Steelcase Wins Employer Award

December 9, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Steelcase Inc. has received the 2005 Kettering University Co-Op Employer of the Year Award for West Michigan in honor of its ongoing support of the university’s professional co-op program.

Kettering selected Steelcase from more than 30 West Michigan companies considered for this year’s award. Steelcase has been one of Kettering’s co-op employers since 1986.

Kettering is one of only a handful of educational institutions in the country offering professional co-op programs where students spend their four years of college alternating between attending classes on campus and working full-time for co-op employers. The coupling of classroom work with practical industrial experience is intended to provide students with early professional development.

Bob Nichols, Kettering’s vice president of corporate relations and enrollment services, presented the award to Jenny Niemann, general manager of Steelcase’s Seating and Surface Materials division, at a ceremony at Steelcase headquarters earlier this month.

“A lot of employers, when times get tough, the first things to go are the co-op programs, but that has not been the case with Steelcase,” Nichols said. “They’ve maintained their program and they have worked with us in developing employees in this community for almost 20 years.”

But Niemann said it was “almost unfair” for Steelcase to get the award because the company benefits so much from having the co-op students work there.

“Whether it’s doing research or taking a product concept and getting it into development, the students truly, truly do help us — and I’ve seen it first hand,” Niemann said.

Noting the changing industry in West Michigan, Kettering alumnus Armen Oumedian said that the continued success of West Michigan companies will require a pool of talented technical people skilled in engineering, manufacturing, business logistics, management, computer systems, finance and more.

“One good way to meet these demands is through a co-op education program,” Oumedian told the audience. “Students get deeply connected with their co-op employers in what we call ‘real world education.’ Steelcase knows how to be successful in world markets, and yet feels it’s important to take the time and make the effort to employ, train and develop young co-op students into successful, accomplished professionals.”

There are going to be gut-wrenching challenges ahead for the state of Michigan as it moves into a new economy, said Bob Roth, president and CEO of RoMan Manufacturing. He predicts that in 50 years manufacturing output in this country will be greater than it is today and that it will continue to grow. Since World War II manufacturing output has grown 600 percent, he said.

“That trend will continue, but it’s just going to take fewer people,” Roth said. “And the people that are involved in it are going to need completely different skills than the people that are involved in it today.

“The cold hard reality is that you’re not going to be able to walk into a manufacturing company with a high school diploma, get a job on the line, be there for 35 years and walk out with a pension. Those jobs are vanishing and they’re vanishing at a rapid rate.”

If the whole problem was just a matter of cheap labor, he said, why would a company like Hyundai invest more than $1 billion in the UnitedState over the last five years for a technology center in Ann Arbor, a test track in California, and a brand new automobile assembly plant in Alabama

“They could have stayed in Korea and paid $1.75 an hour, but they’re coming to the United States and paying our wages.”

Roth said there are a number of things Michigan can build on for its future, and he listed the following examples:

  • West Michigan ranks No. 3 in the World Knowledge Competitive Index published by Robert Huggins Associates. The index benchmarks knowledge capacity, capability and sustainability within a region The same index gives West Michigan No. 1 ranking in research and development expenditure by business per capita, a No. 1 ranking for private equity investment per capita, and a No. 10 ranking for employment in automotive and mechanical engineering sectors.
  • West Michigan ranks No. 1 in office systems in the U.S. ranking of competitive business clusters, ranks No. 2 in automotive, No. 4 in metals and No. 6 in printing.
  • West Michigan already ranks No. 12 in the nation in life sciences.
  • West Michigan ranks No. 2 in the nation for giving. West Michigan residents give nearly 10 percent of their household income to religious and nonprofit causes.

“Our opportunities lie in leveraging the ‘good news’ things in West Michigan — and the fuel to that is education,” Roth said. “Our continued economic prosperity in this community, in our state and our nation has a cornerstone in education.”

He said companies have to be innovative to be competitive, and such innovation can only be sustained with people who have a solid technical foundation that includes math, science and communications skills — in other words, engineering.

“Every industry is and will be transformed by technology. The survivors will be the successful companies that will harness technology, cultivate innovation, embrace diversity and deliver high value to their customers. Kettering has had innovation in education for a long, long time that’s called cooperative education, and that type of preparation helps to develop tomorrow’s innovators.”

Kettering President Stan Liberty, Ph.D., said that for the state to move into “the knowledge economy” and be competitive will require people with a high level of education.

He said there’s a sense in this country that while there’s lots of commitment to innovation, education isn’t leading the way.

Kettering alumni are passionate about the unique, work integrated co-op model,” he said. “They, without exception, attribute their own personal success to a great extent to that co-op educational model that Kettering offered them.”    

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