Can We Get the People? (Times-Dispatch Staff Writer)
Can We Get the People?
That's the challenge as Hampton Roads bids to be a power
By Andrew Petkofsky, Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
September 16, 1997
At Dynamic Engineering Inc., you're not likely to hear "it ain't rocket science."
NEWPORT NEWS, MOBILE.
That's because the smallish design and manufacturing company not far from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Langley Research Center actually does produce components for rockets and other aerospace gadgets. It also produces next-generation jet engines, wind-tunnel airplane models and many other technological marvels.
But like many other companies in Hampton Roads' rapidly expanding high-technology sector, Dynamic Engineering has among its 285 employees plenty of technicians, craftsmen, machinists and even recent vocational-technical school graduates in addition to engineers and other pedigreed rocket scientists.
Jim Marchesani, the company's vice president and director of administration, is impatient to hire more.
"We'll be over 300 (employees) by the end of the year," he said. "The only thing holding us back is the resources: Can we get the people we need?"
That's the big question for the region's nearly 350 high-technology companies concentrated in manufacturing and research and development work often related to the defense and aerospace industries.
Hampton Roads is best known for its ports, military bases and shipbuilding industry, and many technology firms have developed to support them. The aircraft carriers and other ships built at Newport News Shipbuilding Inc. and based at the Norfolk Naval Base are among the most technologically advanced in the world.
Other firms, including Dynamic Engineering, have been created as spinoffs or support companies for the federally sponsored scientific research taking place at NASA's Langley center in Hampton and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News.
In addition to the cluster of technology companies linked to federal operations are firms engaged in everything from assembling computers to developing software to selling connections to the Internet.
And they're all competing to hire workers with the right skills, from assembly line and clerical workers to programmers and engineers.
"I would say it's an employee's market," said LaSandra Owens, human resources manager for Pressure Systems Inc., a 90-employee company in Hampton that makes advanced electronic measurement equipment.
Although Hampton Roads technology firms don't have the Northern Virginia information technology industry's problem of thousands of unfilled jobs, company executives say the competition for workers has them advertising nationally for positions they used to be able to fill with ads in local newspapers.
Pressure Systems' Owens and Dynamic Engineering's Marchesani both said they've worked with local high school teachers and community college programs to tailor educational programs to their specific technical job needs.
At Dynamic Engineering, teachers from Thomas Nelson Community College have come to teach computer-assisted design on programs owned by the company but not the college.
Hiring people who have experience with the most advanced design programs has become so expensive, Marchesani said, "I'm looking now more at in-house training and grooming our own people."
Meanwhile, local governments, school systems and economic development organizations have launched a number of programs -- including a new, coordinated regional effort -- to quickly revamp vocational education and worker retraining programs to support the needs of an industry that some view as a potential bonanza.
"We have a window of opportunity to make this region hum. And it's not a very wide window," said John Calver, director of the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce's Business Enterprise Center.
What Calver envisions is a coordinated system in which vocational-technical centers and community colleges keep in touch with the needs of local companies and make sure they're equipped to teach the specific skills the companies need.
The educational system also would be set up, he said, to take skilled workers who lose jobs in a wave of layoffs at, say, Newport News Shipbuilding and quickly enroll them in classes to apply their experience and ability to learning the skills necessary to fill technical jobs at other companies in the region.
School districts in Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, York County and James City County already participate in a "School to Work" program and an "Academic Tech" program that provide a combination of vocational and academic education to work-oriented students from the ninth grade to two years beyond high school graduation.
Calver said the program is designed to prepare students to continue through a four-year college education and beyond, if they wish, after spending some time in the work force.
At the same time, a new organization called the Virginia Peninsula Work Force Development Commission has begun a multiyear program aimed at analyzing regional labor force needs and creating a "work force development center" to match education and retraining efforts to the needs of business, whether or not their jobs involve technical skills.
Commission Chairwoman Shirley Pippins, who also is president of Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, said one of the first jobs will be to quantify the region's specific job training needs.
"Everybody knows there's a problem, and everybody's working on the problem," she said. "But we haven't coordinated our efforts."
Although workers in technology jobs get relatively high pay on average, individual employee wages vary widely according to the job. Pay in the Hampton Roads area also lags significantly below the national average, which sometimes leads engineers to accept jobs in other regions after graduating from, say, Old Dominion University. Calver said pay in Hampton Roads averages only 70 percent of the national average.
In a draft report this spring on the importance of technology to Virginia's regions, the state's Center for Innovative Technology said Hampton Roads' 346 technology firms employ 47,093 workers.
That's only 7.5 percent of the area's private sector employment, but the companies' payroll amounts to 11 percent of the region's private sector income, according to the report.
At Dynamic Engineering, an assembly worker may start at $12,000 a year, Marchesani said, but could move up with training, experience and additional schooling to a yearly wage of $40,000.
Senior engineers at the company make from $70,000 to more than $90,000 a year, he said.
FLIGHTS OF THE FUTURE.
BRUCE PARKER/ TIMES-DISPATCH
A person with drafting skills might start at $15,500 and move up in the same area to $33,000 or so, Marchesani said. If a person with drafting skills progresses to the point of becoming a designer, he said, the pay can go up -- even without a four-year college degree -- to as much as $50,000.
Newport News Shipbuilding, which is Virginia's largest private employer with more than 17,000 workers, is not always counted among the high-technology companies. But Jim Wallace, the yard's director of training and development, says it should be.
Wallace said the shipyard, which designs as well as builds aircraft carriers, submarines and a number of non-military ships, has the largest engineering force on the East Coast, maintains one of the largest high-tech information systems, and recently installed an $80 million, computer-aided automated steel factory.
He said the company is in the process of hiring 500 to 700 employees for its engineering department and is looking for 600 people in the production and trades areas. Of those, he said about 300 of those hired in production and trades will be workers previously laid off.
To meet its own need for technically skilled workers, the yard three years ago reinstituted a design program as part of its more-than-70-year-old apprentice school. The students, 25 a year for the past three years, are chosen from candidates who have completed 1 1/2 or two years in a trade apprenticeship such as pipe fitting or shipfitting, Wallace said. Then they spend three more years learning to design using the yard's advanced computer programs.
"It gives us people who have been involved in installing and building what they eventually end up designing," Wallace said. He said the experience leads to "better produce-ability" in their designs.
Chris Schiano, a designer at Dynamic Engineering, said his job involves creating the physical form of components and systems. While engineers calculate the overall characteristics, he said, the designer uses computer design programs to determine such things as how the piece will go together and come apart.
"We have to put all of the nuts and bolts together," he said.
Schiano earned a degree in history, but he worked as a machinist and toolmaker and then went to school at nights for a technical degree as a tool and mold designer, which led to his job at Dynamic Engineering.
Marchesani said his company tries to keep employees not only with good pay, but also through an employee stock ownership program and a continuing education benefit that will pay the full cost of college and technical courses and even pay for the books of students who make A's.
Stephanie Mumford, who came to the company as a contract secretary in 1989, decided after a year to get a four-year college degree. She attended classes at night to earn a degree in business administration and contract management and now works as the company's contracts and procurement manager.
Mumford said she likes the high-tech aspect of the company's business, even though her job involves administration.
"It's not your standard, run-of-the-mill company," she said. "It's not like you're manufacturing the same thing over and over."
Dynamic Engineering Inc. looks like any other low-slung metal factory building on the outside, but inside it looks like the future.
The lobby is filled with shiny steel aircraft components and wind-tunnel models that could be science thriller movie props. On a display board are photos and descriptions of recent gee-whiz projects:
* A rocket sled, built to test the ejection seat of the F-22 jet fighter, could accelerate from 0 to 800 mph -- and then back to zero -- within 60 seconds;
* A sleek model was a stand-in for the futuristic stealth bomber in a wind-tunnel aerodynamics test.
But those are projects of the past.
Beyond the lobby, engineers, designers, technicians and model builders are focusing their skills on new rocket fins, jet engines and helicopter rotor blades whose practical use may be decades away.
Jim Marchesani, Dynamic Engi neering's vice president and director of administration, said his company is a partner with both of the major defense contractors -- Lockheed and Boeing -- in developing the next generation warplane known as the Joint Strike Fighter.
"What we build, you won't see (in public) for 10 or 15 years," Marchesani said.
While its primary business is building aerospace test equipment, including wind tunnel models and flight test hardware, Dynamic Engineering also builds advanced marine diving equipment prototypes and components for jet and rocket engines.
Both the design and the manufacture of its prototypes take place within a 93,000-square-foot building that combines administrative space, engineering and design departments, model-building and -finishing facilities, and precision manufacturing equipment.
The equipment includes several high-precision, computer-controlled steel milling machines and, behind locked doors in a high-security area, a machine that uses a laser beam to create three-dimensional models from a transparent resin.
Heather Drummond, a model technician smoothing the top of a mirror-surface steel wing model, said her job uses skills similar to those of an auto body mechanic, only with a bit more precision.
"We might have to get it within plus or minus 2000th of an inch," she said.
Drummond learned her craft by earning a two-year degree in mechanical technology and spending time in a program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Langley Research Center that would have led to an apprenticeship. But NASA halted the program in a round of cutbacks, she said.
In a room nearby, Mike Barrows uses an electronic instrument to test each of the 400 tiny wires installed by hand in a partly assembled graphite composite test rotor for some future helicopter.
Barrows, a 20-year veteran of Dynamic Engineering, said he came to the company after working in a yacht repair business and lumber yard. He's learned most of his high-tech skills on the job.
Back in the manufacturing area, a house-size milling machine is following computerized instructions to mill the end of a nearly full-size steel model wing.
Between the production areas and the design and engineering departments, shiny steel pieces of what looks like a deep-sea diving suit are arranged on a table. Marchesani confirms that the pieces do belong to a prototype suit being assembled under a Navy contract.
The suit is self-propelled, he said, and can keep a diver comfortable for 40 hours at a depth of 1,000 feet.
In one of the design departments, engineer Janice Smith is working with some colleagues to illustrate components they're refining for a Pratt & Whitney jet engine that's planned as a step in the evolution of jet propulsion.
The three-dimensional renderings created by the computer are being illuminated carefully with the Unigraphics design program to illustrate each important curve and surface. Printed out in color, the renderings look like computer art.
Engineers and designers in the next department, dedicated to fixed-wing design, are on their lunch hour, but three of them have stayed behind to play a networked version of the computer game Quake.
Maybe it's just the comparison with everything else that goes on at Dynamic Engineering, but the fast-moving, three-dimensional battle game looks just a bit old-fashioned.