A Q&A with Philomena Mantella, president of Grand Valley State University
Grand Valley State University is partnering with five well-known West Michigan companies on a new training program that places students in paid internships with participating employers for two years, before and after graduation.
Announced on Feb. 7 and launching in August, the Laker Accelerated Talent Link program involves Acrisure LLC, Amway Corp., Cascade Engineering Inc., Corewell Health and Michigan Software Labs LLC. The initial cohort will include 25 students, primarily from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The students will work for one year and commit to an additional year at the company after graduating, while also earning a career-ready certificate related to business or technology that best meets employers’ needs.
GVSU President Philomena Mantella spoke with MiBiz about the program’s mission of talent retention, and eventually scaling up to potentially include hundreds of students and dozens of companies.
How did this program come together?
The conversation is really all about: How do we keep growing the talent in Michigan to continue to grow our economy? All of our conversations with corporate and nonprofit leaders are about critical competencies that they need and just the talent gaps our workforce is experiencing. We at Grand Valley have been trying to look at every way we can to accelerate meeting their needs, and to listen carefully to our employers around the areas of most critical need. As we were exploring those questions, employers would so frequently say that they’re really looking for students with strong human skills, teamwork, critical thinking, strong business acumen, key competency and technical literacy, systems thinking and digital analytics.
In really looking at the opportunity at Grand Valley, we have nearly 90 percent of our students get their degrees and stay in Michigan. We started to look at some of the areas of liberal education where there was an opportunity to add a deeper co-op-like experience and to add one of these high-demand skills, and do that either within the envelope of the degree, or immediately post baccalaureate as an additional credential. That is a pool of talent that we’re producing and that can be focused in a way that is a real opportunity for our region and for employers. But also, it’s a real opportunity for our students to be in areas of high demand. It was really a win-win.
Why do you think GVSU has such a strong retention rate of graduates who stay in Michigan?
We have a strong draw from every county in Michigan, and a high number of our students who come from Michigan have a great experience. I would hope that everything about the academic community experience, the ability to integrate with our community, and just the quality of life offers a lot for students to make it their home after they graduate.
How will GVSU determine which students are placed with companies?
We’re working together around those sorts of logistics and details, but we have asked each company that has sponsored this pilot. I think it’s really important to say that this is in fact a pilot that we intend to scale. There’s much more opportunity here and these employers have stepped up not only to sponsor students and to provide some support directly for the institution to gear this up quickly, but also to be at the table so we’re sure that it’s working for everyone: the students, the employers and the university. Through that, we will work together and select the students at the front end. There’s not a formula here. Some employers may like to be at the table and be a part of selecting the student. If the employer says, ‘Here’s what we’re looking for, we want (GVSU) to do that,’ that’s fine, too. We’re working through those logistics.
Was it intentional to partner with these particular companies, or did you set out hoping for participants from a range of industries?
We did a lot of on-the-ground research and were arm-in-arm with The Right Place visiting many of the companies. We also have been doing focus groups on the critical competencies and where (employers’) talent gaps are. And then we started to have conversations. As I started to think about the greatest opportunity for learning in the pilot year, what was important to me was the diversity of companies. For example, having some with a large workforce and a lot of opportunities as well as smaller companies that are going to hire a couple of students.
How might this program or others at GVSU translate into long-term talent retention in the region? What is the school’s strategy for that?
We have a number of ways that we’re coming around the issue, and I think Michigan has a real opportunity as we move into electrification and advanced manufacturing. We are looking at a lot of ways. First of all, I would say Grand Valley State University — even in the face of declining traditional student demographics — intends to grow. We’re going to serve students who continue to come from Michigan, and students hopefully are drawn into our state by programs like this. We’re going to serve adult learners, and we’ve been innovating in the adult learning space. And we’re asking companies to help support some of the innovation so that we can move fast enough to keep pace with their needs.
You also mentioned plans to scale up this new program. Are you thinking about doing so with the same number of students and companies each year?
No. I don’t know what the magic number is — we might get to the hundreds. What we’ll learn this year is the demand and interest from the students, and we’ll learn the interest from the companies. If those two sides of the coin match up really nicely, we can scale this.
So potentially hundreds of students and dozens of companies?