Hey Buddy, Can You Spare an Engineer


05/14/2006

Richard Powers knows the engineering work is out there and that his
company, BCI Engineering & Scientists, has the talent to compete
for its share of the growing market.

The
big problem will be finding enough skilled employees to do the work,
said Powers, the president and chief executive officer of the Lakeland
company.

“For more than two years now, the demand for people has
been extreme,” he said. “We are not making phone calls (looking for
business). If we got any more work, we don’t know how we would do it.”

BCI
employs 120 people and has 18 openings requiring degrees in engineering
or science, such as biology or geotechnical engineering, a branch of
geology dealing with soils and minerals, said Powers, a licensed
geologist. The latter shortage is particularly acute.

“If we can find four of them, they’d have work right away,” he said.

If finding 18 people seems challenging, it actually represents progress, Powers said. A year ago, BCI had 30 such job openings.

“This is the firs time in years I can remember having less than 20,” he said.

In 1997, when Powers bought a controlling interest in the company, BCI had about 40 employees with $3 million in annual revenue.

Powers
and senior managers developed an aggressive growth plan that added
services, including water resource and environmental consulting, and
new Florida offices in Orlando, Jupiter and Minneola.

Last year
the company had $13 million in revenue and expects to top $15 million
this year, Powers said. It hopes to reach $30 million by 2010.

Only the shortage of skilled labor will hold his company back, Powers added.

BCI hardly faces that problem alone.

“We
see that not only in our profession but in speaking to my (business)
colleagues,” said Anu Saxena, an engineer and president of
Ascgeosciences Inc., another Lakeland engineering firm. “Business
owners today not only have to manage financial capital, they have to
manage their human capital.”

The shortages exist particularly
large in growth states like Florida, said Pramod Khargonekar, the dean
of the College of Engineering at the University of Florida in
Gainesville.

“The number of graduates hasn’t increased that much, but the demand has boomed,” Khargonekar said.

In
Florida, the shortages have cropped up in fields such as civil and
geotechnical engineering related to the state’s construction boom,
Saxena and Khargonekar agreed. Geotechnical engineering includes soil
and construction materials testing and construction inspection.

All
three engineers traced the skilled labor shortage to two factors
largely beyond the profession’s ability to control: The decline of
graduates in scientific fields from U.S. colleges and the increasing
difficulty in recruiting foreign-born professionals because of the post
9/11 controversy over federal immigration policies.

U.S.
colleges will produce 45,000 graduates with technical degrees, Powers
said. China alone will produce 1.5 million such graduates, and India
nearly as many.

“The problem is in the elementary, middle and
high schools,” he said. “Their whole experience in earth science might
be one chapter in one book.”

Lack of trained science teachers
means not only that students get a poor foundation in academics, but
indifferent teachers fail to motivate students to consider a career in
science fields, Powers said.

“Deficiencies in science and
engineering start in the elementary, middle and high schools,” Saxena
agreed. “The schools need to do more to prop up interest in the
sciences.”

The UF engineering college turns out about 950
graduates a year, Khargonekar said, but it could immediately increase
that to 1,200 if enough students showed interest.

“The other
thing we don’t do in this country is get enough women involved in
engineering and science,” he said. “In the middle schools, there’s this
kind of subliminal message sent to girls that science and engineering
are not for them.”

Powers and Saxena said professionals and
scientific societies are pushing for better science education in the
public schools. But Khargonekar did not absolve the professions
entirely.

“We in the engineering community haven’t done enough
to tell people what engineers do,” the dean said. “Everybody knows what
a doctor does and what a lawyer does, but nobody knows what an engineer
does.”

U.S. companies traditionally turned to foreign-born
students who obtained technical degrees in their own countries or at
U.S. universities.

Since 9/11, fewer foreign students are
studying at U.S. universities, said Khargonekar, a native of India now
a U.S. citizen, and it has become harder for those that do matriculate
to find jobs in this country after graduation.

“What has
happened for the last three years is a growing perception that the
United States is not friendly to foreigners,” he said. “When I came
here (in 1978) it was very friendly.”

Many of BCI’s most recent
hires have been foreign-born professionals, said Les Bromwell, BCI’s
founder and a principal engineer. The last four hires in the water
resources group, the company’s largest, are from India, Turkey,
Thailand and China.

“We’re a little United Nations,” he said.

Still, Bromwell and Powers said, that route has become much longer and strewn with more red tape.

The
process at the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service of moving
from a student visa, which allows a person to work at a U.S. company
for a year after graduation, to a permanent resident with a “green
card” takes at least five years, Bromwell said. Citizenship can take 10
years or longer.

“I view that as a tremendous barrier,” Powers
said. “They (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials) are
tremendously inefficient and not at all concerned with the needs of
business. (USCIS) is much more concerned about their process than
results and achievement.”

Moreover, the stiffening of U.S. visa
requirements comes at a time when other countries are competing more
effectively for skilled workers.

“Many engineers who came here
from India and China are no longer coming here. If they do come here
(for a degree), they go back because there’s more opportunity in their
home countries,” Saxena said. “Why come to America for opportunities
when there are opportunities in your own backyard.”

Khargonekar
sounded an optimistic note. Federal officials have come to realize they
are losing the global competition for top scientists and engineers, he
said, and they have begun relaxing entry restrictions for skilled
workers and degree-seeking students.

That suits BCI executives.
What Bromwell started as an engineering company catering to the
phosphate industry has branched out to embrace more than a dozen
engineering disciplines. Among them are aquatic restoration, geologic
hazards, investigative engineering and geographical information
services and database development.

It serves six major market areas — government, mining, industry, insurance, land development and construction.

Although
it does most of its business in Florida, Powers said, BCI has a global
reach that includes projects in India, Brazil, Jamaica and St. Croix.

Among its more nearby projects are:

•  Aquatic restorations of Lakeland’s Banana Lake, the St. John’s River and the Lake Morton shoreline.

• 
Civil engineering, such as the ongoing Eloise Redevelopment and
Revitalization Plan and a revitalization of downtown Inverness.

•  Environmental reclamation projects such as the Tenoroc Fish Management Area.

Beginning
in the middle 1980s and accelerating in 1997, when Powers took control,
BCI officials realized the company had to diversify from it original
base in the boom-or-bust phosphate industry, the CEO said.

“There
was a new energy. There was a strong realization that, if we don’t
diversify our services and our client base, we probably will not be
around long,” Powers said.

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