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Alaskan Firms Vie for New Hires
UAA graduate Beth Tallman works on a hydrology study in Deadhorse, Alaska.

Ted Trueblood, president of Anchorage, Alaska-based engineering firm Tryck Nyman & Hayes Inc. has a problem: he can’t hire enough young engineers.

Although the firm has only hired two college graduates this year, Trueblood says it is "not for lack of trying." The engineering, planning, and surveying firm 's staff has grown by 50% over the past five years, but it is still "somewhat constrained by the availability of qualified new engineers," he says. "Our state university system is not able to graduate enough engineers to meet current demand."

Tryck Nyman & Hayes Inc. is not alone among Alaskan firms that can’t hire enough engineers. Mick McKay, manager of URS Corp.’s Anchorage office, has only been able to hire one college graduate so far this year and is looking for more.

The get-rich-quick promise of areas like Silicon Valley lured away many prospects, even three years after the stock market bubble burst, forcing firms in Alaska to scramble for qualified engineers, especially civil engineers. In addition, the burgeoning economy of Alaska demands a better infrastructure.

"Alaska is really a large, underdeveloped country with enormous needs for transportation, sanitation and other infrastructure facilities," Trueblood says. "This situation is being addressed with more attention in recent years, but the needs are great."

Mckay agrees. "The economy is relatively strong in Alaska," he says. "Two major components in the economy that are strong are military spending and military construction. Alaska has a very small road system within the state so rural airports and ports and harbors are an important component of the transportation system."

The University of Alaska Anchorage has only about 175 students in its civil engineering department, although the program has seen a 17.5% increase in enrollment in the last six years, according to Thomas Quimby, a professor and chair of the civil engineering department at UAA.

Beth Tallman, 31, graduated this May with a B.S in civil engineering from the campus and quickly found a job in the local office of URS, a major engineer-contractor headquartered in San Francisco. After living in Florida and New York, Tallman moved to Anchorage where she lived for several years before enrolling in the university's civil engineering program.

"I was in Las Vegas during construction of the New York New York casino. The model and façade were so creative and intricate, I thought, ‘I have got to learn how to do this,'" says Tallman. "So I came back to Anchorage and promptly enrolled in the Architectural and Engineering Technology Program, a two-year drafting certificate." While pursuing the certificate, Tallman interviewed a local architect and learned of his challenges altering a building design to accommodate necessary seismic reinforcement and decided to enter the field of engineering.

"I thought, ‘Okay, engineering must be the science of efficiency,'" says Tallman. "You do the most you can with the least amount of material; it must be like a crossword puzzle, if you know your stuff, you can get it right. I found this idea very appealing, so I went looking for an engineering degree."

Alaskan natives Paula, Jackie and Connie Borman didn’t have to go far to fulfill their engineering dreams.

The three sisters were raised in a small community 185 miles north of Anchorage where the family’s closest neighbor was a gas station called Igloo City. When the oldest, Connie, was looking for colleges she chose UAA because it was close to home and offered a degree in civil engineering.

"I wanted to pursue a career in engineering because of my interests in math. I was also interested in working on projects that were going to be constructed and knowing that I had contributed to it," says the 25-year-old.

When she graduated in 2000, Connie was entertaining job offers from three companies but chose a position in the transportation department of Unwin Scheben Korynta Huettl, Inc., a multidisciplinary engineering and architecture firm.

Paula, 24, graduated from UAA in 2002 with a B.S. in civil engineering and was immediately hired by R&M Consultants in Anchorage where she had worked as an intern. Nearly a year ago, Paula left her snow-covered home state and moved to Phoenix, to work in the transportation department of Michael Baker Jr., Inc. The youngest of the Borman sisters, Jackie, 20, is finishing her degree at the school and is now interning at HDR. She will graduate in May 2005.

Alaska’s unique climate can be challenging for engineers but also provides experience in dealing with issues of permafrost, snow drifting and insulation requirements. Licensed engineers are required to complete a class in arctic engineering, which covers extremes in temperature, inaccessibility, limitations on materials and earthquakes. UAA offers a graduate degree in arctic engineering, which can be earned through online classes. Judy Michael, who works for the Office of Engineering at UAA, says that people from as far away as South America have earned the arctic engineering degree.

The constant demand for engineers has provided a way for both young engineers and women to work on more challenging projects.

"We have seen a very dramatic increase in the number and percentage of women in the profession. Our staff is over 35% women currently and the majority of our recent hires are women," says Trueblood.

Judi Shapiro, 34, graduated in 1995 from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a B.S. in geology. Her resume includes a variety of worldwide and national firms such as TRC, EA Engineering and ENSR. But in the end, she decided she liked working for a smaller firm that could offer her a spectrum of challenging projects.

"We have a variety of disciplines in our office, which is great for gaining cross-discipline knowledge and having diverse and interesting projects to work on," says Shapiro, a project engineer with Tryck Nyman & Hayes Inc.

A native of Massachusetts, Shapiro was set to take a position with a Seattle, Wash. firm but after a quick trip back to Anchorage to visit friends and her boss at ENSR she decided not to return to the lower 48.

"I've always enjoyed the outdoors, hiking, biking, skiing. So after spending the summer in Alaska I really hoped to move back. Three years ago I decided I wanted to move from environmental into more traditional civil engineering and landed a job at TNH," Shapiro says.

During her three years at the firm, Shapiro has worked on site grading, layout and utility projects, a feasibility study for a marine ferry terminal, generating dredge quantities for a ship lift, resurfacing of a dock and a port expansion design project. She is currently working on straightening out nine miles of track for a railroad realignment project.



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