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In middle of economic chaos, engineering firms on steady track

Is the engineering profession recession proof, moving along unfettered by the woes of the economy? For the most part it is. Several of the state’s engineering firms acknowledge that work is ongoing and firms are still hiring.

Tom Elliott, president of Elliott & Britt Engineers of Oxford, says engineers having trouble are those who were wrapped up with residential and commercial development, which is drying up in the current economic climate.

“Fortunately, we’re not doing much private work, but are doing mostly public work,” he said. “We’re primarily involved now with county engineering that includes roads, bridges and water and sewer systems. A lot of it is financed through federal grants and state aid funds.”

As long as those funding sources are not cut, the firm, which started in 1973 and has 25 employees, will remain busy.

Environmental Management Services, based in Hattiesburg, is going strong and doing compliance auditing all over the country.

“We’re trying to hire two more engineers right now,” said Clyde Woodward Jr., the company president. “We span engineering and environmental work and both still seem to be pretty secure. Our base clients are hanging in there, which means our work load hasn’t dropped.”

He’s been an engineer 40 years and began Environmental Management Services 12 years ago as he observed growth in the environmental field. Although there has been no major environmental legislation since the early 1990s, he sees companies being more responsible now, and his work is steady.

“None of our compliance auditing clients has told us to cut back,” Woodward said. “All eight of our managers don’t see anything indicating any slowdown.”

The firm also does environmental investigations and remediation, land developing, surveying and basic engineering.

“I think we’ve been fed a lot of negativity; a lot of the economic problem is perception,” he added. “We do business with several banks and they’ve told me credit is not a problem with good credit.”

David Compton, president of Compton Engineering, recalls a time when engineering was not recession proof. “Engineering was definitely not recession proof in the 1980s. We had a significant recession for our industry then,” he said. “We will lead any decline in construction. As our work goes down, you can assume construction work will go down in a year or two.”

But, Compton Engineering with offices in Pascagoula, Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, has 60 employees and no shortage of work now. A big part is utility projects in the six coastal counties and riverfront development in Pascagoula.

“We’re still in recovery mode from Hurricane Katrina. There’s quite a bit of work and it’s a good backlog for us,” he says. “We’ve elected to basically stick with our key clients, helping them recover, trying to help those who helped us.”

Thompson Engineering of Ridgeland is cautiously optimistic about engineering in relation to the state of the economy, according to office manager Don Bates, because it does a lot of public work. He has also been contacted recently by headhunters looking for engineers.

“We have a range of projects that don’t stop,” he said. “Many are in the public sector, and the folks who hire us in the private sector have a long-range outlook, too. We’re dealing with financing that was put in place three years ago.”

The company’s home office in Mobile is involved with hurricane recovery work on the Coast, much of which is just now getting started and some additional staff has been hired. It is even told by engineers in other parts of the country that Mississippi is insulated due to the recovery.

“As a company, we’re paying attention to the economy and not spending as much as we used to,” Bates, a professional geologist, said. “We have a pretty full backlog of work now, but we’re aware that things may get rough, and we may have to help our clients think outside the box.”

Thompson Engineering primarily does transportation and environmental work, some commercial work on the Coast and storm water training, which is new — but growing — in Mississippi.

Hibbett Neel likens his company’s business to that of a farmer who might say the beans on one section of land are doing well but the corn on the back 40 isn’t doing quite so well. He’s president and CEO of Neel-Schaffer Engineering which is headquartered in Jackson and has 27 offices all over the Southeast with 400 employees.

“All the offices are viable and on the whole healthy,” he said. “That’s because we are able to share resources between offices and can shift work.”

The Fort Worth, Texas, office did some recovery work on the Coast. The Vero Beach, Fla., office, which did a lot of residential development, is slower but is sharing work with other locations.

Neel-Schaffer is staying busy working with infrastructure, street and traffic, and water and sewer projects. It has recently been involved with debris monitoring from the recent hurricanes in Texas and Louisiana.

“We do a lot of transportation work, including bridge and traffic design,” Neel said. “I have some long-term concern about that in Mississippi. The amount of funding from gas has remained the same but consumption is down along with inflation and rising cost of materials. That creates a real challenge all over the nation.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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