Bruce Hopper working with kids
Stantec senior structural engineer Bruce Hopper talks with students and shows off a balsa wood bridge. Hopper was presenting to the Middle School Academy group of ANSEP during their Bridge Building Week.


Engineering a Career
How to stand out and succeed in a highly competitive field
By Vanessa Orr

ngineering is a popular career choice for college students, and it’s no wonder; not only does it pay well, with a median annual wage of $91,000, but it provides a wealth of job opportunities. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth of nearly 140,000 new engineering jobs between 2016 and 2026.

But how do students land these jobs and then chart a path to long-term career success? One of the best ways is to take advantage of educational resources and listen to the advice of those who already excel in the field.

According to Kenrick Mock, interim dean for the college of engineering at UAA, students should take part in internships and career fairs while in school, as well as join clubs that can help them make the right connections.

“During our twice-yearly career fairs, students can drop off resumes and talk to potential employers,” he says. “Some of our student clubs ask employers for help with writing resumes or taking part in job interviews. We also use the Handshake platform at UAA, which is basically an electronic matchmaking program where employers can list the positions they have [available] and students can reply with resumes.”

Students Jasmine Langmann and John Morton prepare equipment under the supervision of Dr. Scott Hamel
Students Jasmine Langmann and John Morton prepare equipment under the supervision of Dr. Scott Hamel, associate professor and chair of the civil engineering program, for load testing a structural insulated panel in the Structures Lab in UAA’s Engineering and Industry Building.

Vicki Nechodomu | UAA

When competing against other graduates, it’s important to stand out from the flock. Mock suggests becoming involved in community projects that include an engineering discipline.

“A lot of times, a student’s capstone project can help them stand out,” says Mock of the senior year project that ties together multiple technologies, tools, and techniques learned throughout one’s academic career. “For example, a graduate who has worked on a coastal erosion project, or designed a creek-spanning footbridge, is able to show that they can apply their skills in a real-world setting.”

Bruce Hopper, senior structural engineer at Stantec in Anchorage, has a long track record of working with students—from elementary through college—considering engineering careers. The 35-year veteran agrees with Mock—it’s never too early to start focusing on goals.

“My interest started when I was in middle school; the father of a friend was a civil engineer, and he told us about shutting off the waterflow to Niagara Falls to study the rock formations underneath,” he says. “That certainly piqued my interest.”

Hopper graduated from Clarkson University in New York with a degree in civil engineering, then completed his master’s degree. Trying to find employment during a recession, the structural engineer came to Alaska to take a job, and he now helps future engineers follow their dreams.

At middle-school presentations, he emphasizes the importance of studying math and science—but also history, art, industrial art, English, and communications.

“You can be the smartest engineer in the world, but if you can’t communicate, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “So much of this job entails one-on-one meetings, public presentations, and written reports.”

“My recommendation for those new to the field is not to ignore those humanities classes,” agrees Steven Noble, transportation practice lead at DOWL. “As civil engineers working on public projects, we interact with the public a lot.

“While people often become engineers because they like the technical side, in my experience, the most successful folks are not just technically proficient but have developed softer skills as well,” he adds.

Hopper also encourages high school students to immerse themselves in the industry early through career shadowing or mentoring programs.

“Once they’re in college, they can figure out where they want to specialize,” he says. “Engineering principles allow you to transition between different career opportunities; you can change from aeronautical engineering to mechanical engineering without losing anything or stepping backwards.

“Find your niche in the market,” he adds. “If you’re good, you’ll find the right job opportunity.”

Landing the Job
While grades are important, employers focus on other things as well.

“I look at whether a person is involved in extracurricular activities, like clubs or sports, to show that they can function as part of a team and communicate effectively,” says Hopper. “I may also go for a candidate with lower grades but who has more experience; someone with a degree and a couple of years in construction has the advantage over a candidate with straight As who never built anything in his or her life.”

Registered Electrical Engineer Tom Looney, manager of Coffman Engineers’ Anchorage office, agrees.

“If a person can find a way to work at a contractor’s shop for a couple of years, even while in college, I highly recommend getting that hands-on experience,” he says. “Working with engineers on the construction side is a very good way to gain relevant experience not only at the entry level but it will serve them throughout their career.”

Looney attended Weber State University in Utah and chose electives that, in addition to his engineering courses, would complement his chosen career of designing sound systems. After graduating during the 1988 recession, he moved to Alaska and took a job with an audio/video company where he stayed for a little more than two years before getting his first engineering position.

Ryane Schrank DOWL
Ryane Schrank is a former DOWL intern who is now a full-time transportation designer at the company.


“That experience working for a contractor paved the way for me to get hired at Coffman and helped in my career,” he says. “Instead of just reading about things in books, I’d actually constructed things using engineering knowledge and learned to make design decisions. This set me apart from most of engineers I worked with on similar levels and helped me advance more quickly.”

“When hiring at the entry level, we look for any past internship experience and anything in candidates’ backgrounds that shows hands-on work experience in some way,” adds Sarah Amundson, human resource generalist for Coffman’s Anchorage office. “Last time we posted an entry-level position, we got over fifty applications. It’s really competitive, so people need to differentiate themselves through a proven work history.”

LaQuita Chmielowski, a senior land use planning manager at DOWL, is a prime example of how making that extra effort early on can make a difference.

“I spent my summers during college doing survey work for the Forest Service where I worked with a number of engineers,” she explains, adding that she also interned for a professor writing research reports. “I was worried that I didn’t have enough hands-on experience, but what I did have showed that I could understand their language.

“Even if the field is not directly related to engineering, like environmental or survey work, those skills can help you in your career because as an engineer, you touch a lot of different areas of expertise,” she adds.

Chmielowski, who says she was hooked on the profession the first time she was introduced to a female engineer, also credits her work on a site development project in college for giving her a good start, and she recommends that students join professional societies to find internships and, later, employment.

Noble used the connections he’d made while working construction jobs in college to help him land his job at DOWL, where he has remained for twenty-five years.

“I still have the first job I got fresh out of school,” he laughs, adding that there have since been a number of promotions. “I got here by talking to people in the industry, including other engineers, and using their networks to learn about employment opportunities.”

According to Mock, approximately 65 percent of UAA engineering students already have jobs when they graduate. And while it’s important to land a position, it’s also important to find the right fit.

“It’s tough for students to know which company is right for them; they need to shop around to see what different opportunities are out there,” he says. “There are state jobs, and then there are private companies, which are totally different. It’s hard to know what you don’t know, so they should explore as many options as possible.”

“One of the things that a lot of students don’t think about and should is what other opportunities are available within the company,” says Chmielowski. “For example, at DOWL, I get the opportunity to work with professionals in other areas, and that could open doors in the future.

“While someone may think they want to be a transportation engineer, they might develop a different interest, and this exposure can help them find that long-term path,” she adds.

“My advice to young grads is to lift your head and look ten years into the future—what do you want to be doing that far out?” says Noble. “Do you want to work for a smaller company where you have a stronger say in its future and the types of projects you go after, or a big firm where you may have more resources and possibly bigger projects but have less say in the overall direction of the company? Decisions made straight out of school have an effect on that.”

Bruce Hopper Stantec
Bruce Hopper, a Stantec senior structural engineer, hauls gravel as part of the company’s annual community service day: Stantec in the Community Day. Community service is an important part of a student’s well-rounded education.


The Next Step
After landing a job, an engineering graduate works as an engineer-in-training for four years (or three years if they have a higher degree) before taking an eight-hour exam to receive their professional engineering license. Moving into a specialty, such as structural engineering, requires another two to three years of training and the successful completion of a 16-hour exam that has a pass rate of 40 percent.

Even after receiving a license, education doesn’t end there. One of the requirements for continued licensure is that engineers take a certain number of continuing education hours before they can renew their licenses, which occurs every two years.

“The codes, technology, and materials change so quickly that you have to keep up to date,” says Hopper. “It takes a tremendous amount of time beyond the job to keep abreast of new advances.”

Looney believes that being successful in the engineering world requires more than just working the job.

“You need to continually study the industry and be proactive about your career,” he says. “While there’s a really steep learning curve for the first three years, which requires new engineers to learn everything about the industry that the company they work for is in, once they’re over that curve, they need to consider becoming a subject matter expert.

“You can’t study electrical generation systems once and think that you’re done; technology changes time and time again,” he adds. “You have to stay up-to-date by continually researching, attending seminars, reading trade magazines, and investing in your career.”

Kwethluk K-12 School interior
One of the things that engineers-in-training learn is the importance of using building materials that are respectful of the culture in rural Alaska communities. Stantec used exposed wood at the Kwethluk K-12 School, which is typical for the community.


Moving Up
Depending on an individual’s abilities and interests, there’s no end to the opportunities that an engineering career can provide.

“A lot of people move into the business side of things, while others choose to specialize in specific areas,” says Hopper. “How you advance and where you go is dependent upon your ability and willingness to do the self-training required to move forward.”

Mentoring can also help in this respect. “I’ve seen people who are not too interested in the mentoring aspect, and unfortunately, they do not advance as quickly as those who are,” says Looney. “It’s very beneficial to find somebody—whether the relationship is assigned by the company or organically grown—that can help you navigate those first years of employment. And who better than someone with years of experience?”

At DOWL, for example, design squads work under the direction of a project engineer who provides one-on-one attention and mentoring.

“This gives our staff the best chance to succeed,” says Noble. “We also provide them with opportunities to work outside of the design group, so they not only gain design experience but also get geotechnical, survey, environmental, and construction administration experience.

“While our goal for the first three or four years is to help them qualify for licensure, and to teach them the technical side of the business and industry, we try to learn enough about them during that time to help them chart a successful career path, whether that means becoming a project manager or moving into the business or marketing side,” he adds.

“From a technical standpoint, it takes four years before a person can get licensed, but other than that, it is really up to the individual how quickly they want to advance,” says Chmielowski. “Some people are willing to jump in and are quick learners, and that makes a difference.”