Demand for engineers in government and defense outstrips supply
Companies struggle to fill new-grad slots
“Diversity in background, experience, thinking and aptitude are attributes that help make ATK successful.” – LeAnn Dickerson, ATK Aerospace Group
By Claire Swedberg
Senior Contributing Editor
Despite budget cuts and sequester constraints, federal government agencies and their contractors have positions for recently graduated engineers. But they’re struggling to fill them.
“There just aren’t enough STEM professionals out there who are U.S. citizens,” says Anthony Junior, principal at Strategic Consulting Network (Washington, DC) and former director of the Department of the Navy’s historically black colleges and universities/minority institutions (HBCU/MI) programs.
“When you look at the technological demands you can see that we need more STEM-educated people in the workforce,” he says. “But we haven’t reached out to the African American community and other minority groups.
“Our economy needs a new generation of STEM-educated professionals. At every level, we need to attract, educate and propel these young professionals toward successful careers,” says Junior.
Engineers have some of the most interesting jobs in America, he notes; engineers work with cutting-edge technology, travel the world, and influence everything from global security to the world economy and environment. But too many young people, including minorities, still look at sports figures and musicians as their role models, Junior says. Junior is involved in a variety of programs that help provide better role models by connecting successful professionals, including engineers, with students.
Louise Williams, EEO specialist at the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC, Washington, DC), notes that leveraging internship experience may be one of the best ways for recent engineering grads to get a good position in the government sector. She helps with new employee orientation for MSC’s afloat and shore-side employees, and is also the special emphasis program manager.
Williams urges engineering students to “find out from your college about summer internships or other student employment programs. That’s where you get the best experience to build your resume.”
The need for a security clearance can be a major problem for some students, notes Junior. “The elephant in the room is that kids don’t equate their recreational activity with the scrutiny they’ll get on the job,” he explains. “To achieve the right fit, employers are looking at activities, photos on Facebook and more, so applicants need to conduct themselves properly in social media. Don’t damage the brand before you get into the workforce.”
He suggests that Edward Snowden’s release of NSA activities to the press has made that climate even harder. “The DoD and the rest of the government will scrutinize new employees even more closely,” he speculates. “The bar may have been raised and students need to be very aware of that.”
The new tech pros profiled here have been successful in landing jobs in this demanding sector.
Cindy Ly develops new features for remotely piloted aircraft at GA-ASI
Cindy Ly is a software developer in the aircraft systems group at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI, Poway, CA), an affiliate of General Atomics (San Diego, CA) that provides remotely piloted aircraft and radar/surveillance system solutions for military and commercial applications worldwide.
Ly started school as a math major with the intention of becoming a teacher. During her first quarter, she took a computer science course as a general education requirement. “I enjoyed the course because of the way the professor taught it,” she says. “I took another computer science course with the same professor and realized this was what I wanted to do. So I switched to computer science at the beginning of my second year.”
She completed her BSCS at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) in 2012. In her junior year, Ly was hired to tutor students in a computer organization and design course at the school. She continued tutoring the following year. At the same time she applied for summer internships, but she wasn’t hired.
“Most of the companies didn’t think I had enough experience,” she says. “I took summer school classes instead and applied to tutor another computer science course.” She got a five-week job tutoring an introductory class in C programming and was put in charge of running discussions, holding lab hours and grading quizzes, exams and homework.
At the last minute, she was also offered a spot in a web-based startup with two other programmers and two business people. It wasn’t a paid internship, but she felt it was a good move, because if the website had actually taken off, she would have had a part in it. The startup failed, but she gained a respect for the people who work on them. “There is a lot of time and effort put into one idea, and to get an idea out into the world requires a lot of commitment.”
During her fifth and final year in college, Ly found a part-time internship working for Teradata (Dayton, OH), using C# and ASP.NET. She had no experience with either language, so she had to learn everything on the job. “I now know that this is normal in the real world,” she says. “Not all companies use the same tools and programming languages, so being able to learn new things quickly is an important skill.”
Ly joined GA-ASI after graduation. As a level-one software developer, she is responsible for fixing bugs and developing new features for remotely piloted aircraft. Typically, she designs an implementation for a new feature or bug fix, then “codes it up” and tests it. Her team tests each other’s features or bug fixes before release. “I make sure they don’t break the system,” she says with a smile.
“Don’t give up,” she urges undergrads and grads. “Just because you’ve been rejected ten or twenty times after a bad interview or for not having enough experience, that doesn’t mean the next company won’t see your potential.”
Find ways to turn your weaknesses into strengths, she adds. “For example, if you tend to code very fast but sometimes miss a detail of the requirements, you can have your teammates test your code, even if you’ve already tested, just to be sure. In this way, you’re countering your weakness in not paying attention to detail with your willingness to ask for help verifying that your code works the way it should.”
Megan McCormick improves manufacturing processes at ATK
Megan McCormick has built her career around materials. Today, she is a materials and processing engineer at the Dayton, OH aerospace structures division of ATK Aerospace Group (Arlington, VA), a supplier of aerospace and defense products to the U.S. government, its allies and major contractors.
Engineering was a logical choice for McCormick. Her father was a combustion engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (OH), and math was her strength in high school.
She earned her 2012 BS in materials science and engineering at Wright State University (Dayton, OH). The pure functionality of materials science attracted her to the field in her freshman year. “Everything is made of something that can be improved,” she says simply. She was also fascinated by the impact she could have on the aerospace industry.
McCormick started an internship at Wright Patterson AFB the summer after her freshman year and stayed for two and a half years. Working in the composites lab of the materials and manufacturing directorate, she learned about the structure of high-temperature materials and the fundamentals of prepreg (reinforced plastics) materials. The experience was also helpful for her coursework in composites.
When the government student program lost its funding in 2011, she went to work at Renegade Materials (Miamisburg, OH), again with prepreg materials. Over the next year she was involved in testing the materials chemically and mechanically.
As she approached graduation, McCormick saw a technical opening at ATK on monster.com. The position wasn’t in engineering, but she decided to apply because the aerospace structures division is in Dayton, OH, near her hometown. ATK has 17,000 employees throughout the U.S.
She started at ATK in October 2012 as a technician on the floor, learning what parts the plant makes, how the manufacturing process works and what procedures and materials are used. Before long she was writing procedures for the technicians. “But I made it a point to talk to them and get their opinions first,” she says.
Today her work focuses on process development; making the manufacturing processes more efficient. The head engineer is her mentor. Being the only woman on her team of eight or nine engineers, most of whom are her seniors, doesn’t faze her. “I have to prove myself as an engineer,” she says. “Like any new engineer, I have to earn respect.”
The main difference between work that involves a government sector customer and a commercial company is the requirement for security and clearance. “I have such a cool job, and I can’t talk about it,” she says. That’s not entirely unfamiliar to McCormick. Her father could never describe his work either.
“Apply for positions that may not be exactly what you want,” she urges undergrads, since many companies offer growth opportunities.
ATK wants diverse engineers with a passion for aerospace
LeAnn Dickerson, VP of human resources at ATK Aerospace Group, says that ATK recruits graduates with strong technical backgrounds, exceptional communication skills and the ability to work in a team environment. They should also demonstrate a passion to join the aerospace community, the ability to share ideas with diverse stakeholders, and experience with new technologies.
“ATK Aerospace Group is committed to implementing a comprehensive and diversity-focused recruitment and retention strategy,” she says. “We hire the best college graduates and interns to build our workforce for the future.”
ATK looks for undergraduates to be summer interns and graduating students for permanent jobs, with fall and spring recruiting schedules. Schools are targeted based on the quality of their courses in aeronautical, mechanical and chemical disciplines, as well as student population diversity.
In addition, the company partners with campus organizations to ensure that diverse candidates are brought onto the engineering team. Once new grads join ATK, they can participate in various diversity efforts, including a mentoring program and a professional women’s group. They can also get involved in recruiting efforts on their former campuses.
“Diversity in background, experience, thinking and aptitude are attributes that continue to make ATK successful,” Dickerson says. “Diversity in the workforce is critical for success in maintaining our current contracts and winning new business.”
Lt Commander Kim W. Roberts: IT at Navy Recruiting Command
Lieutenant Commander Kim W. Roberts of the Navy Marine Corps intranet division of the Navy Recruiting Command (Millington, TN) recently transitioned into a technical position. Later in 2013, she is scheduled to become the commanding officer of the Naval Operations Support Command in Columbus, GA.
Roberts spent a decade in service before entering college. She graduated from her Covington, GA high school in 1991 and went straight into the Navy. In 2001 she was selected for the enlisted commissioning program of the NROTC- Old Dominion University unit, and earned her bachelors in political science from Old Dominion. “I was very motivated to get a commission because I felt I would have more impact on policy in the Navy as an officer than as an enlisted person,” she says.
In her first commissioned position, Roberts was a surface warfare officer. “I learned a lot about leadership, but it was not my dream to command a Navy ship,” she admits.
She applied for a different designation and was named training officer on the USS Bataan, a large deck amphibious ship. She held several positions at the Navy Operations Support Center Norfolk (VA), and recently moved into the Navy Marine Corps intranet/helpdesk division office at the Recruiting Command.
Her responsibilities at the Navy Recruiting Command included looking for better, more innovative ways to handle technology issues, which led to a 40 percent reduction in trouble tickets across the force. “There are a myriad of security restrictions, which is why my division works in tandem with our information assurance division to ensure compliance and resolve any policy violations,” she explains.
Roberts also led a twenty-one person division that issues mobile devices like tablets and mobile phones to the Navy field recruiters across twenty-six Navy recruiting districts.
“There are unique challenges related to working for the U.S. Navy, as we have to adhere to strict policies that often generate more red tape than in the public sector,” she says. For instance, though the Windows 7 operating system has been available in the public sector since October 2009, the Navy Recruiting Command was just recently given the go ahead to purchase and deploy machines with the WIN7 operating system.
To pursue a technical career in the government sector, Roberts recommends finding something that crosses many lines, like training, manpower or IT work. “I have been fortunate enough to work with active duty personnel, reserve personnel, British naval officers, Australian military officers, field recruiters and members of joint commands. I’ve learned just as much as I’ve taught,” she says. Her new command assignment indicates that she’s learned well.
The NRC leads the federal sector in diversity management
According to Susan Salter, recruitment coordinator at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, Washington, DC), the majority of the commission’s recent graduate hires are in the technical field, mostly engineers. The agency hires nuclear engineers, as well as mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, materials, environmental and geotechnical engineers. A key area for the NRC is probabilistic risk assessment, a mathematical methodology to estimate risk and determine what can go wrong, how likely it is, and what are its consequences.
“Many hiring managers look for graduates who have some work experience related to their studies,” says Salter. “In some cases that might be an internship in a nuclear power plant, or participation on a research project. I often hear students say how difficult it is to get that relevant work experience, but I would encourage them to talk to their professors and seek out on-campus opportunities like research projects if they cannot get something in industry.”
The NRC has traditionally received high ratings for diversity management by the federal government community. The agency developed a comprehensive diversity management plan in 2005 that serves as a roadmap to an environment that values all employees and gives them an equal chance to succeed. The diversity management strategy is based on a commitment from managers, supervisors and employees at the individual, group and organizational levels.
At the NRC, diversity includes all the ways that people differ, Salter says, including innate characteristics like age, race, gender, color, national origin, mental or physical disabilities and sexual orientation, as well as acquired characteristics like education, socioeconomic status, religion, work experience, language skills, cultural values, geographical location, family status, organizational level, work style, and philosophical and intellectual perspectives.
Jorge A. Cintron Rivera ensures the safety of nuclear systems at NRC
Jorge A. Cintron Rivera is an electrical engineer at the NRC. His job is to ensure the safety of nuclear systems.
Cintron Rivera earned his BSEE with a specialty in power systems at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez in 2011. “My initial career goals were in computers and electronics engineering,” he says. “But after I took some general engineering courses in my first two years of college, I decided to pursue a degree in power systems.”
As an undergrad, Cintron Rivera did a co-op at the plant facilities division of Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals (Indianapolis, IN) in Puerto Rico. He worked on a variety of energy saving projects in the facility.
“The co-op helped me develop and implement my engineering skills and learn about other engineering fields, such as mechanical and project engineering,” he says. During his last years of college he worked at the plant as a project engineer.
After graduation he joined the NRC’s nuclear safety professional development program (NSPDP), which he recently completed. He works in the office of nuclear materials safety and safeguards in the division of fuel cycle safety and safeguards as an electrical engineer reviewer.
He’s responsible for reviewing and evaluating performance requirements, the design and operation of power systems and digital instrument and control systems for the safe operation of fuel cycle facilities. His division also supports the regional implementation of the NRC’s fuel cycle facilities inspection program.
“Starting to work for the NRC right out of college was a challenge,” he says, but the NSPDP is designed to help meet that challenge. “I’ve learned about the agency and gained experience not just in what my office does, but across the entire agency,” he says.
Cintron Rivera left his family and friends to pursue his career stateside. He has found that “the NRC provides so many tools to develop your skills that being a minority does not present a challenge.” For instance, a speech enhancement program helps improve language skills for staff whose primary language is not English. “I think diversity within the NRC makes it one of the best places to work in the federal government.”
Amar Nikhanj: test engineer at DRS Technologies
Amar Nikhanj is a test engineer I at DRS Technologies, a military contractor headquartered in Arlington, VA. He works at the power and controls technology facility in Milwaukee, WI.
Nikhanj wanted to major in computer engineering, but the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee didn’t offer that degree. He decided to pursue a double major, and earned his 2009 BSEE and BSCS there in five years. “By the time I realized how much work I was doing, I was already in my senior year,” he observes with a smile.
He’s now just a thesis away from completing his MSEE, and expects to finish by the spring of 2014. As an undergrad, Nikhanj interned in the marketing department doing web design at the Cleveland, OH center of Eaton Corp, an industrial tools company based in Dublin, Ireland.
He started as a test engineer at DRS after graduation. He later learned that he almost didn’t get hired because they thought he was too focused on computer and low-power systems. In fact, his thesis involves C++ and Java programming for the Android operating system. But when he made his interest in high-power systems known, a DRS recruiter decided to give him a chance.
Nikhanj tests parts for the U.S. Navy. This involves putting each device through a series of tests to ensure that it maintains its value. For example, his team will test systems like drives, contactors and motor controllers that are installed on ships.
The basics of his engineering program in school prepared him well for the work he’s doing now, he says. He works on a series of projects and “the intensity ebbs and flows.”
Earlier this year he worked sixty-five hours a week to meet a deadline for testing a specific system. His work takes him to customer locations where he can demonstrate products and do onsite testing.
Nikhanj is Asian Indian with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada, and he grew up in Wisconsin. Fortunately, his multinational background didn’t interfere with obtaining a security clearance.
“The learning doesn’t stop,” he says. “For example, my real appreciation of math didn’t start until I saw things in action. Every day I learn something new. I never realized how much learning there was beyond school.”
Kenji Yamamoto works in radio technology at General Dynamics C4 Systems
Kenji Yamamoto is a software engineer II at General Dynamics C4 Systems (Scottsdale, AZ). He earned his 2009 BSEE and his 2011 MSEE at Northern Arizona University-Flagstaff.
He has always been fascinated with electrical systems. According to his mother, he asked for an extension cord for his fourth birthday, and he’s been considered an electrical engineer by the family ever since. “I always had a knack for electrical systems,” he says. He got more deeply into computers and electrical engineering in high school.
Originally, he wanted to do chip design at the microscopic level, but found he didn’t care for the chip design class he took in his senior year of college. He decided to spend an additional year in school to explore other topics, and discovered embedded systems. “That’s where hardware and software meet,” he says.
He worked in the wireless sensor network lab at the school, and his professor urged him to stay on for a masters. By this time, Yamamoto was running the lab and leading a group of undergraduate researchers. His thesis focused on conserving energy in wireless networks by optimizing battery life.
Yamamoto met with General Dynamics C4 Systems representatives at a career fair and talked to them about the company’s work in radio technology. “I realized this was exactly the kind of work that interested me,” he says.
He started at C4 Systems as a digital modular radio engineer doing work for the U.S. Navy. His efforts focused on a single radio system, replacing multiple legacy radio systems.
Yamamoto leads a team that writes software solutions for the physical layer of the systems. “It’s definitely fun; it keeps me on my toes,” he says. “We have to support everything, and still be interoperational with the older legacy equipment used by the U.S. Navy and NATO allies.”
Fellow grads working in the commercial sector tell him that everything changes every year. He’s found that government-related work doesn’t change nearly as fast. “The hardware may be older but the systems must meet a higher standard against failure,” he says.
Yamamoto urges undergrads to explore their areas of interest carefully to ensure that they’ve found the right field. “Try things,” he says, “not just in classes but in internships.”
During a job interview, illustrate your passion, he advises. He’s hired several grads himself and typically selects those who are not only skilled, but passionate about the work they’ll be doing.
Back to Top