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Posted 3/21/2016

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By Randy J. Gon
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sacramento District

There is a tremor in the workforce.

With a swell of retirement-eligible baby boomers leading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a new band of heroes face a stiff challenge to quickly transform into future leaders of our nation’s premier public engineering agency. A collection of young professionals born from 1981-1996, millennials hold a cosmic cloud of information at their fingertips and are finding a new “Pathway” to success, designed to make them the most well-trained decision makers the Corps has ever seen.

Words scroll up. They fade to stars. You know the story.

This isn’t happening in a galaxy far, far away. It’s occurring throughout the Corps, and in the Sacramento District, where 18 percent of the workforce is eligible for retirement.

Established in 2010, the Pathways Program—and more specifically, its Recent Graduates Program— may be the key to maintaining the knowledge and experience walking out the door and into retirement. 

While participants are referred to as Department of the Army (DA) Interns, they aren’t the college interns you might be imagining.

The program allows recent college graduates to be hired into full-time positions while providing time to develop, learn and connect with more experienced peers.

“Each intern is moved around according to their individual goals,” says Monica Ard, human resources specialist for the Corps. “Once they meet the objectives and training requirements, participants can convert into a permanent appointment.”

The program benefits both the individual and the agency by rotating employees through a variety of specialized career fields during a two-year developmental period.

“The intent isn’t to give participants expert-level technical competencies, but to show them how our district operates and functions,” explains William Hall, rotational training program administrator. “Once they’ve completed the program and have some understanding in several disciplines, that’s really when they’ll begin gaining meaningful knowledge and expertise.”

While DA interns aren’t initially prepared to work without a safety net, they have the motivation and soft skills necessary to grow into leadership roles with some mentorship.

“If you’re chosen for this program, you’ve had a panel of people saying they believe this person has the potential to be a leader, as well as the competency and skillset to succeed in this profession,” says Vanessa Niño-Tapia, civil engineer for the Sacramento District.

Niño-Tapia earned her master’s degree from University of California, Davis before becoming a DA Intern in September 2013. Today, she works alongside fellow engineers helping to design civil works projects.

The program’s environment encourages learning, asking questions and obtaining skills and tools from as many people as possible to be able to step in and immediately do your job well, Nino-Tapia concludes.

Mikko Kuch rotated through sections specializing in hydraulic design, soil design, environmental engineering, and flood protection and navigation. Kuch, a civil engineer about halfway through the program, will now transition to a new role at Beale Air Force Base.

His assignment? To assist quality assurance specialists working on the Common Mission Control Center project, a first-of-its-kind weapons system enabling communication between different unmanned aerial systems and manned platforms to operate together as a family of systems.

“If such things are possible so early in my career, it challenges my imagination to think what even greater possibilities are in store for me,” Kuch says.

If you’re curious, the program isn’t just for engineers. Recent graduates from a range of career fields can step in and make an immediate impact for projects. 

“We have every kind of job a global engineering firm offers such as careers for human resources specialists, economists, lawyers, geologists, environmentalists, hydrologists and, of course, engineers,” says Ard.

Anyone can apply for the developmental program within two years of obtaining a degree. Veterans can apply within six years due to their military service obligations.

After serving five years in the U.S. Navy, Jonathan Whipple was drawn to working for the military again to grow into a career. He joined the Corps in 2014 after graduating from University of Nevada, Reno as the only Environmental Chemistry graduate that semester.

Whipple’s rotation even took him beyond the Sacramento District boundary, providing a unique experience when he was selected for a four-week training opportunity at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

At each stop, DA Interns are provided with a mentor. This master-apprentice approach not only maintains continuity on extensive Corps projects, providing a history of work, but also exposes veteran employees to new ways of thinking from a fresh, unassuming perspective.

“A new employee may interact differently with multiple supervisors, but it’s good for both to get that unique exposure,” says J.J. Baum, a former DA Intern who is now a mentor and environmental engineering section chief. “Where in your life can you work with so many technical leaders and supervisors in such a short period of time?”

And where else can you get experience on $1 billion projects?

Spenser Ruvalcaba completed the program in 2013. Just as her rotation helped her understanding, knowledge and contribution bloom, she’s now a civil engineer helping one of the Corps’ megaprojects flourish.

The Folsom Dam auxiliary spillway, where Ruvalcaba works today, requires constant oversight to manage around-the-clock construction activities.

“We have to be ready to solve difficult problems as they arise,” Ruvalcaba explains. “Ultimately, what’s built often differs from the original design because of constructability issues or site conditions. That’s what makes construction so dynamic and exciting.”

She adds, “It is extremely satisfying to see a project go from virtually nothing to completion and know you were a part of that success.”

That success is two-fold.

The Corps continues to adapt to the challenges it will face in coming decades by increasing efficiency and creating a culture of innovation and flexibility.

And the Pathways Program is successfully preparing the next generation to take the baton as leaders shaping the future.

Camera pans to stars. Cue triumphant music.

Learn more about entry level civilian careers with the U.S. Army by visiting the Army Civilian Training, Education, and Development System (ACTEDS) http://ncweb.ria.army.mil/dainterns/occupations.aspx and the Recent Graduates Program http://www.usace.army.mil/Careers/Internships.aspx

American Society of Civil Engineers Beale Air Force Base careers civil works Common Mission Control Center Corps of Engineers DA Intern Davis Department of the Army Intern Environmental Research and Development Center ERDC Folsom Dam auxiliary spillway internships military construction Pathways Program Recent Graduates Program Reno sacramento district STEM U.S. Army University of California University of Nevada USACE Water Management Section