Industry Q&A with Melissa Bowers, E.I.T.
Bringing new minds and talent into the plumbing engineering profession is vital to maintaining a healthy and dynamic industry. But how can the industry recruit more young people? Plumbing Engineer had the opportunity to chat with Melissa Bowers, E.I.T., a mechanical designer and engineer-in-training in Phoenix, Ariz. She provides some important insight into what it is like to be a young plumbing engineer in today’s environment and how the industry might attract more young professionals in the future.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a 30-year-old mechanical designer, currently residing in Phoenix, Ariz. I have been in the plumbing industry since September 2004. I attended the University of Portland in Oregon, a sister school to University of Notre Dame, and graduated with a degree in engineering management in May 2004. I am an engineer-in-training, and I am studying currently for my PE exam in mechanical engineering that I will be taking in April 2013.
What led you to a career in plumbing engineering?
Like most of the people in this field, I just fell into it. In college, I studied engineering management thinking that I would go into sales within mechanical or civil engineering. However, I was very well-versed in AutoCad. I found a position as a drafter in September 2004 and it just happened to be for a HVAC/plumbing/electrical design firm. I worked my way up to doing my own projects one year later.
How do you like it so far?
I think plumbing engineering is a great field to be associated with. Every once in a while, I might have a bad day but I would say my good days far outnumber the bad ones. There seems to me to be two types of companies that do plumbing engineering and two types of plumbing designers/engineers. The first types are the companies in which the mechanical designers do both HVAC and plumbing. In those instances, HVAC seems to be their forte, while the plumbing discipline just goes by the wayside. The second type of firm is the kind in which engineers are strictly involved in one discipline or the other. From what I have seen within ASPE, and within the industry, is that there are far fewer plumbing designers than there are HVAC designers, and the majority seem to belong to the second type of firm I mentioned.
HVAC designers seem to get more respect and sometimes more compensation or improved promotion opportunities than we plumbing designers get. This is not always the case, but this is what I have seen thus far. I do not like this aspect of the community. There should be no divide and plumbing designers should not be stuck in the back cubicles, so to speak. Plumbing engineers are concerned about life safety and environmental conservation among many other topics, and that deserves as much, if not more, respect and compensation than those who only design only HVAC systems.
What are some of the challenges you face as a young plumbing engineer?
The biggest challenge I face is inexperience in how to design some of the more complicated plumbing systems. The main reason I became involved in ASPE initially was because it provided educational opportunities. The other problem I used to have before ASPE was lacking networking connections outside the office and within the industry to help me get answers to my questions. I no longer seem to have that problem, and I attribute that to ASPE and to all of our Phoenix Chapter members for continuing to vote me onto our Board of Directors in one way, shape or form.
What are some of the advantages you see as a young plumbing engineer?
The younger generation is more open to learning newer technologies and having an open mind. Some people that have been designing for a while seem to have no flexibility outside their expert field. My belief is that I have no true “expert field” yet, and am constantly in a state of learning and growing. I hope younger engineers would agree with me in that the younger people in the industry seem to have more flexibility, more stamina and have more of an ability to adapt to different challenges with fewer preconceived agendas.
Do you see other young people coming into the profession?
Slowly but surely, I am starting to see some young people come into the industry. When I became president of my ASPE chapter in May 2011 I soon noticed that the membership within my chapter was starting to include younger people. I do not know whether this is in part to me breaking the ice within my chapter. My hope is that this trend of seeing younger designers is not just within the Phoenix plumbing community but throughout the nation as well.
What are some things the industry can do to entice more young people to pursue plumbing engineering?
I agree with the Society’s belief that we need to have a Young Engineers group within ASPE that helps attract young people under the age of 35 into becoming plumbing engineers and involved within ASPE and other plumbing industry associations. ASPE also has to find a way to get ASPE and plumbing into the college scope of education. Many colleges have ASME , SWE and ASE chapters, but very few have ASPE Chapters. The other thing we need to do is arm young engineers in college with the ability to take plumbing-oriented courses. These two tasks within themselves would be full-time jobs to do within ASPE because of the amount of work involved. But, I think they are essential to having an educated professional plumbing engineering populace graduating and seeking plumbing design positions.
Are you aware of any existing programs that help young people looking to get into the industry?
There are chapters of other associations that help younger engineers get into the industry at the collegiate level. ASPE needs to join those ranks. Within ASPE, our Young Engineers Group needs to have a model similar to the Young Engineers of ASHRAE. That group seems to be able to attract younger, post-college engineers. Our group needs to be able to find a way to do the same thing within our own discipline. I also think it is essential that the president of the Young Engineers Group has an official seat on the ASPE Board of Directors. Until that happens, we are going to struggle to attract the young generation to our field.
What would you say to someone considering plumbing engineering as a profession?
They should definitely go for it, and develop a group of mentors within their future places of employment and within ASPE to help facilitate their professional needs. I find it very comforting to know I have people I can turn to that have more experience and can possibly help me become better at my career and other aspects of my life. An older designer once told me that as long as there are people in the world and a need for those people to eliminate their wastes, there will always be a need for professionals in our field to design plumbing systems within the buildings in which those people dwell. Throughout all the economic problems that our country has seen in the last five years, and all the layoffs within various industries, the people that I see finding jobs sooner than others are those people in our plumbing field.
Management and owners are seeking young professionals that are more of blank slate they can help develop into the future managers, owners and leaders of our industry. If you can be that blank slate, you can go far in this field. Start that way, and stay that way, and you will go far.