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Engineers writing their own ticket as development surges

U. Earl Dunn

Northern Nevada’s booming economy is providing new job opportunities at an everquickening pace and showing significant gaps among a group essential to sustaining economic growth.

“There is a growing shortage of qualified civil engineers in this marketplace,” says Pete Blakely, president of Blakely Johnson & Ghusn, a Reno-based architectural and engineering firm.

The shortage is not limited to Northern Nevada.

Other cities throughout the country where economic activity is on the rise are also reporting similar shortages.

Says Blakely: The shortages in this region are being driven by the huge number of new homes and multifamily units being built.

While his company is not a force in the development of new subdivisions, he sees the demand for licensed engineers by developers reducing the pool of available professionals in that field, but also causing salaries to escalate.

“A few years ago,” says Blakely,”you could hire an engineer with two to three years of experience and be comfortable with the salary required.

Today, the market here for someone with that limited experience is what we used to pay to a seasoned structural engineer, someone with seven to 10 years’ experience.” Norman Lindstrom agrees.He is a recruiter for Chicago-based Manhard Consulting, a company that provides engineering professionals throughout the country.

“We are not seeing a shortage of qualified engineers in places like Denver or Atlanta where we do a lot of business,” he says.”But the Reno/Carson City area and Phoenix is very tight.

I haven’t been able to fill our clients’ needs in either place without having to import people in from other parts of the country.” He describes Manhard as “a boutique firm that specializes in land development.We are one of the prime contractors in northwest Reno at Somersett.We’ve tried using headhunters to recruit key people in Reno away from their present jobs without success.All of our key people are coming to Reno out of the Midwest.

That’s how we are filling our needs.” Lindstrom admits the niche he seeks is highly specialized.”We’re looking for crew chiefs, good technical people, surveyors and land development designers who use AutoCAD and the other latest tools,” he says.

“They are often difficult to find.” Chuck Kelley is an architect with the Reno-based firm of Carlin Williams Architects.His firm is also working at Somersett on the 40,000-square-foot Towne Center.”Everyone is very busy,” he says.”We work with engineering consultants who do civil, structural,mechanical and electrical and, frankly,we’ve had difficulty finding people who have the time to meet our needs.” Kelley says the shortage of qualified professionals means firms must tell their clients that the timeframe may need to be extended.

“We certainly appreciate the volume of work we’ve been getting, but the timelines are getting tighter and tighter,” he adds.

The U.S.

Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the construction industry, which is projected to add more than one million new jobs by the year 2012, is the goods-producing sector’s only source of employment growth over the next five to seven years.

The BLS also reports that job opportunities in the engineering disciplines will continue to be strong, but will vary by specialty.

For example, nuclear engineers can expect to see only an 8 percent job gain over the next half dozen years while computer science engineering opportunities are expected to double.

While many in the engineering profession may work a standard 40-hour work week, experience in Northern Nevada suggests that a 50- to 60-hour work week during this prolonged period of economic growth is not uncommon.

Dr.Walter Johnson, assistant dean of the University of Nevada’s College of Engineering, is not optimistic about engineering shortages disappearing anytime soon.

“Qualified engineers with a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree will always be in high demand,” he says.”Compensation will continue to be pushed up due to the shortages, especially here where Reno continues to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation.” Civil engineers, he says, are essential to maintaining orderly growth.

But they remain in short supply.”I’ve also heard from firms that they cannot get enough mechanical engineers or chemical engineers and that is one thing that I’ve been told will hold down some types of firms from moving into the region.” One such business sector is the plastics industry where nearly 100 companies throughout Northern Nevada are engaged in some form of manufacturing activity.

But Lynn Depew, manager of Sparks-based Dillen Plastics, believes the really big “baseload” plastics companies will not venture into this region if they are not assured of the availability of qualified chemical engineers.

Nationally, 20 of the top 25 degrees with the highest salaries offered to new college graduates are in the engineering discipline, says Johnson.While that is good news for those completing the tough educational requirements to attain those degrees, the Nevada dean reminds those that graduation rates in engineering are tied closely to a high level of mathematical skills.”Those students entering college who are well-prepared in math are able to continue and get an engineering degree,” he says.

“The problem is that we are getting students out of high school who are simply not prepared.”He cites numbers that show that 82 percent of incoming college students who have already had calculus in high school will graduate with an engineering degree.”If they have only had pre-calculus courses, 45 percent are likely to graduate with an engineering degree, and, if they have only had algebra, the graduation rate drops down to 4 percent.” The fact is, he says, that the majority of the students who select engineering as their major will change to something else before they graduate.

There is also another reason, he suggests, why engineering shortages exist in the various engineering disciplines.”Quite simply, a lot of them choose to do something else,” he says.

“In 1992, a total of 56 percent of all Fortune 500 company CEOs had engineering undergraduate degrees.

Only 10 percent had business degrees.”