The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vision is to provide engineering solutions to our nation’s toughest challenges. But what happens when one of those challenges is finding the engineers themselves?
With a nationwide shortage of students going into Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) career fields, ensuring USACE has the talent needed to continue providing those solutions has become one of those challenges. In order to meet this challenge, USACE’s Transatlantic Middle East District (TAM) has recently made a concerted effort to build a STEM pipeline, doing its part to help the Corps “prepare for tomorrow.”
Starting at elementary school level, the District partners with Winchester STARBASE, a DoD sponsored program aimed at developing an early interest in STEM, to provide guest speakers and engineering activities for fourth and fifth graders.
It’s the high school level however where students first have the opportunity to work one on one with engineers to find out if it’s a career they want to pursue.
“We like to connect to students while they’re still in high school and offer them an internship program to explore a field that they’re interested in, usually engineering or architecture but we have other disciplines as well,” said Mary Billings, a structural engineer and one of TAM’s intern program coordinators. “We assign them a mentor and they work with us over the course of a high school semester, usually on a project they’ve chosen.”
Several previous high school interns have gone on to major in engineering in college and remained in touch with the District. Through this contact, TAM was able to bring some of them back as part of a competitive summer hire program.
The summer hires fill paid positions and work on actual District projects.
“These are full time federal positions for the time the students are working with us,” said Jeff Raney, chief of the Site and Building Design Branch for TAM. “We’re looking for the best students and often our high school interns are high achievers. That said, the process is competitive and not all of our summer hires were previously high school interns. We also recruit from colleges in the region.”
Derek Sprincis, a civil engineering major at the University of Virginia, said that the high school program helped him to decide on an engineering major and the summer hire program helped him confirm he was making the right career choice.
“I would say the high school program was key in helping me decide on my major. In college I’m in Air Force ROTC so the summer hire program gave me a better perspective on the Department of Defense and furthered my desire to become a commissioned officer,” Sprincis said.
Sally Sydnor, another engineering major at UVA who had also done TAM’s high school intern program, said that for her, one of the better parts of the experience was the opportunity for STEM mentorship from women in engineering fields.
“I’ve worked with a lot of women during these programs and it’s great to see women in roles of leadership, people who have worked really hard, and it’s really an inspiration to me as a college student coming into this field in the next couple of years,” said Sydnor.
During the summer hire program, the students had opportunities to collaborate with engineers on several projects in TAM’s $2.5B construction program, use a variety of engineering software, work on the District’s state of the art 3D printing equipment and tour the Washington Aqueduct to see the civil works side of USACE.
Engineering major Adam Alamin, a student at George Mason University, joined TAM after Raney recruited him at a Black Engineer of the Year Awards recruitment event and said that working for USACE was a great opportunity for him.
“This experience overall has been great,” said Alamin. “I do wish I could have gone overseas because I was assigned to construction and I hear all these great stories about TAM’s projects but overall I would recommend this to any engineering majors. The Army Corps of Engineers is a great place to be and a world class organization.”
The 2021 group represented the largest group of summer hires in Transatlantic Middle East District history and although the program has yet to achieve its ultimate goal, Billings feels them getting closer each year.
“Ultimately, what we’d like to see is someone who became interested in engineering because of something like STARBASE or their high school internship join us as a summer hire, become a part of the Department of Army Fellow Program after college graduation and become a full time employee with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”