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CMU answers industry demand for engineers

Decade-old programs mean jobs, often before graduation

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

Katherine Kolar isn’t concerned about finding a job after she graduates May 6. The Central Michigan University electrical engineering major from Brighton has had a position waiting for her at General Motors since completing an internship there last summer.

“I know my boss, and I know what I need to study to get ready for my job at GM,” said Kolar, who will work on propulsion in electric and hybrid vehicles. “A main goal in getting a degree is finding a job, so it was nice to know I had the training and skills I needed before I started my senior year.”

Such a story is common among CMU electrical, mechanical and computer engineering students who are landing jobs at top companies, including Fiat Chrysler, Ford, Dow Chemical, Dow Corning, Gentex and Steelcase.

About 91 percent of engineering students from the last three years reported full-time employment within six months of graduation. Nearly 83 percent had starting salaries above $60,000. 

Eric Woodward, production manager at Gentex, a global electronics company in Zeeland, said CMU is in the top five of 53 universities from which it has hired engineering professionals.

"Working closely with CMU the past eight years, I have a good understanding of what the students' experiences are and the quality of the education they receive," said Woodward, a 2003 alumnus. "CMU's engineering program is on par with other programs in Michigan and the Midwest."

Major corporations such as Ford and Fiat Chrysler have designated CMU a top recruiting school, and others are following suit, partnering with Central to secure employees in a number of fields.

"We have corporate recruiters pushing to come here because they say, 'We need to have our brands in front of these students,'" said Terry Lerch, chair of CMU's School of Engineering and Technology.

Kolar credits her success to hands-on research experience inside the classroom and beyond, and to encouragement from faculty member Adam Mock. He encouraged Kolar to apply for the NanoJapan International Research Experience for Undergraduates. She was accepted to the 12-week program as a sophomore and spent the summer at Chiba University in Japan, studying the electrical characteristics of carbon-based graphene at low temperatures.

"Professor Mock's labs and my experiences shaped who I am as an engineer," Kolar said.


First master's students to graduate in May

CMU launched its first undergraduate engineering programs — mechanical and electrical — in 2004 to meet growing nationwide demand. A decade since the first cohorts graduated in 2007, CMU has gained a position as a top institution for teaching and training engineers.

The university added computer engineering in 2011, and its first master of engineering students will graduate this May.

Ahmed Tashfin Iftekhar is among those first master's students. Previously a telecommunications electronic engineer in Bangladesh, he saw opportunities to advance his career at CMU. In addition to the university's proven programs and industry connections, Iftekhar knew Central's Tolga Kaya would be an outstanding faculty mentor.

"With engineering and research, a lot of times your success depends on the team you're working with," Iftekhar said. "When I applied to CMU, I had a Skype interview with Tolga and thought, 'This is the right person for me to work with.'"

Iftekhar is part of a team whose research will be published this spring in the Journal of Applied Physics. The team, which includes physics faculty member Axel Mellinger, investigated a sweat sensor that athletes wear as a watch to help detect dehydration. 

After graduating, Iftekhar plans to pursue an engineering doctoral degree. 

  • CMU’s mechanical and electrical programs have received accreditation from ABET, and a decision on computer engineering accreditation is expected in July;
  • Advanced on-campus facilities give students hands-on opportunities in electronics, robotics, manufacturing systems, mechanical measurements, and computer-aided design and manufacturing;
  • The CMU Baja and Formula racing teams design and create their own vehicles and consistently place in regional and national competitions;
  • Rapid growth and demand for engineering programs and graduates fueled the name change last year from CMU’s College of Science and Technology to the College of Science and Engineering.

Engineering, accreditation and runs batted in

Kurtis Wells, a senior test engineer at Eaton, a power management company in Grand Rapids, proves the value of CMU engineering programs.

Wells, '07, was one of the first mechanical engineering graduates, having taken a chance on the new program based on the strength of other CMU majors.

Wells, who played first base for CMU's baseball team and set the school record with 70 RBI, remembers doing homework on the bus or in hotel lobbies.

"There were about 10 of us in the first class, and we knew a lot of the work for accreditation was going to be on our shoulders and how we performed," said Wells, who maintained a 3.95 GPA.

By fall of his senior year, Wells knew he would work after graduation as a mechanical engineer for Bechtel Marine Propulsion Corp. in Pittsburgh.

At Eaton, Wells designs equipment for tests such as vibration, endurance and temperature extremes to ensure the company's electromechanical actuators meet quality requirements. He said one of most valuable lessons at CMU came in a class that covered the entire design process, including customer satisfaction.

"This is something I use on a daily basis," Wells said. "It really prepared me for a career in engineering, and I think it helped me secure a job offer months before I graduated from CMU."

Tracking engineering growth infographic

Programs help meet state’s demands

In the late 1990s, the college’s engineering advisory board began investigating the potential of engineering programs, said Dale Karolak, who was a member of the board.

Karolak, a 1981 computer science graduate, is director of engineering strategy and operations at Dart Container Corp. in Mason. He said discussions centered around how universities weren’t meeting the demand Michigan companies had for engineers. CMU, which had a pre-engineering program, was poised to launch mechanical and electrical majors.

“There was pushback from some people asking if there was enough student interest or if it was necessary, but having an engineering program has stepped up the university’s reputation throughout the state,” Karolak said. “It has been successful; the increase in enrollment shows student interest is there, and the placement rates of our students affirm the quality of their education.

“Knowledge of our engineering programs and our qualified graduates is expanding statewide,” he said. “Changing the name of the college to include engineering (in 2016) sent a signal and reinforced CMU’s commitment to STEM and engineering-related programs.”

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