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NHs Engineering Boom
Published Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Southern NH University student works on aeronautics equipment. Liz Linder Photography

New Hampshire is experiencing an engineering boom, as engineering firms across the state expand and colleges and universities ramp up programs to meet the growing demand for engineering professionals. The post-recession economy has brought a growth in municipal projects, a hike in demand for new single- and multi-family residences and an overall boost in building, as such projects as the I-93 expansion create business opportunities in the state.

“In the type of work we do, we’re closely aligned with the economy so as the economy improves, all boats rise on the tide,” says George Fredette, president and principal engineer at SFC Engineering Partnership in Windham. “We’re getting phone calls, ‘can you help us develop this property or that property.’ More money is available for municipal projects. People are feeling better about investments like that. People want to build new homes.”

 The SFC Engineering team. Courtesy photo.

Likewise, Nancy Nichols, vice president and senior engineer at Team Engineering in Bedford, says, “Building and engineering just go hand in hand. As the economy builds, we engineer it.”

Dylan R. Cruess, COO of TFMoran in Bedford, says voters are increasingly favorable toward municipal projects like new police stations. “Town votes have kicked off a lot of engineering activity,” he adds. “Multi-family residential is also very popular.” That includes two apartment complexes in Manchester engineered by TFMoran: one behind Northeast Delta Dental Stadium and another off Candia Road that will include 130 units. “There’s a lot of commercial and residential activity in development. Interest rates are low,” he says.

A December 2016 report by the NH Office of Energy and Planning shows that in 2015 alone, the most recent year for which figures are available, both single- and multi-family building permits reached highs for the decade, with most of the growth in the southern part of the state. Rockingham County saw issuance of 562 permits for single-family homes and 376 for multi family, while Hillsborough County had 466 for single family and 653 for multi family.

And Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget calls for a new Infrastructure Revitalization Fund, fed by surplus state money and now roughly $84 million, with an eye toward doubling grants to towns for roads and bridges and increasing funding for school building aid—all promising to boost opportunities for engineering firms in the state.

Firms Expanding
As building activity increases, engineering firms are expanding as well … or at least are trying. In December 2015, TFMoran purchased the Auburn-based structural engineering firm Steffensen Engineering Associates when president and founder Peter Steffensen retired. TFMoran took on Steffensen’s two project managers, Steve Richard and Lou Cote. “It was really a way to get new clients and to gain two very talented long-established personnel,” says Cruess.

That came on the heels of TFMoran’s 2014 acquisition of MSC Civil Engineering & Land Surveying in Portsmouth.

“That was attractive to us in terms of expanding our geographical reach because the Seacoast is a very busy market right now, but they had more of a residential high-end clientele so it allowed us to diversify,” Cruess says. TFMoran has traditionally focused on commercial private development, he notes. The firm now has 63 employees, 50 in Bedford and 13 at MSC in the Seacoast.

SFC Engineering moved in January 2016 from Auburn to a 4,000-square-foot space on Industrial Drive in Windham. Though the space is about the same size, the configuration in the new quarters is  a “more livable” environment for the firm’s 12 employees, Fredette says. The move cost some $100,000 but was “money well spent,” he says.

Similarly, Team Engineering had a ribbon-cutting ceremony this February at its new corporate office in Bedford after moving from Goffstown. “We primarily moved because of the location,” says Nichols. “We did an analysis, and we’re in the geographic center of all our projects.” The firm has seven professional staff and three support staff members.

The Team Engineering staff cuts the ribbon on its new corporate office in Bedford. Courtesy photo.

Company officials at many engineering firms say they would like to expand their staff, but first they have to find the talent. “With the economy, we continue to talk about finding good candidates, which isn’t easy to do,” says Fredette. “There are no people holding up signs saying, ‘want engineering job.’” Fredette says SFC Engineering would like to add one staff member in each of its disciplines: structural, civil and fire protection engineering.

Cruess says TFMoran is looking to grow, especially in the western part of the state or northern Masschusetts.

“I think it’s almost supply and demand,” Cruess says. “A person graduating between 2000 and 2005, it was all about going into the tech sector. There were a lot of software engineers and few people going into the less attractive engineering disciplines. We’ve definitely seen that trend has changed.”

Engineering Schools Growing
Enrollment in NH’s engineering programs are on an upswing, college and university officials confirm. And schools are responding by growing their engineering programs.

Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering is raising money for an estimated $200 million expansion project, according to Dean Joseph Helble, who adds that the final project cost has not been determined.

Key to the project is a $25 million gift from alumnus Barry MacLean, with $15 million toward design, construction and operation of a 180,000-square-foot engineering building and $10 million for a challenge grant to create endowed professorships at Thayer. Private gifts will cover the remainder of the cost. Helble declines to say how much has been raised so far but adds, “We’re making steady progress.” He hopes to break ground in the next 12 to 24 months.

Students test remote-controlled machines they made in a machine engineering course at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering. Photo by Douglas Fraser.

The new engineering building will roughly double the engineering footprint at Dartmouth but will also include the computer science department. “By computer science moving in with us, we’re really talking about a convergence between the digital and physical world,” says Helble. “People who write code for software need to be thinking intimately about the need for hardware. We’re envisioning a center for integrated design with faculty working side by side. This sort of thing hasn’t been done very often.” Meanwhile, the number of engineering students at Dartmouth is at an all-time high, he says. The 2016 senior class had 117 engineering majors, the largest in the school’s history.

Southern NH University in Manchester is adding seven new engineering-related programs. This fall, students may enroll in aeronautical engineering, air traffic management, aviation management, computer science, construction management, electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering.

That follows the school’s rescue of Daniel Webster College in Nashua, whose parent organization, ITT Educational Services, announced the closing of all its campuses early last year. SNHU stepped in and is now providing faculty and student services on the Nashua campus, which was renowned for its aviation program. This fall, however, some 225 students will attend classes on SNHU’s Manchester campus, according to SNHU President Paul Leblanc.

SNHU is also expanding its engineering space. Some $7 million is being spent to convert a warehouse facility near campus for engineering education purposes, says Leblanc, adding a new $40 million engineering facility is also in the works. He says when it is finished in 2019, the warehouse facility will be used as an annex. “You need kind of cavernous spaces for engineers to try things,” he says.

Last year, SNHU teamed with Worcester Polytechnic Institute to create SNHU’s first engineering degree program—an MBA in engineering management. Jim Smith, the senior vice president in charge of SNHU’s new College of Engineering, Technology and Aeronautics, spent 28 years in the Air Force, served at a variety of positions with Raytheon and is a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “We’re looking at creative ideas,” he says, which include combining online and classroom instruction and an apprentice program. Smith says SNHU is focused on “building a better future, and we’re going to start right here.”

Leblanc says SNHU is also working to involve more women and people of color in engineering by getting them involved when they are as young as middle school age. To that end, he says, SNHU has committed to bringing the state’s first Challenge Center to campus.

“They are pretty incredible mock-ups of a space station and mission control, and they target middle school kids and they fly a mission,” he explains. “They have to form teams, work out problems. The notion, of course, is to inspire.” The center could open as soon as 2019.

The University of NH in Durham has achieved record enrollment in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, according to Chuck Zercher, interim dean of the department. This past fall, 2,200 undergrads and 500 graduate students were enrolled.

To meet demand, an expansion of 11,900 square feet is planned for the Jere E. Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory, with an additional 2,900 square feet being renovated into a modern classroom, according to Zercher. The addition will be used for instructional space, lab space and research space, at a cost of $5 million, $3 million of which was donated anonymously. Construction has started, and the facility should be ready in time for the fall semester.

Additionally, another gift of $5.3 million will help provide the state’s manufacturing industry with highly skilled workers when UNH opens the John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center a mile and a half off campus. A lease has been signed, and the hiring of staff to manage the facility will take place over the summer, according to Zercher.

“It’s intended to be a location where a combination of industrial support provided by university expertise, faculty research projects and student training in advanced manufacturing come together,” he says. “We anticipate it may also be a location where short courses provided for the support of the industrial sector could be offered and hopefully will be a center of support for the industry.”

As opportunities expand for both engineering students and engineering firms, many say they’re glad to see a reversal of the tough times that hit the profession during the recession of 2008-09.

“It’s an exciting time because there’s talk of more infrastructure bills going through, and New Hampshire is certainly starting to feel the economic benefits of the I-93 expansion, and Massachusetts is starting to get built out so it’s starting to spill into New Hampshire,” says Cruess. “But ’08 and ’09 is still very fresh in our minds. We’re proud how we weathered it and we’re strong on the other side… 2017 is going to be a busy year.”

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