Economy jolts GVSU co-op efforts

February 2, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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The GVSU cooperative education program within its School of Engineering aims to give students real experience working at various industrial companies in West Michigan. Recently, that work experience got brutally real when about 15 percent of the 69 co-op students had their jobs eliminated.

"These companies did not lay them off due to their performance," said Tom Demmon of GVSU. He said the layoffs were due to the severe economic conditions impacting business in West Michigan.

But the good news is GVSU quickly found new co-op jobs for the 10 laid-off students with employers that were able and willing to take them on.

The layoffs apparently came as a shock to GVSU officials, including Demmon, who is the associate director of career services.

Demmon said it is not unheard of for a co-op student to be laid off during company downsizings but it happens infrequently.

"This is the first time, at least in my four years in this position, that we had this many all in one season."

The students had already worked full time at their co-op jobs from May through August, then rotated back to classes at GVSU for the fall semester. In January, they were due to start the second of their three semesters as co-op students. But a wave of layoffs had begun at some West Michigan companies.

One of the laid-off students was John Peterson, a junior from Byron Center who is studying computer engineering. Peterson had been working at Gentex in Holland writing computer codes. Gentex announced in early December it was forced to lay off up to 400 hourly and salaried employees because of the slowdown in automotive manufacturing. Peterson said the company apparently had to let all its interns and co-op students go, too.

While there are still scores of companies in West Michigan eager to get co-op students from GVSU on their payrolls, that number now is "a little softer than last year," said Demmon.

Junior level engineering students at GVSU "have capability, but they are not ready to go as a full-fledged engineer yet. Hence, the co-op program," said Demmon. "You can kind of look at it as almost an apprenticeship program."

The engineering students start the first of their three working semesters as assistants to the company engineers, but generally advance to greater responsibilities as their experience increases. The students get college credits for the semesters and have to pay tuition, but they are also earning a regular paycheck.

In addition to their 40 hours on the job, they have to keep a journal and write special reports for their instructors at GVSU.

Many companies like to hire a few co-op students each year because some prove to be very good workers and end up working there after graduation.

And thanks to companies such as DornerWorks, the co-op students who lost their jobs are back at it. DornerWorks, which designs products with embedded electronic systems, hired Peterson after he lost his Gentex co-op job.

Along with DornerWorks, Demmon had high praise for Bissell, Trans-Matic and Blackmer Pump, and said there is a longer list of still more companies that participate in the GVSU co-op program.

Demmon cited Spearia Inc. as an example of an up-and-coming small company in the area that is tuned in to the engineering and computer science students approaching graduation at GVSU. Spearia, based in Belmont, is a Web site development company that is only a couple of years old but now employs about a dozen people and is hiring.

Jeffrey Dorner, vice president of finance and administration, is an owner of DornerWorks along with his brother. He said Peterson is the third co-op student to work there this school year. This is the company's second year of participation in the GVSU program.

"Grand Valley co-op students and their program works particularly well for us," said Dorner. "You get students for an entire semester full time" three times over a period of two years.

"By the time they've graduated, they are seasoned DornerWorks employees," he said.

The Calvin College engineering department, which does not have a co-op program but does urge its students to seek internships, also works with DornerWorks.

Dorner said the goal of the company's involvement with GVSU and Calvin is to locate and develop promising engineering students who are ready to go to work there upon graduation. He said they would likely be hiring one or two more co-op students in May.

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