Kettering University: GM's historic training ground for engineering talent
Charles "Boss" Kettering, who got things rolling
Kettering University — its fifth name over the years — was started by Kettering and a group of leading citizens in 1919 as a trade school. Almost from the start, it was distinctive because it offered a mix of learning and work.
That is still its distinction today.
Kettering University is now a partner with 600 corporations to provide students with a specialized mixture of academics and work experience. About 10 percent of the co-op jobs are at General Motors now; 30 years ago, GM employed all of the co-op students.
The partners include Bosch, Chrysler, Dow Automotive, DTE Energy, Texas Instruments, UPS, Timken and Honda.
Students attend the school for 41/2 years, rotating every three months between working and attending classes. More than 70 percent of Kettering graduates are hired by their corporate sponsor.
In addition to providing valuable work experience, the co-op salary accounts for a big chunk of the $25,248 annual tuition, making college possible for many students who might otherwise have a tough time paying their way.
"I think the co-op program is the best way to ever go to college," said Lori Queen, a 1979 graduate of General Motors Institute — the school's name for more than half a century. Queen is now the vehicle line executive for small and mid-sized trucks at GM. She said: "Mixing real life work experiences with solid course work puts everything in perspective."
Mixing work experience with course work allows a student to fine-tune an academic program to fit his or her evolving needs, Queen said. "It gave you the opportunity to be more selective about your course work based on what you would want to do with your career."
Queen is one of many high-profile grads in the business world.
"About one out of 15 of our graduates go on to be a CEO or found their own company," said Kettering President Stanley Liberty. "We have a good track record of creating business leaders."
Among the graduates are Gary Cowger, GM's manufacturing and labor relations boss; Chet Huber, president of OnStar; Bruce Coventry, president of Chrysler LLC's global engine manufacturing alliance; Russell Ebeid, president of the glass group at Guardian Industries; Jacqui Dedo, a Timken Corp. senior vice president; Rodney O'Neal, CEO of Delphi Corp.; Bill Osborne, president of Ford of Canada; and Derica Rise, CFO of Eli Lilly & Co.
Cowger, a 1970 graduate and now vice chairman of the Kettering board, said in an e-mail: "I was going to go to Kansas State to play baseball, but instead headed north and received a terrific co-op education. I loved cars, and GM was the leading auto company at the time, so it was a perfect fit."
Joe Spielman, 63, who retired a year ago as GM's vice president of manufacturing for North America and was a 1968 GMI graduate, said the university's cooperative engineering program put him several years ahead of other engineering school grads.
"One of things I found is the small class sizes made it easier to get to know the professors. I used some of them as consultants during my career, and they are still friends of mine," he said.
The story starts with the meeting of Charles Kettering and Maj. Albert Sobey in Flint. Kettering, who had worked in Dayton, Ohio, for Delco, shared with Sobey and others the story of Dayton's 1916 "welfare work" program, under which 800 students were enrolled in a night school run by the Dayton YMCA and Delco.
Sobey agreed to run a similar school — the School of Automotive Trades — in Flint. Twelve evening courses taught by men from local plants began on Oct. 20, 1919, the date recognized as the beginning of Kettering University.
GM did not get involved until 1926, when it announced it would manage the school and extend the school's services to all GM units. The name was changed to General Motors Institute. GM saw the school as a feeder system for engineering talent at a time when the company was growing rapidly.
After a considerable reign — from 1919 to 1950 — Sobey was followed by school presidents Guy Cowing, Harold Rodes, William Cottingham and James John. Current president Liberty took the job in 2005.
GMI was owned by GM for 56 years, during which 96 percent of the school's graduates went to work for their sponsoring GM unit. It became an independent institution in 1982 called GMI Engineering and Management Institute.
The school became Kettering University on Jan. 1, 1998, to honor the man who helped start it and to reflect that GM no longer was the school's only corporate partner.
Liberty says Kettering is fighting declining enrollment — it's about 800 students short of its 3,000-student capacity — by seeking students in the South and Southwest. "We also need to get corporate partnerships in these areas," he says.
Since the name change, the school is less recognizable nationally, Liberty says.
"The name change did not aggressively brand the name Kettering," he says. "Students and parents in other states don't have a clue what we are." But he says the school is working on a major national branding initiative and has stepped up marketing efforts. Its marketing efforts are bearing fruit. "Applications are up 44 percent from a year ago," Liberty says.
Barb Sosin, Kettering's director of admissions, attributes the large increase in applications to the marketing campaign launched last year, the marketing of the school's scholarship program, an increase in advertising and a boost in staff travel outside the Midwest.
Monica Denis is a Kettering student working for GM. She's a senior, and does her co-op work at the GM Powertrain plant in Toledo, Ohio.
Denis, who grew up in Clarkston, Mich., went to a small private high school and likes the close-knit school environment of Kettering. She enjoys rotating between the classroom environment in Flint, where she is active in school activities, and the professional engineering world in Toledo.
After she graduates in September, she will work at the plant as an industrial engineer. Says Denis: "I started working there as a freshman. I know the processes, the people, how they work."