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Robust demand continues for African Americans in EE

Black EEs are doing important work in manufacturing, power, defense, automotive, IT and more

"As an African American I can bring a different perspective to product offerings."
_ Danté Crockett, Ford Motor Co

Resume Drop Box

EE Jameela Pickens is a power distribution engineer at Alabama Power.

EE Jameela Pickens is a power distribution engineer at Alabama Power.

EET Gwendolyn D. Ratliff is a staff engineer at NJ power utility PSE&G.

EET Gwendolyn D. Ratliff is a staff engineer at NJ power utility PSE&G.;

Blacks have been part of the EE scene from the very start. Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) and Lewis H. Latimer (1848-1928), for example, were early and very prolific EEs. Woods held more than thirty-five patents for electrical inventions, while Latimer worked for both Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, and was a founding member of the Edison Pioneers.

Since then the number of African American EEs has grown greatly, of course, but their proportion is less than you might think. The national total of EE grads was 12,643 in 2000 and 14,742 in 2005. The number of black EE grads in those years was 882 and 1,115, rising from 7 percent to 7.6 percent of the total, according to the American Association of Engineering Societies (www.aaes.org).

Robust demand
The future looks bright for EEs of every color. "We're seeing a pretty robust market for engineers," says Paul Kostek, chair of the career and workforce policy committee of IEEE-USA (ww.ieeeusa.org) and a Boeing systems engineer. "Over the last year we've seen an upturn in demand for EEs, particularly in aerospace and defense." There's also been a resurgence in the semiconductor business, he adds.

Kostek is cautiously optimistic about outsourcing in the EE field. It's true that some companies are creating design centers overseas, but in many cases he thinks it's an attempt to penetrate markets overseas.

"The corollary to this is insourcing," where industries like the Asian automakers are setting up U.S. production sites and hiring local EEs.

At U. S. Steel, Anthony Bridge is VP of engineering and technology
Anthony Bridge

Anthony Bridge

Anthony Bridge is VP of engineering and technology at the United States Steel Corp (Pittsburgh, PA). Bridge has been in the steel industry since 1976 and with U. S. Steel since 1998.

U. S. Steel is an integrated steel producer, using iron ore and coke for steel production in the U.S. and Central Europe. Its products include sheet steel for the automotive, appliance, container and construction industries and tubular products for oil and natural gas exploration.

The company also produces iron ore pellets and coke, operates railroads and barges and manages real estate.

In the steel industry as in life, says Bridge, being black is not as relevant as education and values. "There may be pressures for women and minorities that are different, but I think people respect you if you're good," he says.

"My career in the steel industry has moved along well, both before and after I joined U. S. Steel, and I've enjoyed the work I've done over the years."

As VP, Bridge oversees engineering, research and iron-making technology. He has primary responsibility for an engineering capital budget of $700 million, heads up more than a hundred researchers working across all product lines, manages projects across all products and provides relevant assistance.

For example, "We have seventeen blast furnaces and our smallest unit has a capacity of more than a million tons a year. One of my responsibilities is managing the technical process that delivers suitable hot metal to the steel shops for refinement," Bridge says.

He completed a BS in industrial management at Purdue University (Lafayette, IN) in the mid-1970s, followed by a BSEE from Perdue and an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.

When he completed the management degree he interviewed with Inland Steel. The company was really looking for engineers, but was impressed with him and took him on as a technical assistant.

"I realized quickly that this was a very technical business and decided to go back to school for engineering."

The Bridges have a daughter of twenty-three and a son who's eighteen. He's proud that his daughter has her degree in CS, "and I'm talking to my son about going into ChE," he says.

At work Bridge takes time to mentor several of his people, even though his current schedule has him traveling two or three days a week. He takes special satisfaction in the accomplishments of those he's worked with. "Some are leaders in their areas of operations," he says. "I'm probably proudest of that."

Dr Sandra K. Johnson is a CTO at IBM
Sandra K. Johnson

Sandra K. Johnson

Dr Sandra K. Johnson is a senior tech staff member at IBM (Armonk, NY), the IT superstar. She's CTO for global small and medium business at the company's systems and technology group in Austin, TX.

Johnson has been with IBM since completing her PhD in EE at Rice University (Houston, TX) in 1988. Her 1982 BSEE is from Southern University (Baton Rouge, LA) and her 1984 MSEE from Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA).

It's Johnson's job to leverage innovative technologies in her group, the business unit that makes servers, storage and operating systems and system management software. She works closely with the techies responsible for products in the group. "It's a matrix organization," she explains. "I influence many offerings and impact the work that gets done and the strategy as it relates to small and medium businesses."

The job involves a lot of travel. "It's mostly in the U.S., but I also meet with business partners worldwide."

Johnson's role includes developing technology strategy for her unit and coordinating with other units. She brings both a techie's and a woman's perspective to the business. "It produces some synergies and discussion that might not happen otherwise, and results in better products," she says.

Issues can be subtle, and they vary around the globe. But IBM's products are going to a world of diverse consumers, so it's important for multiple viewpoints to be represented.

Johnson's first job was at IBM's Thomas J. Watson center in Yorktown Heights, NY. "I began by doing research on computer architecture. I stayed there for twelve years, switching from hardware to software. The common thread was performance evaluation," she says.

In 2000 she moved to IBM's Silicon Valley lab, where she looked into integrating IBM database and application server offerings. In 2002 she joined the Linux technology center in Austin, TX as Linux performance architect, and in 2004 she became CTO for small and medium businesses in the systems and technology group there.

She's a member of the IBM academy of technology, a research division master inventor, with thirteen patents and eight pending, and author or coauthor of many publications. She received last year's Black Engineer of the Year award for outstanding technical contribution in industry, the 2001 Inroads supervisor of the year award and the 2000 NSBE Golden Torch award for lifetime achievement in industry.

Her greatest accomplishment to date? She thinks it might be work she did some time ago on IBM's parallel file system, important in high-performance computing like weather forecasting, structural analysis and aircraft simulation. "Ours was one of the very first, and I was part of the research team," she recalls proudly.

Besides mentoring IBM employees at work, Johnson tutors middle and high school students through her church. She also serves on the board of the Austin Urban League and is an active member of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.

Jameela Pickens is an engineer at Southern Co's Alabama Power
Jameela Pickens

Jameela Pickens

Jameela Pickens works in the power distribution department of Alabama Power Co (Birmingham, AL), a subsidiary of Southern Co (Atlanta, GA). She's a second-level engineer. "I provide power to new subdivisions, commercial and industrial customers," she explains.

When a request comes in she assesses the needs of the site, then designs the entire power layout for the new facility. She also deals with maintenance issues for distribution lines, including reliability and restoration of power, and customer issues like flickering lights and individual power outages.

Pickens especially loves the challenge of designing subdivisions. "It requires a lot of planning to design power for each one of hundreds of homes, to decide where to put the transformers and the trenching and to coordinate with other utilities. I'm excited to have done several of these so early in my career," she says.

Pickens received a BSEE from Auburn University (Auburn, AL) in 2004 and is currently considering several MBA programs. She interned in distribution with Alabama Power all through her college career and segued to a fulltime job after graduation.

Her EE gives her an excellent basis for working in the power industry. "You understand the basis of power. When it comes to more complex technology issues you can dig in a little deeper because of the EE background."

Pickens was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked for an oil company as a petroleum engineer and her mother as a computer analyst. Pickens lived in an American compound and attended an American school. "I never had any negative experience interacting with the locals, like when I went to the mall," she says. "And I did not have to cover my hair or face."

The real culture shock, she says, occurred when she was sixteen and the family returned to the States. "My new high school in Alabama had 2,800 students while the school I'd left in Saudi Arabia had a total of 100 students, K through 12!"

One of the biggest challenges Pickens faces on the job is dealing with developers and contractors. "They're mostly men with years of experience, and when I tell them something they don't always believe me. They're not sure I know what I'm talking about."

But with support from her company, she's able to work out any kinks in the process and come up with a reliable solution that's acceptable to everybody, she says.

Gwendolyn D. Ratliff is a staff engineer at PSE&G;
Gwendolyn D. Ratliff

Gwendolyn D. Ratliff

As a staff engineer in the central division of public utility PSE&G; (Newark, NJ), Gwendolyn D. Ratliff oversees two engineering groups. The geographic information systems group keeps infrastructure records for the division, and the large new business group handles new industrial and commercial customers and pole relocations.

PSE&G; is a subsidiary of Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG, Newark, NJ), a publicly traded energy and energy services company.

Ratliff's work is all in electrical distribution. She investigates problems, checks the status of jobs and monitors work being done. "I supervise the work of the electrical technicians and manage their productivity," she explains. "The engineering supervisors plan and delegate jobs and mitigate problems, but the technicians do the actual work."

Ratliff grew up in New Brunswick, NJ and received her BS in EET from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in 2001. But she knew PSE&G; long before that. She began working for the utility as an Inroads intern in 1994 when she first started at NJIT.

"I went to school at night and worked at PSE&G; during the day as an accounts payable specialist," she says. Her daughter, now fourteen, was a toddler then, and "It wasn't easy doing all that, but ultimately going to school has allowed me to enjoy some of the good things in life."

At the age of twelve, Ratliff participated in Raritan Introduction of Minorities to Engineering (RIME). "They said there weren't many women, especially black women, in engineering, so I decided right then I was going to be one of them," Ratliff says. She's currently working on an online masters in technology management from the University of Phoenix.

Ratliff loves the work she does. "Knowing that a circuit I planned is actually providing electricity, it's just �Wow!,'" she says. "I have a real effect on people's lives."

Ratliff also works on programs that partner PSE&G; with community colleges and high schools. She talks about the value of engineering degrees and about PSE&G;'s utility technology program at local county colleges and high schools.

"When you have an engineering degree it changes people's idea of what you can do. As a black woman who has an engineering degree I automatically get more respect," she says.

"Of course I have to work twice as hard to prove myself worthy of it," she adds with a smile.

Sirlord Morse: EE associate in telecom at LA Water & Power
Sirlord Morse

Sirlord Morse

Sirlord Morse is an EE associate in the telecom division of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP, Los Angeles, CA). His division handles the design and upgrade of telecom systems for the department. That, he explains, includes microwave, fiber optic and radio communications.

Morse has been with LADWP for almost a year. Before that he worked in power distribution design and IT for the Port of Los Angeles. He is a registered PE in California and has a 2002 BSEE and a 2005 MSEE from California State University-Northridge. He plans to start an MBA program this fall. "The job market is just going to get more competitive in terms of education," he notes.

His current task is upgrading the LADWP's 900 MHz, UHF and low-band radio transmission systems, which are located throughout California. He's enthusiastic about his job and about the future of his profession. "Digital equipment and computer- related gadgetry always provide opportunities for EEs," he says.

Morse is proud to be a role model for diverse kids. When he was with the Port of Los Angeles he worked with the Boys and Girls Club of LA and made presentations at local high schools. In his current job he's involved with a local elementary school. "My going into the schools as an engineer is a way to show the kids a viable career option besides rapper or star athlete," he points out.

At Boeing, Candice Smith works on FCS technology
Candice Smith

Candice Smith

As a systems engineer II in the integrated defense system division of the Boeing Co, Candice M. Smith works on technology for the Army's future combat system (FCS) program. "We're providing the army warfighter with advanced technical capability," she explains.

It's a huge program, the first of its kind in the industry, she says. She's part of a large FCS team that has members in St. Louis, MO, Southern California and elsewhere. She's the only member of the centralized controller subteam based in St. Louis. The other subteam members are in Huntsville, AL or Vienna, VA, with support from others scattered around the country.

Boeing (Chicago, IL) is an aerospace company that designs and builds commercial, military and space systems. It's also active in electronics and advanced information and communication systems.

Smith spends a lot of time teleconferencing, and about one week a month in Huntsville. She works with a unified modeling language tool to develop parts of the architecture model of the system. Using Smith's model, the team analyzes and allocates requirements and functions of the system.

Smith has a 2002 BSEE from Southern Illinois University. She's just finished her MS in systems engineering with a specialization in technology management through the University of Missouri-Rolla.

She didn't set out to be an engineer. After high school she was planning to join the Air Force, but a guidance counselor introduced her to a minority engineering program at Southern Illinois and she won a scholarship.

"I'm a first-generation college student," she notes. "My parents were so proud and happy for me."

Smith began as a co-op at Boeing in her sophomore year and was hired full time after graduation. "I'm really excited about what I do and about this company," she says.

In addition to her job, Smith tutors at the Youth Technology Education Center (www.ytec-stl.com), a St. Louis non-profit, and mentors two high school girls. She's also involved with youth at her church and sorority, and is a speaker for the St. Louis Junior Academy of Science (www.jracademy.com).

Caterpillar's Zhetta Thomas: systems level expertise
Zhetta Thomas

Zhetta Thomas

Zhetta Thomas is project lead for current production products in the motion and power control division of Caterpillar Inc (Peoria, IL). Caterpillar makes construction and mining equipment, natural gas engines and industrial gas turbines, and Thomas provides technical expertise at a systems level for natural gas engines for petroleum and industrial use. "Some of the engines we work on are the size of buildings," she says.

"Sometimes I need to coordinate a team, but other times it's just me and the customer," Thomas notes. "In my group we're all project leads and we leverage from each other. We have to be able to respond quickly to issues and meet our customers' needs no matter what."

Thomas got her BSEE from Southern Illinois University in 1997. She found a job with Coin Acceptors Inc (St. Louis, MO), working on smart-card technology for vending machines.

In 2000 she joined Caterpillar as a contract employee doing software development. She liked the company and hired on full time in 2004. "I was already project lead on one engine application when they hired me, and now I'm up to three engines. There are a lot of opportunities here," she explains.

Thomas was a mature woman with two sons when she graduated from college. She had started years before, but was sidelined by a serious basketball injury. When she recovered she went to work as a software developer at CPI (St. Louis, MO), a portrait/photo-finish technology company, and eventually completed her EE.

Today her two boys are nearly grown, one in high school and the other at college on an engineering and sciences scholarship.

Thomas enjoys her job and feels her technical role in the company has been "a very positive thing. I've helped people overcome misperceptions and it's helped me become more confident."

Alesha Watkins manages EE programs at DaimlerChrysler
Alesha Watkins

Alesha Watkins

Alesha Watkins is an EE core program management analyst for DaimlerChrysler Corp (Auburn Hills, MI). "Our team of about ten engineering program analysts manages feature offerings for future vehicles," she explains. Watkins' special area is the driver information system, including instrument panel clusters, column controls, and overhead systems displays that give information on outside temperature, remaining fuel and fuel efficiency. She also has input on items that could affect the driver information system, like vehicle system messages.

When you're designing new features for a vehicle you have to consider costs, timing, feasibility and what the customer wants. "I take input from all areas, and consider how a feature can be implemented," Watkins says.

Watkins received her BSEE from Howard University (Washington, DC) in 1997 and was chosen for the DaimlerChrysler Institute of Engineering two-year rotation program. Candidates do six four-month stints in various areas of the company, and also study for their MS degrees. Watkins received her MSEE from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI) in 1999.

After completing her rotations she began work on the navigation system for the Chrysler minivan platform. She was the release engineer responsible for design, test and validation of navigation in new minivans.

In 2001 she was transferred to the audio group, and a year later she moved to an assembly plant in Windsor, ON, Canada as a resident EE. "My main responsibility was to help address and resolve issues that affected the vehicle build," she explains. In 2004 she took her present position.

It was DaimlerChrysler's commitment to diversity that led her to choose the company, she says. "It's good to have those differences on a team, because you're offering products worldwide and cultural differences are important."

Watkins also volunteers in math and science at local elementary schools. "Education is a passion of mine. The children are so curious. They want to know everything."

Danté Crockett is an electrical integration manager at Ford
Danté Crockett

Danté Crockett

At Ford Motor Co (Dearborn, MI), Danté Crockett is a recent graduate of the product development leadership program, an advanced program for potential senior managers. Crockett has a 1993 BS in material science and a 1994 MSEE from the University of Michigan. He moved into Ford's new-grad two-year rotation program in 1995.

Crockett's early assignments included work on non-electrical subsystems for the body, chassis and powertrain of Ford's medium and large family vehicles.

Now he's working as an electrical integration manager for Ford's body-on-frame vehicles. He and his team ensure that the electrical systems of the vehicles are delivered on time and with high quality.

Before his current assignment he worked on multimedia products including navigation systems, radios and DVD players for a number of Ford offerings.

"As an EE I had an opportunity to bring in leading-edge technology, and as an African American I can bring a different perspective just by knowing, for example, what black people might like in an audio system," Crockett says.

Crockett is a regular speaker at career day events through Ford's high school partnership program. He's also a mentor to younger engineers at his company. And he does some recruiting at events like the national black MBA conference and the NSBE convention.


Laurel McKee Ranger is a freelance business writer headquartered in Randolph, NJ.

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