jeannie, would say this all the time. They wanted customers to know they were confident that their product was the best and that they weren’t afraid to say so. Specifically, over the years, they had to compete with dozens of other competing stores, even though the other stores had different recipes and often a more appealing price tag. Dean would often say to us, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” I know he didn’t create this saying, but it resonated with me and stuck with me all these years. He knew what we were selling might be more expensive, but he could justify it. He believed in it and stood by his product.

Customer service is key.
Like I mentioned before, even if someone was just coming in the store to look around, we were expected to treat them like a close friend – and we did. In these cases, I don’t even think it was the product that was selling the customers. Instead, they made a connection. They remembered us. They remembered me, the guy that told them where my favorite restaurant in town was. Or they remembered that my co-worker was from Poland and they loved talking to her about her time working in Mackinaw City for the summer. In these moments, it was simply friendly human interaction and it wasn’t about the fudge. But ultimately, Dean was right. It did lock them in as a customer.

It’s now 2018, and even after my last full summer in 2006 when I finished college, I have continued to go back every summer for about a week and “work” for fun. Most people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I take vacation to go work about 40 hours for a week, but to me, it’s a passion. I recharge my customer service skills and am reminded how important it is for me to demonstrate these same customer service principles in my role with financial aid at Michigan Technological University.

Just as Dean and his family did for me, I view my team as a family. I’m very privileged to work with such a fine group of people in my office at Michigan Tech, and I strive to make them feel as great as they are. I fully believe that if you take care of your team, they will take care of business. In addition, I am fully confident in our product and I’m not afraid to be realistic about it. Yes, I tell folks that a Michigan Tech education is expensive and that it’s a significant investment. But I also can back that up with the return on investment, including the average starting salaries, an extremely low loan default rate, etc. I know our students are getting what they pay for. Finally, customer service in financial aid is the foundation of what we do. When dealing with financial aid and the cost of an education, this can cause much anxiety and emotion for many families. We may not always have the desired solutions or answers for students and their families, but what we can do and strive to do is listen, talk, and demonstrate compassion and empathy. It is through this confidence in our education and our positive customer service that we feel we can develop affinity for Michigan Tech and help make these students lifelong members of the Husky family.

About two years ago when I was doing my summer week in the fudge shop, I saw three men curiously walk into our store. One of them was wearing a Michigan Tech baseball cap, so I instantly knew I had to engage. I quickly walked over on my side of the counter, said “Go Huskies!,” and proceeded to explain to them what I do at Michigan Tech and why I’m here in Mackinaw City in this fudge shop. Their faces quickly turned to smiles when they realized another Husky was here with them. It turned out they were from India, had just graduated from Michigan Tech, and were taking a little trip before they began their careers. We talked for about 5-10 minutes before they left. To be honest, I have no idea if they bought anything from our store or not. And to be honest, none of us cared. Those recent alumni and I had a good time chatting, and I’d be willing to bet that if/when they return to Mackinaw City, they will return to Marshall’s Fudge because they made a connection there and felt welcome. This feeling, this relationship, and the personal connection is what made Marshall’s Fudge special even more than the superior recipe.

I’ve worked at Michigan Tech for nine years now and I know the same holds true here. We have a superior education, but we also have amazing faculty and staff who believe in what we do and demonstrate a passion for helping students. I love making connections with students, families, and alumni and doing whatever I can to help.

If you happen to stop in Mackinaw City in early July, stop in Marshall’s Fudge and look for me. I’ll be wearing a funny looking paper hat and I’d love to chat with you and share Michigan Tech stories. Oh yeah, I almost forgot… We sell fudge too.

Because even I needed a reminder when writing this blog, more information about the history of the Straits of Mackinac and Marshall’s Fudge can be found at

Try Everything

I’ve been in admissions for nearly 20 years and in my current role for over half that time. At a recent scholarship dinner, a parent asked me what I like to do for fun. My response was simple. I have a five-year-old daughter and my time away from work pretty much revolves around however she’d like to spend time together as a family.

Needless to say, there are a lot of animated movies and shows in my world. I couldn’t name five movies featuring live actors, but I’m up on my characters and theme songs from dozens of animated shows and films, not to mention hours of Pandora kids music.

So, let’s talk about Zootopia. Honestly, the movie was not my favorite, but that theme song. If The Office of Admissions had a theme song, this would be it!

I won’t give up, no I won’t give in

Till I reach the end

And then I’ll start again

Though I’m on the lead

I wanna try everything

I wanna try even though I could fail

It’s almost as if Shakira works in higher education! Most of the work we do in admissions is the same from year to year. It’s one big circle—get to the end, start again. On our team we are constantly assessing what works, what doesn’t, what we should try again—or not. Some people could view this as a drag, but really, it’s not. Every year, we get a clean slate. We get to try new things. Different things. Better things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. The point is, we try everything. Even though we could fail.

My staff and I talk a lot about the power of failing and the benefit of failing forward—taking what could be a negative experience and learning from it to improve for the next time. We are fortunate to have upper administration who allow us to experiment and take risks. They know everything might not work, but they trust us to learn and change course if we need to.

Sometimes we know what works and sometimes we’re the little bunny with big dreams. The important thing is we try everything—at least once—and know that if it fails, it’s okay. There’s always next year to start again.


The Benefits of Maternity Leave

This is not a post about female empowerment or the benefits of having benefits. I’m talking about the benefits to a supervisor when a staff member announces they will be going on maternity leave.

You read that correctly. I’ve come to realize there are huge benefits to staff taking planned leave for six weeks or more. Especially if they play a vital role to your office structure and love their job.

Okay, I know you’re thinking I’ve officially lost my mind.

Here’s the thing. My assistant director is preparing for her upcoming leave. In all honesty, she’s my right hand (and half my brain), so how could I possibly feel this way? Think about it. Planning. Organizing. Catching up! After all, she’s known for over eight months this day was coming. Rather than sit back and count down the weeks, she took full advantage of planning for her maternity leave by creating the most amazing documentation of her key responsibilities. I’m talking about things only she knows she does. And now, we have pages and pages of step-by-step, up-to-date, detailed documentation on how to do all of it. Everything!

If I had anxiety about her being away for eight weeks, it ebbed substantially after sitting down with her to review her maternity leave plan—specifically, the tasks I’ll be responsible for in her absence. She created a series of linked documents in Google Drive, so everyone on our team has access.

I always knew my assistant director was detail oriented, but wow. I mean, WOW! This process was a great learning experience for everyone in the office. She summarized her main responsibilities and was able to review her processes to ensure accuracy. Everyone taking over parts of her job for the upcoming months now knows exactly what to do and when and how to do it. Plus, I got to see how much she truly cares about her work and responsibilities. We all feel comfortable with her leaving because she’s prepared us so well. We all have good intentions of creating documentation, but sometimes we need a kick (from the inside or out) to get us going.

Education Reformation on the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses

October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his hometown church, as legend has it, he launched innumerable changes to the western world. One of those being a direct challenge to the commonly understood definition of “expert.”

In some ways the Reformation was as much a technological evolution as much as it was cultural and theological. Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular of the masses. Up until then the Roman Catholics of the day leveraged access to the bible (or lack thereof) to create experts, or rather, priests. By virtue of constricting access to the scripture, Catholic leaders lay claim to the only path to God’s word and thus, His salvation. The printing press eliminated that barrier to expert witness, exposing the masses directly to God’s word.

One wonders whether we’re seeing a 21st century version of the 95 Theses today. Machines are advancing their capability to take on more and more tasks that were once the sole proprietor of the human mind and body. Evolutionary jumps in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are creating a new automation age. Machines can now not only perform a range of routine physical work activities better and more cheaply than humans, but they are also expanding their capability to accomplish activities that involve cognitive skills once considered too complicated to automate, such as making tacit judgments or even sensing emotion.

The question is, then, how will this technological evolution manifest itself in today’s definition of the idea of an expert (a professional)? How is a profession defined if it can be done by a machine (try checking the chances) that your own profession will be automated. If Gutenberg’s printing press gave the masses scripture which by-passed the need for a trained priest, how will this new form of machine age redefine the professions that give structure to our present education system?

Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book The Future of the Professions characterizes today’s professions as sharing four common features. 1 they have specialists knowledge; 2 their admission depends on credentials; 3 their activities are regulated; and 4 they are bound by a common set of values.

The first two characteristics are the property of education and our overarching practices concerning education have not altered much in centuries. Paulo Freire, in his masterful work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, described this aged tradition as the banking concept of education which views students as containers into which educators must put knowledge. He critiques this by writing, “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.”

There are hints of a new education reformation on the near horizon. Flipped classrooms, adaptive learning, and other structural changes recognize that access to information is no longer the primary paradigm of education. The educator’s currency described by Freire, knowledge, is now ubiquitous. The sum total of all human knowledge is now comfortably resting in the palm of your hand. The Susskind’s write, “There is less need for a sage on the stage’ and more of a job for ‘guide on the side’ – those who help students navigate through alternative sources of expertise. In other words, value of education is no longer the facts, but the skills to navigate those facts.

Where does the role for higher education fit in all of this? The fact that specialists’ knowledge is available to everyone will surely alter the notion that credentialed admission is the only entry into professions. How will this new technological age merge with a DYI culture? And what role will higher education serve in it? (There are those who might skillfully claim that college tuition is a new form of Catholic Indulgences.)

Gutenberg’s printing press and Luther’s 95 Theses did not spell the end of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the Catholic Church resisted change fairly successfully for 450 years after Luther’s nail in the door. Only relatively recently did it partially reform in its own way in 1965. Perhaps modern higher education, founded from the same DNA that trained those Catholic priests, can too resist change and survive. I’d rather not test that hypothesis.

Despite its stuffy reputation, higher education has proved itself to be rather adept at adaptation over the years. From its ability to scale up with the massification of education brought on by Morrill Act and the GI Bill to its ability to innovate through large scale disinvestment from the states, colleges and universities continue to find themselves at the crux of social need and economic necessity. The world still needs experts (in fact, it needs many many more of them) and the definition of that need may very well change over time. Post-secondary education must continue to adapt to stay relevant. In the end, the question is will higher education be the parchment of 95 Theses or will it be the door that Theses is nailed on to?

Federal Investment in Michigan Tech: Students are a Good Bet

This week The Student Loan Report published a report that analyzed the default rate among graduates from thousands of universities. Using federal data from the Department of Education, the report looks at the three-year default rate for students who entered repayment beginning in 2014. The national average for default among these borrowers is 11.5%, an increase of 1.77 percentage points over last year. Public college students only did a tad better than the overall average, defaulting at a rate of 11.3%.

Michigan Technological University’s three-year default rate, however, is much better, holding steady at 2.0%. Overall, Michigan Tech ranked #119 out of 1,900 schools reviewed by this report (in the top 6%). Among public institutions, Michigan Tech ranked #27 in the nation (top 2%).

Public Rank 1But many of those public institutions are actually medical schools consisting mostly of graduate students (and just handfuls of undergraduate students). Removing the public medical schools, Michigan Tech ranks 18th in the country for the lowest default rate.

Public Default 2

Finally, the default rate isn’t only a factor of how easily a student can pay back their loans with their early-career earnings, it is also a factor of their socio-economic class background. Students coming from higher earning families borrow less and have back-up means by which to pay off their loans if they do borrow. So we pulled a bit of additional data from the White House Scorecard. Of those top 18 non-medical school public institutions, only three (UC-Irvine, George Mason, and Suny Geneseo) had a higher percentage of students qualifying for the federal Pell Grant.

Looking at it this way, it’s fair to say that Michigan Tech is one of the top four public institutions in the nation where students from modest to moderate financial means can get an education that ensures them the ability to pay back their loans after graduation.

Name 3

No school on this list has a higher percentage of their student body taking out federal loans than Michigan Tech.  In other words, on this list no other public institution in the nation has a larger percentage of students taking out loans with the lowest default rate three years after entering repayment.  Secretary DeVos should sleep well knowing that Michigan Tech students are a good investment for our nation from that point alone.


How to be Successful in “The Future of Work”

Last week a symposium was held at Stanford University titled “The Future of Work.” Collaborators from Silicon Valley, higher education institutions across the country, and other industry leaders gathered to discuss the impact of advancements in technology, including how higher education will need to react to changing economic needs. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX and professor at MIT set the stage with his remarks, “by 2030 fifty-percent of jobs will be replaced by robots or some other form of technology. Half the workforce will need to upscale their skills to stay employed.” What skills will be needed and how will students/workers acquire them?

“People skills will be the most durable in our new economy” stated Guy Berger, Chief Economist at LinkedIn. These skills consist of critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to be agile in your career, allowing you to take on new job opportunities that match your increasing skills set. College majors increasing in demand include computer programming, data science, and engineering.

Anant believes that the quickening pace of technological creation and innovation will support the development of a culture of life-long learning. Schooling will not end with college graduation with a 4-year degree. Anant believes colleges could move toward a subscription model. Like a magazine, each person would subscribe to it, paying a monthly payment, but having the ability to take any courses needed to stay updated in knowledge relevant to their careers.

Farouk Dey, Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Career Education at Stanford University shared Stanford’s 2025 vision for the future of higher education. Termed “Open Loop Education”, students would take a few courses related to their chosen career, then go to work applying what they have learned, returning to school when they need additional knowledge in a never ending cycle. Dey also noted the rise of “Skill Boot Camps”. These 3 to 5 day intense downloads of information is another way for workers to upscale their skills.

These new developments in technology, changes in educational models, and values of the Millennial and Gen Z generations have combined to create the Gig Economy. This is one characterized by short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. To continue to qualify for these short-term assignments, workers will need to be “experts” in their specialized fields, further endorsing these new education models.

The rise of robots and advancements in areas of artificial intelligence will cause a loss of many current jobs. This shift will also create new careers in a transformed economy. The degree each of us will be successful in this economy will depend on how quickly we become active life-long learners.

Making the Case for Student Loan Repayment Benefits

With continued declining support from the states, it’s unlikely anyone would be surprised by the rising costs of higher education.  Colleges can and do point to declining state support, rising operational costs, etc., and while that may make sense with students and families, it doesn’t solve their ultimate concern of overwhelming student debt and how it will impact them after graduation.

In a 2017 survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), 98% of families indicated that they are looking for ways to lower the cost of college.  This shouldn’t be surprising, but the more impactful result of this survey was that 69% of students ruled out a particular college due to costs.  This number rose gradually from 58% when the survey was first distributed in 2008.  At the same time, federal aid applications (via the FAFSA) have risen this year to 86% on average.  The bottom line is that college is costing more and students and their families are struggling to find methods to pay.

According to, on average the class of 2016 graduates had $37,172 in student loan debt.  This was an increase of 6% from 2015.  Furthermore, the average monthly student loan payment that borrowers ages 20 to 30 years old must make are $351.  (Again, that’s just the average, so while some are lower, some are also significantly higher too.)

Colleges have to balance their budgets and can only make so many cuts.  Federal aid continues to be a controversial subject, and no drastic increases in aid or loan forgiveness are on the horizon.  Additionally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is limited in who qualifies and the entire program is in question currently.  The statistics shared above make the case for new approaches and creative solutions, but not where you might expect them.  In a 2017 survey conducted by IonTuition, data shows that student borrowers are increasingly supporting the concept of employers offering student loan repayment assistance programs and benefits.  The survey found that 81% of more than 1,000 borrowers surveyed said they would like to work for an employer that offers student loan repayment plans.  While 87% of respondents noted that they are currently employed, the majority indicated that paying off their student loan balances remains a persistent problem.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for employers to try some new and innovative approaches to recruit graduates.  Of the respondents, 51% indicated that they would prefer a student loan repayment benefit over health care benefits.  Similarly, 49% said they would prefer the same over a 401(k) package.  According to NASFAA, these findings demonstrate that the concerns of young employees are vastly different from past generations, with a focus on paying down debt as opposed to planning for retirement or saving for other milestones.

IonTuition’s findings support the concept that companies can stay current by adding benefits that are more desirable to their workforce.  Offering student loan benefits to employees could be a creative way to recruit and retain talented college graduates.  Might this just be trading one financial problem for another?  Potentially, but that doesn’t change the data and the fact that young college graduates are looking for something new and different from their employers’ benefits packages

Dear Mr. Barone,

Michael Barone reheats and serves up a plate-full of stale pizza cliché in his June 8 Washington Examiner column claiming people who choose not to go to college might be better off than those who do. (This article was rerun in my local paper, the Daily Mining Gazette on June 10, and this letter is in response to that edition.)

The fact of the matter is, the economy has created 11.6 million jobs since the recovery of the great recession. Ninety-nine percent of those jobs have gone to people with some education, 72 percent have gone to people with a four year degree or better. The Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives recently found that of the top 50 good paying, growing occupations in the state through 2024, 43 require some college, and 36 require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Mr. Barone points to rising tuition and administration bloat as two more reasons students should not attend college. Michigan’s House Fiscal Agency found in 2013 that since fiscal year 2001, 80% of tuition price increases are attributable to state funding reductions, and nearly 100 percent when factoring in institutional financial aid. When accounting for inflation, Michigan Tech’s state appropriations are 30 percent lower than they were in 2002, but yet, Michigan Tech is educating 10 percent more students than it was in 2002. Doing 10 percent more with 30 percent less does not suggest Michigan Tech is on a path towards bloat.

Yet still at $63,300 a year, Michigan Tech grads are earning the highest average starting salary of any of the public 15 universities and 10th highest in the nation. Our graduates spend about 3.5 percent of their take home paycheck paying off their student loan, less than Michigan’s state income tax rate of 4.25 percent. And yes, our graduates do pay back as well. Last year, an estimated 1,000 Michigan Tech graduates started their careers in Michigan; earning the average starting salary they will collectively earn over $60 million dollars and pay 2.8 million in state income taxes – in just one year. We suspect that the 23,000 Michigan Tech grads of working age in the state are doing at least as well as this one class.

Michigan Tech is feeding a talent-starved industry sector with the graduates who can develop, understand, apply, manage, and communicate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As much as Mr. Barone wants to paint all higher education institutions as bastions of leftist idolatry, it’s clear he forgets to assert that the engine of a knowledge-based economy is education.

I wonder if Mr. Barone thinks he would have been better off declining his secondary education at the elite Michigan private high school of Cranbrook (with a current endowment of over $300 million) and as well his college at Harvard ($37 billion endowment) and his law degree from Yale ($1.2 billion endowment). My guess? Probably not.

Will Company Conformist Cultures Limit the Impending Supercycle of Innovation?

In the 1930’s when the world was in a great depression, innovation creation excelled in the form or jet engines, televisions, synthetic materials, and even early computers. John Michaelson’s goes on in his Wall Street Journal article, “Prepare for a New Supercycle of Innovation”, to document how historically economic downturns are followed by intense periods of industrial growth led by inventions and increased productivity. This can only occur in corporate cultures that question the status quo, encouraging outside-the-box thinking. But are we encouraging this non-conformist attitude?

Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School notes that “across industries and jobs, employees are feeling pressured to follow established norms and practices in their own organizations. They tell of being frustrated by the lack of opportunities to speak their minds, to be the best versions of themselves, to bring their ideas to the table or suggest ideas for changing the status quo for the better.”  Are companies truly encouraging a culture of conformity, thus stifling a culture of advancement and invention needed for a strong post-recession super-cycle of innovation?

Michigan Technological University graduates over 80% of its students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) related fields, a majority being in engineering disciplines. Eager to take their newly acquired knowledge for a test-drive, many engage in co-op’s or internships before graduation, starting as early as the summer after their freshmen year. So are they experiencing this conformist atmosphere during these corporate experiences?

A young Mechanical Engineering student who worked spring semester at Polaris was tasked with realigning instructions and illustrations being used in their productions processes with the goal of improving quality and efficiencies of the processes. He found that “quick thinking and innovative approaches from my side ensured he could find solutions” that were vetted, endorsed, and then implemented by his supervisors.

Another Mechanical Engineering student worked at Expera Specialty Solutions. He was tasked with reviewing their chemical delivery system used for their specialty paper orders and discover what was causing defects in their customized orders. The culture encourages innovation and understands that trial-and-error is accompanied by mistakes which he addressed in his comments “although I know I have made mistakes along the way, everyone easily dismisses the mistakes and focuses on what you have done to resolve the problem.”

Finally, a Chemical Engineering student was assigned to a team at Bemis that is developing a food-packaging product with high barrier properties. This innovation would be used to keep certain chemicals, flavors, and nutrients inside a package, opening up vast new markets for the company. She was encouraged to communicate her ideas, no matter how far outside-the-box which were welcomed and considered by all on the team. She did realize that “there is monotonous work that comes along with the job, but it needs to be completed in order to get to the exciting innovative tasks.”

Michaelson’s is predicting an upcoming Supercycle of Innovation, while Gino’s observations indicated an existing corporate culture of conformation will stifle this creative cycle. I argue that cultures of non-conformity still exist in companies like Polaris, Expera, and Bemis. If indeed this culture of conformity exists, it is not comprehensive. It is also possible that STEM focused graduates are being hired in greater numbers into these non-conformist cultures, for they have the tools to make innovation occur. The number of STEM graduates could be the ultimate limiting factor on the degree of economic success associated with the coming Supercycle of Innovation!