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Duluth's Slide Rule Set

Engineering is one of the Northland’s biggest growth sectors.

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. LHB now has 205, about 25 more than it employed in 2008, which was the firm’s best year until that point. (Its head count did shrink during the recession to a low of about 160.) LHB has opened a Minneapolis office, which employs about 35. The firm’s corporate headquarters remain in Duluth—“that’s very different from any of our competitors,” says Bennett, who is now LHB’s chairman and CEO.

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Bennett credits LHB’s diverse capabilities for its resilience during the recession and its rebound during the recovery. In the construction sector, the firm’s strongest categories are pipeline, industrial, and public works engineering in the infrastructure sectors, and design of health care facilities in the building sectors. Education and government construction, long LHB mainstays, are not as strong right now. Significant growth has resulted from the firm’s work with pipeline companies, notably Calgary-based Enbridge Energy. For these clients, LHB participates in the design of transmission lines, pump stations, and facilities where the flow is managed. LHB also is digging up more work in the booming mining industry, not only iron ore but also the “new mining” subsector of copper, nickel, and other metals. The public works sector has been active, too—last summer’s big floods are a major reason for that, “but we were busy before that,” Bennett says.

In addition to his work at LHB, Bennett chairs UMD’s civil engineering external advisory board, and keeps close tabs on the region’s engineering sector. As an engineering firm CEO, he knows how hard it can be to lure out-of-town talent to what many might imagine as the American Siberia, or at least Frostbite Falls. But engineering students come to UMD in large part because they dig the outdoorsy lifestyle. “Our philosophy is, if we can hire somebody that likes this region, wants to stay here, their longevity is going to be better,” Bennett says. “So we focus on those folks. We’ve had better luck going that route than we had trying to bring somebody from Texas up and insert them into this environment.”

While UMD’s engineering grads “like to stay in northeastern Minnesota,” Riehl says, not all of them can. “Quite frankly, there aren’t enough positions for all of our graduates to stay up here, so they mostly go back to the metro area and Rochester and St. Cloud,” he says. Still, both he and Bennett believe that the engineering school’s growth is helping drive demand. “It’s not exploding, but it’s growing,” Riehl says. “And I think we’re a part of that growth.”

Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.

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