PASADENA, Calif. – With more than 32,000 employees working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worldwide, only about 1 percent of those are in uniform, said Col. Kirk Gibbs, Los Angeles District commander.
That’s why the Hashtag, “No Camo Required,” seemed to be a fitting theme for the Corps’ seminar during the Hispanic Engineering National Achievement Awards Conference Oct. 18 to 22 in Pasadena.
Gibbs welcomed about 40 student-engineers looking to the Corps for a future career.
Work that matters, work-life balance and working at the Corps were the messages Gibbs and other representatives shared with those in attendance.
The seminar gave the student-engineers the opportunity to learn about the Corps’ mission and how it fulfills its worldwide responsibilities, working in the region and abroad on projects to keep the nation safe and provide economic stability. Several senior leaders and three panel members also answered questions about their jobs.
Maj. Gen. Michael Wehr, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, discussed the Corps’ mission to solve the nation’s toughest engineering challenges.
A recent challenge has been supporting hurricane relief efforts, due to four major storms affecting different areas of the nation in a six-week period.
“How do you solve that problem?” Wehr asked.
“The most challenging engineer solutions is what we have to come up with,” he said. “It’s not all the solutions. We don’t do it alone. We rely heavily on industry and collaborate with federal, state and local (officials). Our nation is unique, how we leverage the Corps of Engineers.”
Part of leveraging the organization is using it to set stability around the globe, Wehr said.
“(The U.S.) enjoys incredible economic strength,” he said. “And, that’s part of the Corps’ mission, to ensure our economy continues.”
During a panel discussion, Emilija Kolevski, deputy chief of the Engineering Division; Jose Paredez, hydraulic engineer, Engineering Division; and Stephanie Hall, regulatory project manager, Regulatory Division, shared their experiences working for the Corps.
Kolevski was a civil engineer for the private sector in Arizona before joining the Corps’ team in 2010.
The difference between working for the private sector and working for the Corps, she said, is the mission.
“The mission that we serve our country through the military, we build projects that are meaningful and help people provide flood control (and) environmental restoration, and the scale of the projects that we do is just amazing – like nothing we were doing in the private sector,” she said.
In 2013, Kolevski served on a three-year tour with the Japan District and moved her family halfway around the globe. The experience she gained from working abroad, she said, helped develop her into a better leader.
Paredez, a former Department of the Army Pathways intern who has been with the Corps for three years, described working for the Corps on the Santa Ana River project as his dream job. He grew up near the river, skateboarding and riding his bike.
As a former intern, Paredez assured those looking at applying for an internship with the Corps that they will not be left to fend for themselves during the two-year program.
“It’s a developmental program, so you start off paired with an adviser or mentor,” he said. “For the first couple weeks, you talk about your career goals and where you see yourself going. They set up a schedule where you rotate through different sections within the district and even the whole Corps itself.”
Two benefits of rotating through difference sections, he said, are networking with other people and learning what each section does and how they do it.
Paredez also talked about the flexibility of the Corps’ work schedule, which has allowed him to have more of a positive work-life balance.
Additionally, he offered some words of advice to hopeful students looking for a career with potential employers at the conference: To ask themselves if they will be happy and to not accept the highest offer, but to look at the whole package.
Hall referred to working for the Corps as “the best kept secret.” She started with the Corps 36 years ago and has worked in areas from engineering to planning. She now works in the Regulatory Division.
She said she is particularly proud of one of her projects – the Ballona Wetlands – because it’s in her neighborhood, and she worked on it from start to finish.
“There is nothing more satisfying than riding in your own neighborhood by your own project,” she said.
Additionally, Hall said she enjoys participating in STEM outreach, like judging science fairs and speaking at high school career days.
“STEM outreach is probably the most satisfying,” she said. “I love the enthusiasm. When you’re young, you haven’t closed off your mind yet. I get to experience that directly.”
Col. Pete Helmlinger, commander of the South Pacific Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the students the Corps is the world’s largest engineering agency, employing 32,000 people and conducting $20 billion worth of construction annually in 110 countries around the world.
“We (want) you to consider being part of our team,” he said. “We offer meaningful work, working to support national security, to energize our economy and reduce disaster risk for our country. We’ve got great team members, you get to work with an incredible, talented cadre of people, and what we offer that many industries don’t is a lot more work-life balance.”
Alejandro Gutierrez, assistant teaching professor at the University of California-Merced, attended the seminar and expressed an interest in the possibility of the college’s School of Engineering partnering with the Corps of Engineers.
“I’m here, basically, to try to get my students jobs. Different faculty members, different professors have different life goals,” he said. “I care about the professional development of my students; what their careers are going to be when they graduate. When they are looking for jobs or internships, a lot of them just don’t think about the Army Corps of Engineers. I don’t know what the reason for that is, but I know I can intervene and bring that to their attention. ‘Hey guys, you can do some great engineering work with the Army Corps.’”
Gutierrez said some of his students are already partnered with the Turlock Irrigation District designing reservoirs and irrigation canals to prevent flooding, while other students of his are working with the Bay Area Rapid Transit, figuring out ventilation systems for the tunnels and water treatment.
“I want to do similar projects with the Army Corps,” he said. “I would like to have my students there, make sure they get the required experience, and, hopefully, get jobs.”