By Bob Drake
For almost 50 years, Aurora, Colo.-based Merrick & Company has undertaken a growing array of technical challenges. It’s part of our value system and vision,” said Merrick CEO Ralph Christie, Jr., P.E. We like to tackle complex engineering problems and provide solutions.”
Merrick was founded in 1955 by Sears W. Merrick, P.E., and Ed Lecuyer, P.E., who offered surveying and design services for electrical transmission and distribution projects in the Rocky Mountain region. Today, with a greatly expanded geographic base and increased capabilities, the employee-owned company serves the following five business areas:
- buildings and infrastructure – architectural and engineering services for Department of Defense projects, laboratories, and secure facilities (about 30 percent of annual revenue);
- advanced technology – design and fabrication of process equipment, enclosures, instrumentation, and control systems to support nuclear, power, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing projects (about 25 percent of revenue);
- civil infrastructure – design, planning, construction inspection, surveying, and mapping services for state, municipal, and commercial clients (about 20 percent of revenue);
- GIS/survey/satellite imagery – geospatial information services for commercial and government clients (about 15 percent of revenue); and
- energy process systems – project development, engineering, and construction management services for renewable fuels projects, such as biomass to ethanol (about 10 percent of revenue).
Christie said that exciting projects and engineering challenges – in addition to competitive benefits – help the firm attract and retain employees. But, recognizing that its continual success and growth rely on the availability of qualified candidates, Merrick also has tackled the less technical, but equally complex, challenge of filling the human resource pipeline into which the firm can tap.
To accomplish this, Christie drew upon his own experience as an undergraduate in a co-op program at the University of Cincinnati. My co-op experience was extremely valuable,” he said. It helped gear me toward the general direction I wanted to take in my profession.” The University of Cincinnati, which in 1906 established the first cooperative education program in the United States through its College of Engineering, continually has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as having among the top 10 co-op programs in the country.
Today, as in the 1970s when Christie was an undergraduate, students must complete a fiveyear program to earn a bachelor’s degree in civil or environmental engineering, alternating quarters of practical work experience with quarters of on-campus study during their second, third, and fourth years.
Attesting to the value of practical work experience during college, Christie said that he received about six job offers upon graduation and that several of his former college roommates also manage engineering firms today.
There has to be something to the co-op program,” he said, getting you off on the right foot and, in the long run, helping you be successful.”
A meaningful experience
To enhance opportunities for engineering students to succeed and to facilitate the company’s efforts to tap into a qualified employee pipeline, Merrick launched an aggressive internship program in 2000. All of the firm’s business areas and all of its offices participate in the program, hiring as many as 20 interns (company-wide) each summer.
Support from senior managers and from others who work with and mentor the interns is critical to the success of the program, according to Debbie R. Norris, SPHR, director of human resources for Merrick. We worked a lot with our project managers and team leaders to get their buy-in and help us develop what would work for them,” Norris said. A concern throughout was ensuring that interns are involved in engineering work, not just making copies and filing. They are not always going to get to do the most exciting part of the project,” Norris said, but they always are included in the execution of that project.” Planning for the internship program begins each August by first determining how many interns will be needed and where. If we accurately predict and identify the needs, then we don’t over-hire interns,” Norris said. If we don’t have enough work, then our interns aren’t getting a very meaningful internship. Our preference is to go a little bit under the number [of interns] that we originally planned, leaving room for a couple of unexpected internships.
There’s always somebody who pops in who looks so brilliant [that] we don’t want to pass them up.” Next, Merrick visits campuses and participates in career fairs at area schools, including the Colorado School of Mines (Golden); Colorado State University (Fort Collins); and the Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs campuses of the University of Colorado. The Human Resources department assists with screening intern candidates and helps project managers with recruiting.
An intern’s life
Once hired, interns receive an orientation to the company and also are assigned a mentor – someone other than their immediate supervisor.
In addition to assigned project work, interns participate in a series of workshops focused on practical topics, such as communication and presentation skills, resume writing, dress code, and proper office etiquette. Secondyear interns are asked to help lead some of the workshops.
Mark Raleigh, a senior civil engineering student at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has completed three internships with Merrick. I expected [to receive] just a broad knowledge of the various aspects of civil engineering,” Raleigh said. I was shocked by the reality.” The first year, Raleigh focused on water and sewer pipe projects; the second year, he played a significant role in designing a waterline project and also spent time in the field; the third year he worked on a drainage and site plan for a fastfood restaurant.
An internship is a great way to test your knowledge,” Raleigh said. It gives you an idea of the real world, putting theory into practice, something you can’t get from a classroom. They have shown me what life would be like working there.” An introduction to the working world benefits not only the students, but also the company for which they eventually work. My team leaders look at real-world experience when we hire young people,” Christie said. In addition to their education, who can bring something to the table relatively quickly?” According to Christie, former interns hired by Merrick after graduation hit the ground running. The learning curve is pretty minimal,” he said. They’re extremely productive.”