Neither Luke Kuffler nor Michael Hamlin entered Wichita State University aiming for a career in the Department of Defense. They knew little about that line of work and had no desire to enlist in the military.
Their time at FirePoint at Wichita State changed their vision. At FirePoint, students work with Army officials, private industry and academics. The combination of experience, exposure to those areas and networking puts students in position to consider different career paths.
“I started working here and it opened up a whole new realm of possibilities,” said Kuffler, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering. “I never knew all these different labs, especially for civilians to work at, existed in the military.”
FirePoint is a technology-transfer partnership between the university and the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation and Missile Center.
The applied learning experiences are part of FirePoint’s efforts to help the Army maintain a supply of technically trained civilian workers. Private industry can offer pay and perks out of government’s reach. There is a lack of awareness of opportunities available within the Army that make it difficult to compete.
“You see a wide range of new technologies that you might only dream of being exposed to in a private job,” said Hamlin, a sophomore computer science major. “I came in and I initially wanted to work purely in the private sector.”
Right now at FirePoint, 12 Wichita State students are researching, taking leadership roles, talking with military and industry figures and getting an introduction to career options. That number of students has almost doubled from a year ago.
“Core to FirePoint’s mission is to provide applied learning opportunities, consistent with Wichita State’s over-arching mission,” said Peter Perna, executive director. “The experience and the skills that they develop here sets them up very well to go out into the work-force we’re talking about. We’d like to become a feeder for both interns and full-time employees to the Army.”
Bo Henry, a sophomore aerospace engineering major, is on a different track. He is vice president of Wichita State’s ROTC program, which started this fall.
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve always had a desire to help people and make a difference in the world,” Henry said. “I enlisted in the Army because I wanted to help people. I started working (at FirePoint) because I wanted to help my battle buddies.”
His work as student analyst helps connect the Army with market research to find companies that are suitable to work with a project.
“I decided this is where I belong and this is where I make the most difference,” Henry said. “Being an aerospace engineering major, a lot of what I learn in the classroom can be applied to here. Having some of the background in my classes makes a big difference and it helps reinforce what I learn in classes.”
Shifting attitudes is important for national defense; the civilian workforce is aging and the Department of Defense must counter private industry salaries and perks to compete for young employees.
“We’re sensitive to the Army’s need for young, talented people and, as part of Wichita State, we’re shaping future leaders and training that next-generation workforce,” Perna said.
According to the Office of Personnel Management, almost 30% of government workers are 55 or older, a gap of almost 10% greater than the private sector.
Kuffler worked as an intern at U.S. Army Redstone Test Center in Huntsville, Alabama. His time with Combat Capabilities Development Command, a partner with FirePoint, educated him on the variety of subjects and the technology available when working in military aviation.
“It showed me the wide range of what they do at these civilian labs,” Kuffler said. “It’s more engaging, in my opinion. We took it from the very beginning to the end. You get to work on a wide range of projects. In industry, you’ll mainly be stuck on one project for many, many years.”
Their time at FirePoint also gives students networking opportunities within the Department of Defense and private industry. Those connections can become mentors, provide job opportunities and add to the student’s tool box for future projects.
“One minute you might be talking to a CEO and less than a half hour later you’re talking to an Army lead on the project,” Hamlin said.
FirePoint puts the students in leadership positions on projects. FirePoint students traveled to California for a flight competition, to Philadelphia to visit a UAS company and to Boston for an innovation seminar.
“The students don’t just work in the background,” Perna said. “We’re grooming them for their full-time jobs. Because of their experience, they’re going to be much more desirable.”