When cranes rise in the sky above area shipyards, oilfield fabrication centers and industrial plants, the news filtering out to the public generally has to do with the number of jobs the new construction will generate. Sometimes overlooked in the headlines is the impact this growth will have on existing firms that provide the engineering services needed to make such projects happen.
Many engineering specialties have felt a jolt from the growth that’s occurring in various parts of the greater New Orleans area economy. One clear indicator of rising demand for engineers comes in the form of out-of-state firms expanding into the local area.
Last fall, two firms from the Pacific Northwest reached all the way to the Gulf Coast to capture some of the growing business in marine construction stemming from the busy offshore oil and gas industry. Elliott Bay Design Group and Jensen Maritime, both based in Seattle, opened offices in New Orleans within months of one another. And before them, the Virginia-based naval architecture firm Gibbs & Cox Inc., set up shop in the city.
Along with a host of locally based engineering firms, these offices chase business generated by such firms as Tidewater Inc., Hornbeck Offshore Services LLC, Harvey Gulf International Marine and Edison Chouest Offshore, all of which have undertaken big programs to expand or upgrade their offshore service fleets.
Builders such as Lockport-based Bollinger Shipyards Inc., also keep engineers busy with contracts ranging from offshore supply vessels to liftboats, tugs and U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
But the demand for engineers isn’t isolated in the marine sector. Online engineering job boards are chock full of postings by major chemical, petrochemical and refining operations that create an industrial boom across the Gulf Coast with big expansion projects.
“There are a lot of jobs out there for engineers right now,” says Norman Whitley, dean of the College of Engineering at University of New Orleans.
He says much of the growth stems from the petrochemical sector, which is investing billions of dollars to build or expand plants and take advantage of Louisiana’s abundant low-priced natural gas, which the plants use both for power generation and as feedstock for some chemical products.
In addition, Whitley says, money funneled into coastal projects aimed at preserving or restoring wetlands creates a new area of engineering demand. “Coastal restoration is going to be a great opportunity in coming years,” he says.
The University of New Orleans, whose School of Naval Architecture works closely with local shipyards to develop targeted programs aimed at meeting local work force needs, also is collaborating with Greater New Orleans Inc., and other business groups to identify specific skill and training needs.
“We’re also trying to create more interest at the high school level” in engineering and other sciences, Whitley says, pointing to outreach programs the university has undertaken in local schools.
Meanwhile, the state’s leading provider of engineering talent kicked its training efforts into high gear to turn out graduates in every engineering segment, from petroleum, chemical and mechanical engineers to civil, environmental, structural and construction management specialties.
“We’re seeing demand rise pretty much across the board in all of our disciplines,” says Richard Koubek, the Burt S. Turner dean of engineering at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
The university has hired two recruiters whose job is to make sure the stream of students flowing into LSU engineering programs continues to grow and keep up with job openings, Koubek says.
Engineering enrollment has increased 40 percent in the last three years, and applications for the fall semester are up more than 20 percent from fall 2013, he says.
Koubek says the number of employers registered for LSU’s latest engineering career fair was up 75 percent from three years earlier.
The engineering college breaks ground this fall on a $100 million renovation and expansion of its campus complex, adding 80,000 square feet of educational space. The dean says the college also will reconfigure its existing space to better accommodate changing educational needs.
The college aims to have 50 new engineering faculty members in place by the time the physical complex is ready for occupancy in the fall of 2017, and Koubek says faculty will be about halfway to that target by the end of this year.
With starting salaries north of $90,000 for some graduates, such as petroleum engineers, the traditionally popular engineering specialties are likely to remain magnets for college applicants. But UNO’s Whitley predicts that interest will also begin to rise in the newer discipline of costal restoration sciences.
He says a recent study commissioned by Greater New Orleans Inc., showed a growing need for specialized training that will prepare engineers to deal with problems the country will face in all its coastal areas as a result of rising sea levels.
“I think we’ll see a program where a student with a bachelor’s degree can come back and get 12 hours of focused academic work leading to a certificate” in coastal restoration science, he says.