Designing and Building a Life in OmahaJun 06, 2017 03:06PM ● By Carol Crissey Nigrelli
Wanted: beautiful minds.
Omaha architectural and engineering firms continue to hang the “help wanted” sign, roll out the welcome mat, and host job fairs, looking to snag that rarest of breeds: an employee who uses both sides of the brain equally, combining the practicality of a physicist and mathematician with the soul of an artist. In other words, young architects and architectural engineers are hot commodities in a leading job market.
Low interest rates and demand for new development (which shows no signs of ebbing) keep employers busy looking for qualified applicants. Where do they find the necessary numbers? Right in their own backyard.
“Certainly the job market in Omaha within architecture and engineering is very, very, very strong,” emphasizes Christopher Johnson, a vice president and managing principal at Leo A Daly, part of the big three of Omaha architecture firms, along with DLR and HDR. “Even when you look locally at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, PKI (Peter Kiewit Institute), or Nebraska-Lincoln, the interns and the graduates are secure in their employment by the holiday season, before they go home for their holiday break. That’s a lot earlier than what we would normally see.”
Top-notch schooling—the College of Architecture and the College of Engineering on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, and the Kiewit Institute and the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction on the university’s Omaha campus— provides Omaha firms with a locally grown crop of well-grounded, technically advanced job candidates who work well with others and possess problem-solving skills.
“In Omaha, we typically hire between 10 and 12 architects and engineers every year,” says Johnson. In addition, Leo A Daly’s internship program places about four students on the architecture/interior side and the same number on the engineering side.
How do the salaries compare?
“Entry-level job salaries are competitive in the Omaha market because we have a very competitive spirit among all the private firms here,” Johnson says. “But when you look at the national picture, you might say they look a little lower.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for architects nationally is $76,100. Omaha’s lower numbers reflect a geographical lower cost of living.
While many graduates take their sheepskin and leave for larger salaries in larger cities like Chicago, Boston, or Dallas, an impressive percentage chooses to stay close to family and friends. Two young professionals who made a conscious decision a decade ago to stay rooted in Nebraska have seen their stars ascend on a local and national level.
Stephanie Guy, project and resource manager at Alvine Engineering in Omaha, and Andrew Yosten, managing engineering principal and director of mechanical engineering of HDR’s architecture practice in Omaha, both found their calling early. In many ways, they mirror each other’s lives.
“My uncle owned a construction company and I enjoyed building things, but I was always pulled toward engineering,” Yosten, 34, says of his teenage years growing up in West Point, Nebraska. “I happened to stumble across a pamphlet on architectural engineering. None of the other engineering fields really appealed to me until I read that pamphlet.”
Guy comes from a place even smaller than West Point. In fact, Mullen, Nebraska, population 492, is the only town in Hooker County, nestled in the state’s beautiful Sandhills. Like Yosten, she became more interested in how a building functions than in its design.
“When I was a junior or senior in high school, I thought about architecture, but I leaned more towards the math and science rather than the creativity,” says Guy, also 34 and president-elect of the Architectural Engineering Institute. “So I thought engineering would be a natural fit.”
Guy and Yosten earned advanced degrees, two years apart, from Durham on the UNO campus, one of the few schools in the country offering a five-year program combining a bachelor’s and master’s degree in architectural engineering. Each specialized in mechanical engineering, obtaining a breadth of knowledge of a building’s structural aspects, plus its lighting, electrical, heating, cooling, and ventilation areas.
Guy opted to work for a company that focuses strictly on engineering, although she still works closely with architects. Her portfolio with Alvine includes renewable energy projects at Creighton University, renovations at Duchesne Academy in Omaha, a new school of nursing at the University of Michigan, a 50-story residential high-rise and a 50-story Class A office building, both in Chicago.
“There’s something about this Midwestern location and Midwestern work ethic that allows us to be successful,” Guy says. “We’re just a flight away from both coasts. HDR, DLR, and Leo A Daly all started here and are still here, three of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the world, with offices around the globe.”
Yosten, who interned at HDR while in school, felt at home with the company’s global reach from the get-go, especially in the field of health care.
“My mom is a physician assistant in West Point, and my wife is a nurse, so I have a true appreciation for what they do,” Yosten says. “So when I learned how much HDR’s portfolio is geared towards health care, that was a big drive for me to stay here.”
Some of the notable health care projects Yosten’s teams have guided include the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha, set to open soon, and a $1.27 billion replacement for Parkland Hospital in Dallas, best known as the hospital where President John F. Kennedy died. They’re also designing a new tower for Omaha’s Children’s Hospital.
What keeps HDR’s 952 employees in Omaha and Lincoln, Leo A Daly’s 130 local employees, over 50 architectural firms, and more than two dozen engineering firms anchored here? The ability to balance a high-powered job and a personal life in an area that avoids getting caught up in the rat race plays a huge role.
It allows Guy and her husband to raise four daughters, who range from an infant to age 9, while pursuing a career that has garnered her numerous professional awards.
It allows Yosten time to play with his 18-month-old twin boys, who he says are “really ornery and a handful” but the light of his life, along with his wife, Jill.
Development may be booming in Omaha, but sometimes the intangibles prove a greater lure for employees.
This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.