Blog: Jessica Pfeiffer

Jessica Pfeiffer is a native Detroiter, currently a resident of Corktown, and the Executive Director of The MORE Program (Michigan Resources & Opportunities for Entrepreneurs). She is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law teaching International Business Transactions in the School's new Law Firm Program, an innovative program for teaching practical legal skills.  

Jessica's career experience prior to joining The MORE Program has included practicing law with the global law firm Mayer, Brown Rowe & Maw in Chicago and London, England, and negotiating corporate and financial transactions all over the world while serving in the legal departments of Harley-Davidson Financial Services, Inc., The Boeing Company, and finally, Comerica Incorporated.

Jessica is active in the community. She serves on the board of Southwest Solutions.  She is a financial literacy volunteer teacher with Junior Achievement, and also volunteers with the Greater Corktown Residents' Council, the Corktown Citizen's Patrol and WDET Detroit Public Radio.

Jessica will be writing about efforts that are in progress and those that are still needed to increase internship opportunities for our region's college students and then to retain those students in the region as they become college graduates.


Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

Jessica Pfeiffer - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 5

Can We Cooperate to Fill in the Gaps?

As I’ve noted in my previous posts, there is a real synergy developing in the thinking of regional and state leaders around the idea of internships. However, even if we were to meet our objective of finding an internship for every college student, that alone would not be enough to keep those students in the state when they graduate. The state and southeast Michigan in particular still have a few items to address to improve our reputation as a great place to live and locate a business.

Let’s revisit the Cool Cities study that I cited in my second post. The top four attributes that the young professionals answering the survey desired in a place to live were:  "Safe Streets," "Affordable," "Walkable Streets" and "Many Different Jobs."

Connections to smaller businesses, which provide a majority of the jobs in the state, will help students become aware of the Many Different Jobs that are available right in their own backyards. Internships in these companies should help students find jobs in those and other area companies after graduation. 

Further, if the students are truly entrepreneurial, later this year The MORE Program will be launching a student entrepreneur internship program of our own to provide opportunities for University of Michigan students to develop their own business ideas and learn some of the skills that can help them to become successful business owners. If this pilot program is successful, we hope to roll it out to additional colleges and universities throughout the state in the coming years so that we don’t face the loss of our best and brightest students.

As for the other top attributes, there is some good news and there are some opportunities for improvement. For the most part, especially compared to major metropolitan areas across the country, southeast Michigan has the affordability point down. Housing, shopping and entertainment dollars stretch a lot further here than they do in places like Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles… 

The first and third criteria, however, could use some work. Throughout the region, we have to assertively address the crime, inequality and downright scary darkness issues that make some of the streets in our cities and neighborhoods feel unsafe. Cutting down on numbers of police officers, community policing programs and other preventative policing techniques is the worst possible way for cities, counties and our states to resolve budget shortfalls. Well-lit and clean streets will go a long way to improving the feeling of safety in a neighborhood and will also contribute to the other big factor- walkability.

Walkability doesn’t just mean having a cute downtown of shops in every city or suburb that people who live there can walk to. It means none of us should get in a car to go there no matter where we live.   

I know that in the Motor City it might sound disloyal, but we need to get out of our cars! Just about every other Metromode blogger has mentioned it, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus. We must find a way to create a regional system of public transportation, for the future of our environment, viability of our roads, and the vitality of the new "downtowns" that we are building in all the cities and towns throughout the region. A solution must exist, and we need to work together as a region to find it.

Which leads me to the last big thing that I think we are truly missing- COOPERATION. 

We absolutely must put an end to the territorial squabbling between our cities and suburbs and counties and state. We are truly all in this together, the interconnections between Detroit and the suburbs and the rest of the state and Ann Arbor and Detroit and the rest of the state and all the other permutations of locations and institutions that tend see themselves as competitors must be recognized and celebrated, valued and respected. No one town, county or even region can go it alone. No single institution, plan, association, university, government entity or program is going to solve all of Michigan’s problems on its own. We need to really and truly SHARE ownership and responsibility for ALL of the problems and work cooperatively to find solutions. 

That is one of the reasons why I am excited by the possibilities the WIRED grants present for Southeast Michigan. The programs resulting from those grants are focused on an entire 13 county area, and leaders from all types of companies, governments and institutions are sitting around the same table working cooperatively on ideas and solutions to problems. Its enough to give a person hope for the future. 

And what a fine place to end this blog... in a state of hope.

Post No. 4

Internships Provide a Win-Win Situation 

In my first post, I shared my personal story of how my inability to find an interesting and challenging internship in my field while still a student led me to open my career horizon beyond the state’s borders and ultimately move out of Michigan for quite a few years. Why did this occur? 

It happened in part because not all employers have yet realized the vital importance of internships as part of a healthy recruiting process. All of the largest corporations, banks, accounting firms, law firms and government agencies have included an internship program as part of their recruitment programs, what about everyone else?   

When we talk to companies about whether or not they hire interns, we hear all the usual arguments: managing an intern takes up too much time, they need too much training, they are too expensive, we don’t know how to find one… 

Some of them think companies who hire interns are just doing the community a service, providing training to the workforce of the future. However, if you speak to companies that rely on interns as part of their recruiting process they will tell you that interns bring more positives to the table than negatives, at companies as large as General Motors or as small as Digerati Solutions, a Detroit process engineering and software development company that is currently employing its first engineering student intern.   

What these companies tell us is that by hiring interns, they are able to hire young, excited and energetic employees to take on projects that keep getting pushed aside while fighting fires or to add new blood to teams that are stretched thin or need a creative infusion. 

These companies are also able to "test-drive" new employees without any long term employment costs, because most internships last only for the summer or the semester and most do not pay benefits. With companies now hiring high school students as interns and large corporations paying interns top dollar for summer jobs in all the big cities, its clear that to keep up in the competition for talent, companies must consider adding or enhancing an internship program. If they don’t, they risk losing the best and brightest who may be snatched up by their competitors in the state or beyond. 

Its clear that other states are thinking similarly, and economic development agencies, thinkers and leaders in our neighbors such as Indiana,
Ohioand the city of Philadelphia have launched programs to promote internships in their areas.  

I believe this is an area where great minds truly do think alike, and Michigan business and community leaders are coalescing around the idea of a state-wide push to promote internships.  

The good news is that there seems to be some real synergy among several programs that are in the works in the state of Michigan to do address this issue, which together could lead to that state-wide movement that I think is necessary. 

I am a member of a committee convened by Michigan Future, Inc., 
whose goal is imagining what is necessary to create a reality where that every college student in the State of Michigan has an opportunity to have a meaningful summer or semester work experience that has the potential to lead to a permanent job during their junior or senior year. 

Lofty goal? Yes, but why shoot for anything less? Some other really great programs are in the works, too.  The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce is working on a program that was funded by the United States Department of Labor’s WIRED grant for Southeast Michigan to create a simple system for employers to easily connect their internship opportunities with college career offices throughout the region. They also have hosted in the past and will plan again in the future to host programs that help employers plan internship programs if they don’t already have one in place. 

The Engineering Society of Detroit
has a very innovative internship program it's promoting to bring high school seniors into engineering companies as interns.  Business Week, Time and other publications have reported on high school student internship programs as a growing trend, so expect other similar programs to follow. 

Imagine the value of an employee who works for you in the summer, and then goes back to school for 8 months a year, bringing a fresh infusion of energy every summer and then becomes your most valuable "new hire" ever upon graduation- they will be so far along the learning curve!   

All of this positive energy is encouraging- but I don’t yet think its everything that we need.  In my last post, I’ll address a few holes that I still think exist in the plans.

Post No. 3

Student - Company Connections

As I mentioned in my previous posts, one of the goals of my current work is retaining college graduates in the state of Michigan. Studies have shown that where young college graduates choose to locate will help drive economic growth because: (1) companies will locate in a region with a well-educated workforce and (2) young professionals are often the entrepreneurs behind new startup businesses. (See for example, Michigan Future’s report, "A New Path to Prosperity? Manufacturing and Knowledge-Based Industries as Drivers of Economic Growth.")

Other studies show that young college graduates choose to live in places where they believe that jobs are plentiful. (For example, job prospects were ranked at the top of the list of attributes in students’ preferred places to live along, with safe streets, affordability and walkability in the State’s Cool Cities survey of college students and recent graduates in 2004

The chicken and the egg features of this cycle make crafting growth strategies perplexing. To grow our economy, we need to keep educated workers in the state in order to attract more employers to provide even more jobs and retain even more workers. To keep those college graduates in the state in the first place, we need students to believe that there are jobs for them. How do we do that in a state where unemployment is currently 7.6%? 

First, we change perceptions, and second, we help those students to make connections.
We need to get the message out to students that there ARE good job opportunities for college graduates in Michigan. The fact is that recent data from the US Census Department and Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth (DLEG) show that the unemployment rate for college graduates in the state of Michigan is only 3.4% and current trends indicate that job growth will be faster for occupations requiring higher education than for those requiring less than a college degree.

Furthermore, small businesses are where a majority of the state’s employees work. The DLEG’s data show that of the state’s 3.5 million workers employed in private industry, only 20% work in businesses with more than 500 workers. 

So, if the large companies in the state are employing only 20% of the workforce, but those same large companies are the ones, as I discussed in my previous posts, that have been historically more likely to be visible through their involvement on our university campuses, then getting these smaller companies plugged in to our universities should expose our students to connections with the 80% of the state’s employers that they had previously been missing out on.  Meeting these growing businesses should solve the perception problem.

This explains why, perhaps counter-intuitively, to create a program that will truly make a difference in college student retention, the first event that we are planning for The MORE Program is an event focused on making connections between the university and businesses. 

We believe that when a university develops a strong connection with these companies, the student-company connections will follow. They will happen when the small, growing, knowledge- and innovation-based companies we have invited to campus decide to sponsor student research projects, or when they hire a professor as a consultant and that professor hires a student as her research assistant. 

They will also happen when the company leaders come to campus as guest lecturers, such as the speakers in the University of Michigan’s new Distinguished Innovators Speaker Series. Each Friday afternoon, business, academic and government leaders involved in entrepreneurship address an open audience of students and the public about a range of topics on the subject of technology-based business entrepreneurship (See video of past events and the future schedule M-Powered).

Finally, these connections will happen at the Talent Fair portion of our Entrepreneurial Opportunities Day, where students will introduce themselves to company representatives and learn more about their growing businesses. 

Once those student-company connections happen, where will they lead? Like all networking contacts, they need to be cultivated, but with a little company interest and student effort, these connections could become internships and jobs. More internships and jobs mean more college graduates retained, and Michigan’s cycle of growth will be accelerated. 

The good news is that there is a real synergy in the region around the subject of internships, and I’ll share more of the good news in my next post.

Post No. 2

Making Connections : Company - University Connections

If you are a professional reading this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you the value of networking. We all do it, we go to receptions, meetings, happy hours and shake hands, pass around cards and find out who and what we have in common, how we might work together. Those contacts get collected and updated and if you have good business skills, cultivated so that they will turn into new clients, new suppliers, new product ideas or even, like they did for me last year, a new job. 

For some of us this comes naturally, meeting new people and forging new business relationships. For others, some barriers exist and it takes some added structure to help make those connections happen. What works for people also works for organizations such as universities and companies, as well.  

Michigan’s public universities are home to an amazing array of resources that can be utilized by companies, but the methods for tapping in to those resources are not always apparent to the average small business owner or entrepreneur.  University partnerships have long been the domain of the global enterprises: the Fortune 500s with the hefty research and contributions budgets. With budgets tightening at larger companies, and the transformation of the nation’s economy to one that is innovation-based placing its expectations for growth at the doorstep of the entrepreneurs and small businesses, there are opportunities for these small businesses to step up where the large corporate have pulled back, but they need the introductions to the right people. If small, growing, innovation-based businesses are the hope for the future for Michigan’s economic transformation, then we need to facilitate those connections with our universities now.

The MORE Program is launching a new program to do just that. On March 19, we will host an “Entrepreneurial Opportunities Day” at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor. We have invited 100’s of companies to join us and our co-hosts, the College of Engineering, MPowered Entrepreneurship (an organization for student entrepreneurs) and the new Center for Entrepreneurship at the College for a day of making connections.  

In one day, companies that attend the fair will be introduced to talent in the form of the talented and energetic students, knowledge in the form of industry roundtable discussions led by faculty experts and resources of the university that might be able to help move their business forward such as high-tech lab space, equipment, collaborative research, student projects, technology transfer and much more. 

The goal for the program is that this day will just be the starting point to new relationships which will grow and develop into lasting partnerships which will bear valuable fruit for the companies who attend- MORE growth, MORE innovation and MORE access to top student talent. 

As a state we invest in our public universities and this program will help the state’s taxpayers, our citizens AND our businesses, to  benefit from that investment. The University of Michigan is certainly hoping these sorts of relationships continue to develop long into the future. To evidence their commitment to opening up more to working with businesses of all sizes, they have founded a new Business Engagement Center
which, beyond this one day event, will serve as a single point of contact for business and entrepreneurs who want to capitalize on the depths of resources that the University brings to bear.

Which brings me back to the students. Those students, that talent they represent, they are the richest resources of them all, and we need to develop them, help them to make connections to our state’s businesses and ultimately, keep them in Michigan. 

In my next post, I’ll write about making student-company connections happen and turning those connections into internships, jobs and maybe even new businesses.

Post No. 1

The Brain Drain & What have internships got to do with it??

We’ve all read the statistics and heard the news. Michigan and its economy are struggling. Our college graduates are leaving the state with their talent, energy and entrepreneurial spirit in tow. The fruits of our state’s investment in public education are packing up and leaving for what they perceive to be greener pastures. These are not just statistics, my friends- each one of these college graduates is a young person with a story and a dream. Along the way, something derails the part of that dream where the young person’s career is flourishing here, close to their families and in their home state, with its beautiful lakes, premier sports teams, affordable historical housing and international flavor. I know, because, not so long ago, I was one of those young people with one of those stories.

When I graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, bachelor’s degree with honors in one hand, internship lined up in a top Detroit law firm for the summer and admission & partial scholarship to Duke University School of Law in the other, my dream was clear. Finish law school, find a position practicing law in Detroit and then find a way to give back to the community with my pro bono time until I had paid off the law school loans and could spend all of my days doing work that would help rebuild the city which I’d grown up in and which I loved. Let there be no doubt, I LOVED THIS CITY, for better or for worse, and I still do. Back then, I would have added, “‘til death do us part.” But it was not to be, like a fickle lover, Detroit has not once, but twice, burned me in the job market. 

The first time, it was a painful experience but I found another offer and like so many of our young graduates, I moved away. I had finished my first semester of law school and began my search for a summer internship. With straight A’s from a top law school, hiring me should have been a no-brainer, but summer jobs in the top Detroit law firms were either not available for first year law students, or even worse, I was told that people from my out-of-state law school don’t stay in Detroit so they wouldn’t hire me. 

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

If Detroit law firms wouldn’t have me, however, several of the country’s other top law firms were knocking on my door, so I followed the opportunity and I spent that first summer interning at the prestigious global law firm, then known as Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, in their main office just a few hours away in Cleveland, Ohio. The training that I received at Jones Day that summer opened doors around the country and around the world that were not open for me in Detroit, and, because of that one fateful summer, dream effectively derailed. I next moved to Washington D.C., Chicago, London and Dallas sharpening my skills at another of the top global law firms and in the corporate law departments of Boeing and Harley-Davidson.

My dream was not completely off the tracks, however, and I kept Detroit close to my heart. In the Spring of 2006, the right opportunity presented itself, and I moved back the Detroit to join the legal Department of Comerica as a Vice President & Corporate & Securities Counsel. I was living the dream: I bought a house in Corktown, I joined the board of a local nonprofit, Southwest Solutions, found other volunteer outlets, cheered for the Tigers and all was well with the world. 

Alas, it was not to last. 

We’ve all heard about Comerica’s headquarters relocation. My position was one of the first to move. Luckily, by this time, I was better equipped to fight for my dream. I worked my network of contacts, and found the perfect position to allow me to stay in Detroit and advance my dream. I now spend my days building connections and working on plans to promote internships and keep our college graduates in the state. There will be lots more about that program- the MORE Program, Michigan Opportunities and Resources for Entrepreneurs, in tomorrow’s installment.

The lessons the region needs to take away from my story and those of others like me are many, but this week I’m going to focus on just a few. I’m going to talk about internships – why they are good for business and good for retaining talent.  I’ll also discuss my program and other tactics that are in place or that should be to help Michigan retain our college graduates in the state.

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