Newspaper article

Engineering Is One of the Northland's Biggest Growth Sectors

Newspaper article

Engineering Is One of the Northland's Biggest Growth Sectors

Article excerpt

Parents: Are your college-contemplating progeny seeking a career path with strong job prospects? James Riehl wants to say one word: engineering. He'd also probably add: You kids should seriously consider studying and working in northeastern Minnesota.

As dean of the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Swenson College of Science and Engineering, Riehl may seem a tad self-interested. But he can cite some supporting data. The Swenson College's engineering enrollment has gone from 400 when he came on board in 2001 to almost 1,200 today. "Most of the students at UMD come from the metro area--they don't come from northern Minnesota," Riehl notes. "We don't have the population up here to fill a campus this size."

In addition, "I'm quite proud of the fact that our job placement is way over 90 percent, and it was that during the bad economic times," he says. "Now it has picked up and is [even] better."

UMD launched its engineering school in 1984 with three programs: computer engineering, industrial engineering, and materials processing, the latter focusing on the mining industry. In 2004, it added a mechanical engineering program; three years later, demand for civil engineering slots led UMD to start a program in that field, which Riehl says is now the Swenson College's third-most popular track.

For that, he credits a number of high-profile engineering failures, notably the collapse of the 35W bridge in 2007. "The news [media] became actively interested in the nation's infrastructure," Riehl notes. "And young people and their families, I think, made a conscious decision: 'I can be a part of the effort to work on the country's infrastructure.'"

At the same time, he says, "Our country is dealing with a lack of engineers and scientists to fill the jobs we have. We've been successful as a country in importing foreign talent to fill many of the engineering positions for many years. But the country has come to grips with this issue, and parents who want their kids to get good jobs are turning more to engineering and science jobs as careers. I think we've hit that at the right time."

In northeastern Minnesota, the growth areas include that old stalwart, mining, and the steadily emerging aviation industry, notably small-aircraft manufacturer Cirrus. While engineering as a sector makes up less than 1 percent of all employment in Duluth, it has been a bright spot in local job growth. According to figures from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the number of people working in engineering services has nearly tripled since 2000. From the fourth quarter of 2010 to that of 2011, the number of engineering employees jumped from 271 to 292, even while total employment fell.

One of the regionally based firms that has been hiring is LHB, Inc. When engineer Bill Bennett came to Duluth to join the firm in 1980, it had a staff of seven. …

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