August 18, 2008 | last updated March 28, 2012 7:18 am
CIVIL UNREST

Engineers In Demand But Skittish | Construction, infrastructure keep engineers in work

Civil engineering students are finding jobs easily after graduation from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, but local engineering and employment firms say the difficult economy has presented the same problems and opportunities to engineers as it has to everyone else.

Economic Pressures

According to the results of a recent survey by the American Society of Civil Engineers, median income for civil engineers hit $78,000 this year. Median pay in 2007 was $77,000. The society said it was "obvious" that the job market for civil engineers is strong, but that in order to "maintain a pipeline of qualified civil engineers," salaries must continue to rise.

But salaries can't go up if the firm can't keep its doors open. And according to Don Graves, owner of Graves Engineering in Worcester, that's becoming more difficult for smaller, local firms, just not his.

"We've been fine. We're stable," Graves said. "But some of our competition has been struggling for work. Some have had layoffs and some of the smaller firms have closed their doors," he said.

Graves said he can tell when other established firms are having a hard time by the resumes he gets.

"I have resumes, calls and resumes, and classically, I would not have had those calls or resumes," he said.

Think Global

Local civil engineering firms are feeling the pains of the housing market as fewer and fewer subdivisions are planned, Graves said. In the absence of residential work, "I think they're having a hard time finding jobs. There aren't very many local firms hiring."

But firms are hiring. At least, they're hiring WPI graduates, according to Tahar El-Korchi, chairman of the school's civil and environmental engineering department. And while many of them may not be staying in Worcester, they are staying in Massachusetts and the Northeast.

"Students are easily finding jobs," El-Korchi said. In fact, WPI's civil engineering program has been growing and graduated 70 students this year compared to "in the mid-40s" just a few years ago, he said. The WPI sophomore civil engineering class has nearly 70 students in it already.

El-Korchi said his department's popularity is partly the result of "people finding their senses again after the Internet boom," but cautioned that engineers have to keep their senses once they're in practice. A young engineer in the present economy is probably best served by job opportunities in the construction, design, transportation and environmental sectors and is probably also best served by greater Boston.

El-Korchi said slightly more than 20 of his department's 2007 graduates found work "inside greater Boston, another 18-20 found work outside of Massachusetts – mostly in Northeastern states like Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – another 18 headed off to graduate school, mostly at WPI.

WPI classified the job status of 24 of its civil engineering 2007 graduates as either "still seeking" employment or "unknown."

Hiring Environment

Six of the graduates have found work in Central Massachusetts at Consigli Construction in Milford, JH Lynch & Sons in Millbury, Tighe & Bond in Worcester, ET&L Corp. in Stow and National Grid in Westborough, among others.

"Twenty years ago, everybody wanted to be in environmental engineering," El-Korchi said. Now, with the housing boom over, engineers should be looking to infrastructure, infrastructure repairs and commercial construction, he said.

"The quickest way to put money into the economy is to improve infrastructure," El-Korchi said. "That's how civil engineers are going to find jobs, roads, bridges, expanding mass transit."

Jeff Simeone, project operations manager at engineering and design employment agency Sullivan Kreiss in Northborough, agrees that the "roads and bridges" sector presents civil engineers with the greatest opportunity. Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation two weeks ago that mandates $3 billion in repairs or replacement of between 250 and 300 of the state's bridges.

But Simeone said the economy has potential engineering job candidates nervous.

"Candidates are less willing to make a move, a career change or geographical," he said. They're staying put and keeping the job market tight because they want to hang on to what they've got. "A lot of candidates we're talking to are having the 'last one in, first one out' mentality," Simeone said.

Those candidates are afraid to change jobs for fear of being the first laid off when their new firm can't cope with the economy.

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