Forbes Magazine recently ranked Morrison Institute of Technology 19th in the nation among 2-year trade schools for best return on investment. The Whiteside County institution was the fifth-highest among schools not involving a nursing program.
Deana Jones, Human Resources Director at Wahl Clipper Corporation’s global headquarters in Sterling, Ill., gave a tour of one of its manufacturing areas.
“Each station builds a kind of a different trimmer," she said. "We have different products available. We have for trimmers for professionals. We have trimmers for consumers. We have international trimmers. We have U.S. market trimmers.”
The company’s products have been updated regularly -- and many more added -- since its founding in 1919. That’s where engineers and designers come in. One of those is recent Morrison Institute of Technology graduate Daniel Saathof. He says the school was a main factor in landing this job right after graduation. That included getting to use the latest software for computer-aided design, or CAD, work.
“They had all the programs that are available on the market,” he said -- including the same one he uses at Wahl for his job. He said the school also made sure he had a feel for what he was working with. He said he spent a good two months working hands-on with plastics and other materials.
Mark Winters is trimmer value stream manager at Wahl and one of Saathof’s bosses. He said Saathof has done well, and he’s not surprised, because of where he went to school.
“We’ve had several people from Morrison," Winters said. "The experience has been great. They’ve been very well prepared. [We're] real happy with their performance.”
Winters says the company considers a degree from Morrison a plus and looks for that when hiring people.
Morrison graduate Nyla Hamstra is a database administrator for Sterling Federal Bank. She, too, said Morrison provided her the tools she needed to get a job. Hamstra actually is from Morrison and admitted that her reasons for choosing Morrison Tech were pretty straightforward.
“We had a rep come to Morrison High School in my freshman year," she said, "and I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds kind of cool.’ So in my senior year I was like, this was something that I probably want to do. So I went to Morrison because it was local, and I could afford it.”
Hamstra said she was able to get an internship at the bank through the school and thinks the opportunity to show the results of her training at Morrison, as well as her personal qualities, led the bank to hire her upon graduation.
The bank’s chief operating officer, Bo Mays, said he’s been impressed by Hamstra’s knowledge and ability. Mays, who is relatively new to the area, didn’t know much about Morrison Tech when he came to Sterling. That’s changed.
“Based on my experience with Nyla and knowing her background with Morrison Institute of Technology, I certainly have a high opinion of the program,” he said.
ASTEC Mobile Screens is located just west of Sterling. They make machines that sift rock and gravel into the proper size for the job at hand: aggregate for concrete, or the gravel base underneath a highway.
Drafting Manager Fred Johnson spends plenty of time in front of another kind of screen – a computer monitor – but he took a few minutes to showcase the shop where plans become reality. One tool that makes that happen is a computer numerically controlled, or C-N-C, machine.
“So we’ll draw everything up," he said, "and it’s like, this tube needs 18 holes in it. It’ll take it off of our drawing and put the holes right in it.”
Johnson said you can find ASTEC’s machines across the U.S., and abroad as well. Like Saathof’s at Wahl Clipper, Johnson’s job is to help design new versions of the company’s products, or custom versions for a particular client, depending on its specific requirements. He said he chose Morrison over other area schools because of the greater opportunities to work with different 3-D computer design software.
“The industry in this area uses AutoDesk Inventor, AutoCAD, and NX," Johnson said. "So I knew, if I picked that school, I would have a good chance of finding a job here because we covered all of those programs.”
Johnson says there are five graduates of Morrison Tech working at Astec in this facility, and their experience mirrors his.
“We’ve all felt that, once you’ve left that school, you can jump right in and get to work,” he said.
The company says it regularly looks to Morrison for interns for those reasons, and the arrangement has been mutually beneficial.
All the Morrison graduates got their education on a small, neat, unassuming campus on the south side of Morrison, a village on the historic Lincoln Highway 12 miles from the Mississippi. With corn and soybean fields across and down the road, nothing here screams high tech – at least on the outside.
Chris Scott is Morrison Tech’s president. He said Morrison focuses exclusively on two areas: engineering technology and network administration.
“We’re not a very well-rounded school," Scott said. "We just have a singular purpose and, as a result, it allows us to produce some of the best graduates in those fields.”
The school’s Career Placement Coordinator, Jim Prombo, said every industry requires a number of positions to get to a finished product. He said Morrison grads fill an important niche in the system.
“You have the people, the engineers. They’re the heady guys with the calculus," Prombo said. "And then you have the person who’s working out in the field: the person who’s actually doing the manufacturing, the guy who’s running the machine or using the computer. That’s the hand, you know, and the engineer is the head. We’re kind of the nervous system that connects those two.”
Prombo said that means they have to be able to talk at the level of each and make sense between them.
Scott and Prombo showed off some of the classrooms. There’s a lab for testing and working with all kinds of materials, such as concrete. Students also learn to work with metal, plastic and wood and how to design for those different materials. There’s computer lab filled rows of PCs, where students work with the latest industry software. And then there’s the 3-D printing lab, which Scott described.
“We have every single manufacturing process represented in this room," he said. "We rely heavily on additive manufacturing or 3-D printing to accomplish that.”
Scott said the different types of 3-D printers, along with computer-aided design and computer-controlled cutters, allow classes to work quickly through projects. He shows a device made to demonstrate linkages.
“We started at 8 o’clock in the morning with no idea where we were going," Scott said, "and, at about 9:20, we had our fully-functioning prototype.”
But it’s not all tech. Prombo said that, whether you call the school well-rounded or not, they try to make sure the students are, because that’s what employers are asking for – someone who’s not just technically proficient but can handle other parts of the work environment, too.
“So we have other courses on the soft side," Prombo said,"such as industrial and organizational psychology, thinking critically, a complete realm of both written and spoken English courses – speech, composition.”
One of the features of the campus Scott and Prombo pointed out was a dormitory – not typical for a small two-year college. Prombo said that allows those from outside the area to get the same access to classes, faculty and equipment that a local resident might have. He said it‘s just one way the school tries to help its students graduate in a timely manner. Another is small class sizes.
“We have courses that have as few as two students in them," he said. "We do not cut the course, because we want to get those students through the program in two years – 21 months basically – and out into the field. And so, if a student happens to get in a situation where they can’t get a course, we’ll offer the course special for them.”
The school’s website boasts a 74-percent graduation rate and a 97-percent placement rate for its alumni.
Scott said the school has graduates working as close as Morrison and as far as the east and west coasts. A hallway display -- a map showing where alumni work -- illustrates that.
He points out a another part of the display -- a small poster with pictures of a couple of dozen people, all graduates of Morrison Tech and all employees at Sandia National Laboratories near Albuquerque, N.M. The government-contracted facility run by Honeywell works with nuclear and other weapons systems as well as global-security issues. And, Scott and Prombo said, it likes getting people from Morrison.
Daniel Saathof said that acceptance comes because employers know who they’re getting.
“They know the basics," he said, "Morrison’s setting the foundation for us engineers so that, when employers hire us, they can shape us into exactly what they need.”
Scott and Prombo said they try to have every student achieve that foundation. They also know that, in an ever-changing work environment, proficiency is a moving target. So the school can’t rest on its laurels -- or a magazine ranking.
Plans are in the works for a new innovation center that will bring together several technology disciplines with what the school says will be cutting-edge equipment. Scott and Prombo said Morrison Tech must continue to make sure its graduates are on top, if not ahead, of the learning curve when they look for a job, and a career.