Michigan Tech, GE Aviation Partner to Keep Work in Michigan

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

GE Aviation of Grand Rapids, Mich., has announced an expansion of its University Development Center in Houghton, Mich. The new facility, a partnership with Michigan Technological University, will bring 50 new jobs to Houghton—the home of Michigan Tech—and employ engineering students to do exactly the kinds of work that they are studying at the University.

Here’s how this unique partnership arose.

In the spring of 2005, Don Eenigenburg, director of test systems for GE Aviation—at that time, Smiths Aerospace—was evaluating the economics and process of outsourcing significant amounts of engineering work to India. The work included generation and testing of software code and design of avionics test equipment. There were 13 Indian companies being evaluated, and he had visited each of them.

Later that spring Eenigenburg, a 1974 graduate of Michigan Tech, came to Houghton to visit his son, Trevor, the third Eenigenburg offspring to attend the University. While the aerospace executive was on campus, the annual Undergraduate Research Expo was taking place. It set him thinking.

“By outsourcing our low-level engineering work to the well-educated and ambitious young engineers in India, we’re investing in their future,” Eenigenburg said to himself. “Why shouldn’t we invest in our children’s future instead?”

“If I had a good engineering school where students and graduates have limited opportunities for work experience, we could get the work done right there, save some money, and help prepare our next generation of engineers at the same time,” said Eenigenburg.

He looked around him, and saw precisely what he had described: Michigan Tech, a highly ranked engineering school in a remote location with a dearth of nearby engineering internships or jobs.

There was one small problem. The semester was over in two weeks. Then students would scatter for the summer. Eenigenburg wanted to find and hire 12 of them before that happened, and put them to work full-time at GE Aviation headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., over the summer and part-time back in Houghton when classes began again in fall.

Michigan Tech’s Career Center came to the rescue. Using their e-recruiting system, the Career Center geared up and quickly located 12 outstanding undergraduates for the jobs.

Tina Giachino even recruited her own 16-year-old son, Dustin Mitchell, and his friend to assemble the workstations for the new venture.

“This was a unique opportunity,” Giachino recalls, “because it was right in this area, and students could do related work while they went to school.” She hopes the GE approach will become a model for other corporations.

Seven employees and approximately 20 students now work at GE Aviation’s University Development Center. The Houghton operation currently is located in the former Portage campus hospital in Hancock, where it will remain while the second and third floors of the historic Powerhouse facility in Houghton are remodeled. Then it will move to the Powerhouse, where GE Aviation has signed a five-year lease with the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation SmartZone.

A $1 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation helped the City of Houghton to renovate and expand the Powerhouse building and encouraged GE to choose Houghton as the site for its center.

At the expanded University Development Center, 50 employees, including up to 40 students, will work in teams comprising a senior technical leader, five junior-level graduate engineers and five engineering students. “They will be doing real, meaningful work,” Eenigenburg said. “They are already generating code, testing it and designing test equipment hardware.”

In his 30-year career, Eenigenburg stated, the project has been one of the best examples of teamwork from a wide range of organizations that he has ever experienced. “The University organizations, the local community agencies, state agencies and the corporation worked together with amazing cooperation and with the same dedication to make something good happen,” he said.

Carlton Crothers, CEO of the Michigan Tech Enterprise SmartZone—a state and local partnership to develop high-tech businesses—calls the GE Aviation center a boon to the Upper Peninsula in many ways. “It brings outside money in, creates jobs, enables students to earn money doing meaningful work while going to school, and it enables recent graduates to stay in Houghton to work and pursue graduate studies at Michigan Tech,” he pointed out.

The decision of a major high-tech firm like GE Aviation to develop a model like this in Houghton also helps give the MTEC SmartZone the critical mass it needs to attract more such corporate operations, Crothers said.

“This project is an ideal way to leverage the bright, capable students that are coming out of Michigan Tech,” he added.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.