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New angles shape Alaska's engineering trade.

Alaska's engineers are tapping technological innovations to meet traditional and new demands for their professional services.

Whether it's designing new harbor facilities in Homer, building a road in Fairbanks or operating an oil rig in the Beaufort Sea, Alaska's engineers pit their experience and skill against the unforgiving northern climate. Cold, ice, permafrost and the endless rocking of the sea call for extraordinary solutions for structures and systems that will perform and endure. In addition to the inherent difficulties of the profession and the natural environment, the engineering trade today faces challenges in funding, recruitment and government regulations.

In much of the 49th state, designs must accommodate periods of extreme cold. To compensate, water systems must be continuously circulating so they won't freeze, and metals and plastics used in exposed applications must be able to withstand sub-zero arctic temperatures. Also, special precautions must be made for building on permafrost, and many types of work must be scheduled for warmer months.

Besides climate extremes, engineering jobs in Alaska often are affected by logistical hurdles that are presented by vast distances and limited road access. Further, the costs of manpower and construction support camps often are higher than for work in other parts of the United States.

"The standards are different. When you're working in the Bush, you have to send your guys out there and get a really good baseline of data. You really have to know your project," notes Dale Merrell, vice president of engineering for Arctic Slope Consulting Group of Anchorage. The division of Arctic Slope Regional Corp. of Barrow specializes in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering; environmental risk management; and regulatory compliance and permitting.

Dan Rowley, regional manager for the Anchorage office of Corvallis, Ore.-based CH2M Hill, adds, "In the Bush, the cost of transport is horrendous, and you don't have a supply of skilled labor. That's why you see so much modular or prefab construction. In Prudhoe Bay, the oil companies use it all the time. They haul these huge components up there on barges and assemble them." CH2M Hill specializes in water and wastewater management, transportation and energy systems, industrial facilities, process systems and environmental engineering.

The lack of a locally available skilled work force in the Bush also influences both design and construction. Plant engineering -- for example, for water-treatment facilities -- often provides redundant systems to compensate for emergencies in which a repair technician may have to be flown in.

Engineers also have been afflicted by Alaska's rollercoaster economy. Rowley estimates that during the years 1986 to 1989, half of the architectural engineering firms in Alaska left the state. He says Alaska lost a wealth of engineering experience but has recovered substantially since downsizing during the 1980s.

Rowley notes that one of the difficulties in working in the state is keeping sufficient staff through work load fluctuations. He adds, "We maintained a staff of about 25 people, and now we're back up to 55 employees. The impact varied greatly. Oilfield-related firms really took a dive."

The challenges of engineering in Alaska have motivated engineers to produce high-quality work. In the history of Alaska engineering, the trans-Alaska pipeline was the watershed event. "As far as Alaska and the Arctic are concerned, the pipeline represented an exponential advance in engineering. I don't think the oil companies can be thanked enough. It was analogous to the space program," says Dennis Nottingham, president of Peratrovich, Nottingham & Drage of Anchorage, an arctic and civil engineering firm. He also says the pipeline served to bring the costs of engineering projects much more in line with those Outside by developing a better working knowledge of the region and by bringing more contractors to the state.

Willy Van Hemert, principal with CRW Engineering Group of Anchorage, specializing in civil, water and wastewater engineering, says, "A lot of people think Alaska is out of it professionally, when actually we're at the leading edge in computers and communications."

Industry's Assists. One of the tools that has allowed engineers to address a widening range of engineering problems is the computer. Computerization has drastically changed engineering regarding the rapidity with which solutions can be achieved and what can be solved, says Rowley. Extremely complex problems that used to require days to calculate results now can be solved in minutes.

With the ability to make millions of calculations per second and collate huge masses of data, the computer has removed much of the mental drudgery that used to occupy engineers' time. Engineering executives caution, however, that computers are no substitute for judgment and experience; they enhance the talents of professionals.

Nottingham cites the 450-foot-span Sitka Harbor bridge, the first cable-stayed bridge in the United States, as an example. "The Sitka Harbor bridge couldn't have been done without computers; there were too many mathematical computations," he says. "The drawback in computers is that it's very easy to get a wrong answer. In the past, there were so many mathematical manipulations that you had a feel for what the answer should be. Computers sometimes get in the way of common sense."

Other engineering breakthroughs have been made possible through satellite and laser technology, which have revolutionized surveying. Nottingham says surveying today is "a different world," with speed, accuracy and cost tremendously improved. Among the high-tech uses for surveying are charting layers of the ocean floor and groundwater deposits, according to Arctic Slope Consulting Group's Merrell.

New products also are changing the capabilities of engineering. Bob Britch, Anchorage general manager for ENSR Consulting & Engineering Inc., an environmental engineering firm based in Acton, Mass., says, "There's a lot of work going on in bioremediation. One technique uses bugs to break down hydrocarbons. At first, there was a lot of skepticism about using this Alaska, but this bug grows fine in a cold climate. The information used to develop this technique comes from the frozen food industry."

Kurt Stangle, president of EBA Engineering Inc. of Anchorage, says his company pioneered the use of man-made spray-ice islands as temporary platforms for oil-drilling operations. EBA, an independent division of EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd. of Edmonton, Alberta, that specializes in arctic geotechnical and general engineering with an emphasis on offshore drilling, also employs ground-penetrating radar for pavement management and subsurface geologic profiling, as well as measuring the thickness of asphalt and ice. In January 1991, EBA used ground-penetrating radar to help locate the body of an avalanche victim in Chugach State Park.

Environment Driven. The explosion of environmental legislation -- more than 20 pieces of major federal legislation since 1969 -- has led to a tremendous increase in environmental engineering. Because of its touted pristine environment and the visibility of the state in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska has become a favorite focal point for watch-dogs of the environment.

"The environmental engineering field is the fastest growing in the profession. There was very little of this type of work when the National Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1969," says CH2M's Rowley.

"In the case of our company, environmental work has become one of the two major areas of business in the last two decades, from a relatively little market. This increase was caused by the regulations, but there were also real interest and concern about the environment."

Despite the reams of paperwork to be completed and filed, environmental regulations have boosted demand for engineers. Notes Nottingham, "Good engineering always produces good results. Regulations have had a positive effect on the profession. Regulations prevent customers and clients from running over the engineer and cheap-shotting the project."

ENSR's Britch says regulations affecting underground storage tanks have had a big impact on the engineering profession. He explains that work on underground storage tanks, mostly for large gas-station chains, represents one-third to one-half of his company's sales.

Engineering Forecast. In Alaska, engineering is a relatively healthy profession, according to CRW Engineering Group's Van Hemert. He says opportunities for work are tied to the oil and gas industry, municipal governments and the military. But he feels private development has not rebounded from the crash of the 1980s.

Van Hemert says, "We're at kind of a leveling-off period now. Firms have four to six months of backlog, and companies are moving back up to Alaska." He expects a recently passed federal transportation bill to increase demands for engineering work in the profession during the next five years. Another new set of federal regulations that mandates cleanup of storm water runoff by industry and municipalities over 100,000 people also is expected to provide employment for engineers.

Nottingham feels engineering and capital improvements will be the salvation of the economy. "We have neglected our infrastructure shamefully. We shouldn't be putting money into government payrolls; we should be investing in our infrastructure. We're ready to help, but we need the go-ahead from government," he says.

"I'm not optimistic about the economy. We see the downturns first. I get calls all the time -- from bankers, businessmen, real estate agents -- about how the economy is doing."

Engineers sometimes feel that the work they do is unknown to or unappreciated by the public. Nottingham says, "People just don't know what we do. The average engineer takes an interest in the community, but what he does isn't understood. Engineers are behind the scenes, but they're on the front line in projects. They're the ones who draw up the plans."

Clearly, Nottingham and other engineering professionals enjoy the challenge of their profession. They point to Alaska's offices, plants and infrastructure as testimony of their skills.

"Engineering has improved with time," Nottingham says. "We have better materials, such as geotextiles and cold-weather metals, and better technology and equipment. The contractors are getting better right along with us. Things are getting bigger, more complex and more efficient."

Engineers Anticipate Future Shortage

"I was shocked when I went back to the engineering school at my alma mater," says Dale Merrell, vice president of engineering at Anchorage's Arctic Slope Consulting Group. "Enrollment for engineering students was only 600, half of what it was when I went there."

Others in the profession also are concerned that engineering is not growing at a sufficient rate. Dan Rowley, Alaska regional manager for CH2M Hill of Corvallis, Ore., says, "There is an ever-increasing demand, but decreasing interest. I don't know if enrollment is down, but it's not keeping up with demand."

According to Merrell, low wages and lack of opportunity are not to blame for the lack of interest in the engineering profession. "A good strong hydrogeologist, telecommunications engineer or electrical engineer usually has a choice of four or five jobs. Engineers will always start out at a higher rate than other professions. Companies are paying $35,000 to start now. Low pay isn't the reason. I don't know what it is."

One factor contributing to the shortfall of engineers is the changing demographics of the work force. White males have traditionally provided the vast majority of engineers, and the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that by the year 2000, this group will constitute only 15 percent of employees entering the work force.

"A real push is needed for females," says William Nelson, dean of the school of engineering at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "Women tend not to stay in the engineering programs. There is no reason for women not to enter into the profession in larger numbers. We don't see any difference in the quality of male and female students academically. There is a tremendous opportunity for women here."

Nelson predicts shortfalls in all areas of the engineering profession nationwide, despite strong demand in Alaska and elsewhere. He adds, "Alaska is a developing country, we need civil, arctic and environmental engineers. Eastern Europe will have to be rebuilt, and I see immense opportunities for Alaska arctic engineering."

According to Nelson, a four-year undergraduate degree normally qualifies a student for professional accreditation. Increasingly, however, employers prefer a master's degree for specialization. Nelson notes that University of Alaska Anchorage undergraduates typically have no trouble finding a job and 80 percent of them stay in Alaska.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article; use of computers to meet demands
Author:Gerhart, Clifford
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Feb 1, 1992
Previous Article:Coal: abundant, but not easily converted to cash.
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