WMU Business Connection encourages local economic growth

Students who have strong skills in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are in high demand. “A major factor contributing to Michigan’s economic growth is the expansion of the high-tech and knowledge-based sectors,” says Lisa Garcia, director of WMU’s Business Connection. “It is imperative that universities do all that they can to keep students with strong skills in the STEM fields in Michigan to help ensure the future of our economy.” Michigan universities have a distinct opportunity to not only train the best and brightest, but to retain them.

One of the ways that Western Michigan University promotes talent retention is through the Michigan Corporate Relations Network, a statewide network of universities designed to create partnerships connecting the state’s corporations to critical university assets. The network is made up of six major public universities, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Wayne State University, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Western Michigan University and nine affiliate universities. The partnerships between Michigan corporations and universities help promote innovative research and grow Michigan’s economy.

Small Company Internship Award

The Michigan Corporate Relations Network offers the Small Company Internship Award (SCIA), which provides matching funds to small businesses in Michigan in order to hire university students as interns. These internships require students to work on projects that are both beneficial to the company and academically relevant to the student.

The program helps small businesses in Michigan that specialize in the STEM fields find a wealth of talent from the universities in the network. The students gain unique experience and knowledge as they are exposed to innovative processes and products emerging from these small companies while they work side-by-side with highly skilled employees. These internships encourage job placements with local companies after graduation as many students discover their passions and are often asked to stay after their internship has ended.

The Business Connection at WMU

The Business Connection office at Western Michigan University oversees the SCIA program for all 15 of the public universities in Michigan. The office is responsible for day-to-day administrative management and for reporting to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which funds the program.

“It is our hope that students are exposed to some great small companies in Michigan,” says Garcia. “Many students are well aware of the larger companies in our area but do not know much about the smaller local companies who are doing exciting and innovative work in our region. An internship at a smaller company typically allows students to take on more responsibility, giving them experience in a variety of job functions. This helps students to build their resumes and stand out to their future employers.”

Technical Packaging Systems, a packaging and material-handling distributor headquartered in Kalamazoo, hired a Western Michigan University student as a summer intern through the SCIA program. “We would definitely recommend this program to other companies,” says Steve Scafaria, vice president of sales at Technical Packaging Systems. “We have had great experiences with interns from Western Michigan University and will continue to look for WMU students to fill our internship positions.” Many of the small businesses that work with the Business Connection would not have been able to hire an intern if it had not been for the grant program. 

Meet the WMU interns

Pepper at Sigma Machine

Sarah Pepper, a junior studying integrated supply management, interned for Sigma Machine, a family-owned business in Kalamazoo that provides design, prototyping and manufacturing for the electric vehicle, aviation and food processing industries. Pepper’s responsibilities were all rooted in the continuous improvement of the company. She worked with massive amounts of data to forecast and push assembly efficiencies, created new work instructions for machine operators, completed daily cycle counts to track inventory and updated the ERP system. Like many students who have internships under SCIA, Pepper stayed with the company and is working part-time at Sigma Machine during the fall semester.

“The most valuable lesson I learned during my internship was to always be proactive,” she says. “It is important to clearly communicate what is happening at all times with all departments. Any small error or miscommunication will cost money and will most likely affect everyone.”

Before the internship, Pepper was unsure of where she wanted to focus her studies within the integrated supply management field. After her experience at Sigma Machine, she decided that she wants to work in procurement, with a long-term goal of becoming the vice president of a company with a healthy corporate culture.

Badovinac at Technical Packaging Systems

Melissa Badovinac, a senior studying engineering management, interned with Technical Packaging Systems. The company was looking for a self-motivated student with an engineering background and good computer skills—Badovinac fit the bill. During her internship, her responsibilities included scheduling, film audits, 3D modeling, Auto-CAD and Request for Quotations (RFQs).

“My internship at Technical Packaging Systems had a huge impact on me in regards to career development and skill building,” she says. “I found packaging systems and machinery to be fascinating. I never expected to enjoy learning about this sector as much as I did, but my internship made it clear to me that I wanted to work in this industry. This experience solidified my career path and validated my choice to major in engineering management.”

Learn more about Business Connection and SCIA