March 19, 1995 in Business

Engineers Facing Tough Job Market Micron’s Decision To Build In Utah Delivers Blow To Engineering Students

Eric Torbenson Staff writer
 

The eyes of Inland Northwest engineering students and faculty alike got wide early this year as Micron Technology Inc. pondered Post Falls as a potential location for a huge manufacturing plant.

The $1.3 billion plant would have meant potentially hundreds of engineering jobs, not to mention a new era of high-tech cooperation between local schools and the company.

But in February, Micron crossed off Post Falls and all other Idaho and Washington locations from its short list of potential sites. The computer memory chip maker last week settled on the Utah Valley near Provo as the place for the big plant.

This leaves Gonzaga University, Washington State University and University of Idaho engineering students back at square one. Graduation looms and many must answer this question: If they want to stay in the Inland Northwest, where do they find engineering work in the Spokane area?

Spokane, like many other midsized cities, loses many high-caliber graduates to bigger cities with more job opportunities.

Micron, which routinely recruits Inland Northwest students for jobs in Boise, offered an opportunity to change that. Instead, the computer chip manufacturer chose a community with two larger engineering programs.

So, as in years past, local graduates must find a way to distinguish themselves if they hope to earn a spot in the limited job pool locally.

Rachel Herres, an August 1993 Gonzaga graduate, accomplished that through internships.

Now an engineer with Washington Water Power Co. in Spokane, Herres said students need to start thinking about where they’ll work as a sophomore or even as a freshman.

“The key is to start young,” she said. “Even after a student’s freshman year, it’s important to get into the industry.”

Herres served two internships at Seattle-based engineering companies. Another internship at WWP paved the way for her employment there after graduation.

Despite her success, Herres knows how tough the local engineering job market is.

“It’s extremely difficult to find a position here without previous experience of some kind,” she said. Her boyfriend of four years also has an engineering degree, but without the previous internship experiences his job search took about eight months, she said.

Job hunting for engineers in the different specializations - electrical, mechanical and civil engineering - goes in cycles, said Professor Gail Allwine, who teaches electrical engineering and is associate dean of the Engineering School at Gonzaga.

“There have been far better times to get a job in the field, especially for electrical engineers,” he said. “The job search for graduates can take up to a year.”

Three years ago Gonzaga added a new program to its engineering degrees to give students some real-world experience, Allwine said. Engineering seniors work with engineers from local companies on a year-long design or research project.

“It gives them some connections in the real world,” Allwine said. “And it gives them the chances to put what they’ve learned into practice.”

Engineering students face the same conundrum that many young people trying to enter a professional field face: how to gain experience in a field that typically requires experience for even entry-level jobs.

“It’s sort of a Catch-22,” said Katherine Miller, who graduated from GU last spring and who considers herself fortunate to have her commercial drainage engineering job with Spokane County. “I really want to plug the fact that you need to get a foot in the door by working some sort of summer job that is at least quasi-or semi-engineering related.”

Miller’s big break happened when she came across a position at Gifford Consultants in Spokane during her sophomore summer. She worked as a soil lab technician for the firm, and it helped her greatly when she faced the job market and student loan payments.

“A lot of local folks do transition from summer work to a full-time position,” said Miller, a Yakima native. “It really gives both sides a chance to kick the tires.”

Allen Gifford, Gifford & Consultant’s president, said the geotechnical engineering company has had success with four GU students working with them either during the school year or the summer.

All four, including Miller, now work in some engineering capacity for Eastern Washington employers, he said. Gifford knows of at least two other firms in Spokane that have also had success employing students for internships.

Spokane has always been a tough market for engineering students, said Allwine, who has taught at the university for 20 years. Even as Spokane has grown quickly in recent years, finding entry-level engineering positions appears to be no easier, he said.

Many high-technology companies locally have specialized engineering needs. Often they are filled with experienced engineers, so students fresh out of school find it tough to compete without having experience.

Some students take career detours and eventually get back on the road they chose.

When Louis Zizza graduated from GU in May 1992, few if any engineering firms were hiring. He made several trips to Seattle and Portland and knocked on the doors of many companies.

“I talked with a lot of people and I learned a lot while doing this,” Zizza said. “While I learned I could really do a lot of things with my degree, there just weren’t any job offers.”

Zizza kept the bills paid by working construction jobs locally until he finally found a nearly ideal job last March with R.A. Pearson Co. in Spokane.

“I really knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “I just stuck with it and it turned out this position opened up.”

Now he helps design mechanical gears and motors for R.A. Pearson, and he couldn’t be happier. “This is a small, family-oriented environment, and I’m happy that I went here instead of a bigger company.”

Those larger companies such as the Boeing Co. and Westinghouse Hanford Corp. - the major contractor for Hanford Nuclear Reservation - have downsized and in many cases eliminated many engineering jobs, said Kevin Bennett, assistant director for career services at WSU in Pullman.

The downsizing has meant fewer engineering jobs for all students, including WSU grads, he said.

Boise continues to be a big draw for WSU and UI engineering graduates, said Bennett and Dan Blanco, director of career services for UI in Moscow.

Even though Micron’s big expansion is in Utah, the company has said it will add up to 3,500 more employees at its Boise headquarters in the coming years. Micron will continue to be a source of good jobs, Blanco said.

Despite some recent financial difficulties, Morrison Knudsen Co. is another substantial employer of UI engineering graduates, he said.

For students, the excitement over Micron came and passed. Those looking to get engineering jobs here need to think ahead while still in school, say employed graduates.

“It was a long time for me being out of work,” Zizza from R.A. Pearson said. “But I just stuck with what I really wanted to do and talked with a lot of people about how to get there.”

MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: WHERE THE JOBS ARE Many Spokane-area engineering graduates either take government jobs or leave the region because of a lack of large private engineering employers. List shows companies that hire significant numbers of local engineering grads.

Gonzaga: Washington Water Power Spokane County City of Spokane Kaiser Aluminum State Dept. of Transportation CH2M Hill

Washington State: Boeing Hewlett-Packard Westinghouse-Hanford Micron Technology

University of Idaho: Micron Technology Hewlett-Packard Morrison Knudsen Idaho National Engineering Lab. Source: Career placement centers at the universities

This sidebar ran with story: WHERE THE JOBS ARE Many Spokane-area engineering graduates either take government jobs or leave the region because of a lack of large private engineering employers. List shows companies that hire significant numbers of local engineering grads.

Gonzaga: Washington Water Power Spokane County City of Spokane Kaiser Aluminum State Dept. of Transportation CH2M Hill

Washington State: Boeing Hewlett-Packard Westinghouse-Hanford Micron Technology

University of Idaho: Micron Technology Hewlett-Packard Morrison Knudsen Idaho National Engineering Lab. Source: Career placement centers at the universities


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