Engineer in Training program: 50-year old recruiting tool still works

Engineer in Training Anna Pesola and Scott Cotner, (Corps of Engineers photo)

Engineer in Training Anna Pesola and Scott Cotner, (Corps of Engineers photo)

By Diana Fredlund, Public Affairs Office

If you were a newly minted engineer or scientist just out of college and looking for that next step in your career, how would you find a job that sets you on the right path?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer in Training program has been introducing young engineers to the Corps for more than 50 years.

Engineer in Training Tom Grant studies generator shaft alignment measurements at Chief Joseph Dam. (Corps of Engineers photo)

Engineer in Training Tom Grant studies generator shaft alignment measurements at Chief Joseph Dam. (Corps of Engineers photo)

“The EIT program can’t be beat for new engineers and scientists looking for a career in the engineering discipline,” said John Etzel, deputy director of the Hydroelectric Design Center in Portland, Oregon, and a former EIT himself.

The Corps’ goal is to recruit the best individuals available and provide them with the best training program it can develop. The two-year program includes formal and informal instruction as well as rotations in design, operations and construction. EITs are hired under a progressive grade structure, beginning the training as a GS-7 (EITs with GPAs below 3.0 start at the GS-5 level); when they complete the program they are GS-11 employees. Once they complete the training, EITs begin their careers as journeyman engineers and scientists.

In spite of its name, the EIT program includes more than just engineers. “We train computer scientists, economists, resource specialists – just about any science and technology specialists are welcome and encouraged,” said Etzel. “Clearly, engineering is a big part of the Corps’ mission. What is less known is that our engineering projects need all types of technical services, including wildlife biologists, water resource specialists and many other specialties. The EIT program offers all of them a well-rounded learning experience.”

As EITs receive hands-on experience with actual projects, they learn about the Corps culture and its Civil Works mission. Each EIT receives a personalized work plan designed to introduce all aspects of the engineering mission. It also allows new engineers to decide where they want to focus their career paths.

“I started with the Corps under the Stay-in-School program,” said Rachel Hanna, a new Engineering and Construction EIT. “After I graduated from Portland State University with my master’s in civil engineering and water resources, I applied for the EIT program and was accepted.

It’s a competitive program – I know a lot of students who weren’t accepted.”

Hanna worked in the Hydraulics and Hydrology Branch during her Stay-in School job, which she finds a good fit. “I really enjoy the work we’re doing,” she said. “I’ve been modeling Columbia River flows to determine flood damages prevented by dams for the Columbia River Treaty. It’s not a cookie-cutter job; I find it a thoughtful job with lots of challenges.”

Members of the Northwestern Division Engineer in Training program tour Chief Joseph Dam during a 2011 visit. The tour included the transformer deck behind the powerhouse. The Engineer in training program includes formal, informal and hands-on training. (Corps of Engineers photo)

Members of the Northwestern Division Engineer in Training program tour Chief Joseph Dam during a 2011 visit. The tour included the transformer deck behind the powerhouse. The Engineer in training program includes formal, informal and hands-on training. (Corps of Engineers photo)

EIT rotations vary based on project needs, said Matt Hanson, Engineering and Construction Division’s EIT coordinator. Hanson also is an EIT graduate. “While training for the EITs is important, we also need to utilize manpower in a way that supports our mission. For example, if Bonneville has fewer construction projects scheduled, we can schedule a rotation in another division first and wait until there’s a greater need at Bonneville.”

Hands-on experience is only one aspect of the training. In addition to formal classroom training, EITs learn how all parts of the organization work together to accomplish a goal, said Etzel. “It doesn’t matter if they’ve selected operations, design or construction as a focus. EITs learn what’s important to each team on a project, whether it’s how to create a scope of work or how to execute the actual plan.”

Working in each department helps the EITs to understand what each department needs to complete its part of the project, said Etzel. “That makes them more insightful engineers; by rotating through each department they can understand why something is needed – not just what is needed.”

With about 1,200 employees in the Portland District, knowing who can help can be problematic. During their rotations, EITs build relationships with people who have valuable knowledge – knowledge that will help in future projects.

Engineer in Training Chauncey Hamilton inspects repair work underway on the South Jetty at the Mouth of the Columbia River. Hamilton is currently the only EIT in the Construction Branch program; new EITs are scheduled to begin the program in 2015. (Corps of Engineers photo)

Engineer in Training Chauncey Hamilton inspects repair work underway on the South Jetty at the Mouth of the Columbia River. Hamilton is currently the only EIT in the Construction Branch program; new EITs are scheduled to begin the program in 2015. (Corps of Engineers photo)

“Networking is a vital part of the EIT experience,” said John Easton, Construction Branch’s EIT coordinator – he is also a former EIT. “I still work with people I met when I was an EIT. Not only do you meet your colleagues – by working beside them on actual projects you have a group of experts you can rely on for advice and support in future projects.”

As valuable as the experience is for EITs, it’s equally successful for the District. “It’s a tremendously successful program for the Portland District,” said Col. Jose Aguilar, the Portland District commander. “In addition to offering exceptional opportunities to individuals, it gives the District access to good prospective employees. That means we can effectively manage our overall manpower objectives.”

Corps of Engineer jobs require technical expertise, but an employee who works well in a federal organization is equally important. “EITs not only receive experience and training in design, operations and construction, they learn leadership skills and an understanding of, and appreciation for how to work effectively in a government system,” Etzel said. “The program helps build loyalty to the organization. Not only are the projects we do interesting and challenging, they also require a commitment to our processes. The EIT program allows new engineers to build the skills to work within the system by learning why we do things as we do.”

One measure of a successful program is employee retention. The EIT program has an excellent retention rate. According to Etzel, Hanson and Easton, very few EITs leave before completing the program and most remain with the Corps. Chances are, if you work for the Portland District you know at least one former EIT – and likely many more.

“I’d say at least half of the engineer-type colleagues I know in Portland District were once an EIT,” Etzel said. “My EIT training laid the foundation for my career with the Corps. I learned about the Corps culture and how each department operates, gained experience in my chosen field of engineering and met an incredible group of colleagues who remain central to my job today. It was one of my best career decisions.”

The Engineer in Training program is a time-honored successful recruiting strategy for the Portland District, stretching back to the 1960s – and likely even earlier, although historic records are difficult to find after more than 50 years. Former EITs include mid-level and senior managers – and they remember their own mentors and managers who were former EITs.

That’s something for the newest group of EITs to think about. In 10 years how will they view the program? It’s possible they will be like Matt Hanson, John Etzel and John Easton – three former EITs who are now ensuring this dynamic and flexible program continues to offer career opportunities with the Corps of Engineers to future young engineers and scientists.

Engineer in Training Sarah Rask crawls through a fish ladder opening after it was dewatered. (Corps of Engineers photo)

Engineer in Training Sarah Rask crawls through a fish ladder opening after it was dewatered. (Corps of Engineers photo)