Greg Alexander

National defense fuels high-tech job growth

Baltimore Sun, September 17, 2006

The high-tech sector has been a leading outlet nationally for those seeking new employment or a career shift for many years, and job opportunities abound for those in the high-tech field here in the mid-Atlantic, too, especially with companies with government defense contracts.

According to a November 2005 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the professional-level information technology workforce will grow at more than twice the rate of the overall workforce from 2004-2014, creating 1 in 19 new jobs. Furthermore, six of the 30 occupations that are projected to grow the fastest are in the IT profession.

While many IT occupations are enjoying job growth, there are some that especially stand out. According to the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Quarterly Report, Winter 2005-06, jobs for computer applications software engineers are expected to grow 48 percent from 2004-2014; computer systems software engineers 43 percent; and network and computer systems administrators 38 percent.

One reason why computer software engineers are in such high demand is their versatility, says Charles Nicholas, professor and chair of the department of computer science and electrical engineering at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Nicholas says that of the most highly paid and fastest growing IT occupations noted by the BLS report, “computer science graduates can do all those jobs, and computer engineers can do most of them and others. People may have the impression that computer engineers just go to work for computer companies, like Intel or IBM. Sure, many students do just that, but computer engineers are versatile because they know about software as well as hardware. The biggest growth sector in the economy in our area in recent years has been national defense, and computer engineers find themselves taking part in all kinds of projects, ranging from small to very large, in that field since many such projects involve programming as well as hardware design.”

One such company in high demand of software, systems and electrical engineers is General Dynamics Robotics Systems (GDRS), says Sue Killian, senior human resources representative for recruitment and employment for Westminster-based General Dynamics Robotics Systems (, the world leader in tactical autonomous robotics and the command and control technology for battle management of unmanned systems. The company also designs and manufactures complex electro-mechanical and advanced automated systems for military, government and commercial clients. “We’ve grown tremendously and are in need of a great deal of engineers,” she says. Killian adds that the company is looking to fill everything from entry-level positions to those for individuals with 10- to 20-plus years engineering experience. Killian points to a recruitment video the company uses that likens working at GDRS to “college graduates being able to play in the sandbox. They get to tinker with things until they get them to work,” she says.

This desire to figure out how things work is one of the reasons why Josh Summer, an engineer at GDRS, became interested in engineering at an early age. “As a kid, I always loved learning about how things worked and spent a lot of time building go-karts, potato guns and other projects in the shop with my dad. As a teenager, the idea of being able to design and learn about the latest technology made engineering seem like the perfect career choice,” says Summer, who has worked at the company for four years. Summer received a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and earned a master’s in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“I was drawn to GDRS with their combination of challenging projects, an exciting work atmosphere and great benefits. It really seemed to be a place where people were passionate about their jobs and the projects they worked on. After graduate school, I started at GDRS where I’ve helped develop remote landmine clearing vehicles, robotic surgery systems and unmanned boats for the Navy. [At GDRS] we focus on developing unmanned land, air and sea vehicles for the military and other customers, as well as manufacturing complex automated systems for customers such as the U.S. Postal Service,” he says.

GDRS started as a small robotics company in 1991 and was purchased by General Dynamics in 1999; however, Summer says that the company has stuck to its entrepreneurial roots. “Although the company has experienced tremendous growth in the four years I’ve been here, it still maintains an exciting, entrepreneurial atmosphere. The company has kept the friendly, casual feel of a small company while embracing many of the advantages that come with being part of a large organization like General Dynamics.” He adds that he also likes GDRS’ “9/80 work schedule,” which allows employees to have every other Friday off.

Maintaining a relaxed atmosphere has also translated into success for another local company, Essex Corp., which provides advanced optical and optoelectronic signal processing services and products for the federal government’s intelligence and defense communities. The Columbia-based company employs over 780 people nationwide with additional offices in Florida, Virginia and Phoenix, while the majority of their employees work in Howard County and Annapolis. “We work with all of the organizations and agencies of the U.S. Government’s intelligence community,” says Ed Jaehne, vice president, chief strategy officer of Essex Corp. “We have a very low turnover rate in the low to mid-teens range. Our employees are highly sought after, so we aim to keep them happy.”

Jaehne says that the company encourages a casual – while still highly productive – environment. “People still have to have fun. When employees aren’t having fun at work, they typically look to make a change or are less productive.” Jaehne says that the goal to keep employees happy starts at the top.

“Leonard Moodispaw, the CEO of the company, meets on a regular basis with the employees through ‘bagel breakfasts.’ He also created three unique positions to stay in communication with employees, even those who work remotely: a director of reality, who makes sure that the CEO hears what employees are interested in; a director of communication who helps ensure that two-way communication between staff and the management and executive teams occurs; and a director of fun, who plans events and activities to make sure that we have fun.” For example, Jaehne says that the director of fun organized barbecue lunches on Fridays during the summer. “You have to be creative in finding ways to have fun at work.”

Jaehne adds that Moodispaw also has a strong sense of corporate responsibility. “He helped set up a nonprofit organization for Essex where we can help a school in Baltimore City with technology education, and employees can approach management about organizations that they are passionate about,” he says.

Opportunities at Essex include hardware, software and systems engineers – as well as technicians to help maintain systems – for signal intelligence work. “We are an innovation engine, so innovation is a big part of the work culture at Essex,” Jaehne says.

GDRS’ Summer says that the “variety of work and projects continually keeps my job fresh and the opportunity to work outside during testing is a nice break from the office environment. I love the creative aspect of my job, and it’s very rewarding to develop technologies and systems that will protect our soldiers and help keep them out of harm’s way.”

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