Engineering background helped prepare graduate for political career

Aug 19, 2013

Mike Shirkey '78 strongly believes his engineering training and management experience at Kettering and General Motors laid the foundation for a successful run in politics.

Mike Shirkey ‘78 almost didn’t go to Kettering University.

Mike Shirkey ‘78The eldest of five siblings in a family with a modest upbringing in Jackson, Mich., Shirkey pursued a co-op education so he wouldn’t need to rely on his parents for financial assistance. Shirkey was accepted to Kettering University (then named General Motors Institute) but failed to receive a sponsorship despite interviewing with four companies including AC Spark Plug in Flint, Mich.  

“I always knew that I was oriented toward engineering,” Shirkey said. “My aptitude matched the opportunity but in 1973 it was not easy to get a sponsorship unless you knew someone or had family working in a GM facility.”

Without the necessary sponsorship to attend Kettering, Shirkey accepted an offer to Michigan Tech and was traveling to the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1973 when he unexpectedly heard back from AC Spark Plug in the final hours of the summer. They wanted him to come back for a second interview.

“I was not much interested in a follow up interview but my mother had more wisdom and prevailed upon me to give it another try. Her wisdom has continued to be a blessing to me all these years later,” Shirkey said.

A position opened up at AC Spark Plug after a student chose the Air Force over attending Kettering and Shirkey was offered a sponsorship despite concerns about his high school test scores and ability to handle the co-operative curriculum in conjunction with the academic rigor of engineering. Shirkey said it was made very clear to him that the company was taking a big risk by sponsoring him.

“It provided a lot of satisfaction every semester when the Dean’s List was issued -- going to the coordinator’s office and dropping off a copy with my name on it each time,” Shirkey said. “Never underestimate somebody who has something to prove.”

Shirkey graduated from Kettering in 1978 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He received a General Motors Fellowship upon graduating and completed his Masters in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin.

In 1987, Shirkey started an engineering and manufacturing company in Jackson, Mich., called Orbitform. Orbitform specializes in forming, fastening and assembly machines and systems. They are still located in Jackson and employ 80 highly skilled people.

In 2010, Shirkey successfully ran for state representative in the 65th district in Michigan, which includes the most of Jackson County and portions of Eaton and Lenawee Counties.

“I’ve always been interested in politics but it took second priority to raising a family and earning a living," Shirkey said. "For 20 years or more I would occasionally mention to my wife, Sue, that I was interested in running for office.  Every time she responded with 'I don’t think this is the right time.' In 2009, when the urge resurfaced, she said ‘maybe,’ so I stuck my foot in the door before she closed it.”

Shirkey strongly believes his engineering training and management experience at Kettering and General Motors laid the foundation for a successful run in politics.

“In all of those roles, the one skill that I learned to refine was the ability to ask probing questions,” Shirkey said. “It’s the most valuable asset that I bring to the political table – the ability to craft questions and frame issues.”

Shirkey is Chair of the House Committee on Michigan Competitiveness and serves as Vice Chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee. Shirkey also sits on the Government Operations, Financial Liability Reform and Health Policy Committees.

“I wasn’t at all sure how much difference one person could make,” said Shirkey, who played a critical role in the House of Representatives leading Michigan to become the country’s 24th Right to Work state in 2012. “I’ve discovered that if you are willing to engage, roll up your sleeves and be willing to get a bloody noise every once in awhile, one person can make a difference. I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity and privilege to do so in Michigan.”