KALAMAZOO, Mich.—As the Engineering Expo at Western Michigan University and other fall career events approach, hear from three alumni, Nathan Brandner, M.S.’06, William Mullinix, B.S.’98, and Neal Sheldon, B.S.’09, about their time at Barr Engineering Co. and how their experiences at Western helped advance their careers.
About Barr Engineering Co.
Barr is an industry-leading provider of engineering and environmental consulting services. Through their work, Brandner, Mullinix and Sheldon help clients across the country and around the world support their communities through responsibly developing, managing, processing and restoring natural resources.
Tell us about how you got started at Barr, how your role has evolved over the years and about what you do now.
Mullinix: A friend turned me onto Barr based on their experience working here. I started at Barr as a senior mechanical engineer performing technical design on energy-generation projects. In the more than 15 years I have been here, I have been an engineer-of-record, project manager and am now a vice president. I focus on energy-related projects, including power generation and natural gas midstream.
Sheldon: When I started at Barr, I was one of the younger team members and really tried to learn as much as I could on the job from those around me. Over the last 10 years, I have transitioned into managing multiple projects while providing senior technical support to younger project team members and also have a larger role interviewing and onboarding new staff. My projects are related to upgrading and modernizing natural gas pipeline facilities, as well as completing piping system designs in CAD, reports and calculations.
Brandner: I began my career with Barr in Ann Arbor in 2006 near the end of completing my master’s degree at WMU. After Barr acquired a small environmental consulting practice, I transferred to Grand Rapids and now manage several local client teams, including those in the power and public sectors. Since 2017, I have been building and leading several of our groundwater investigations and hydrogeological studies in support of one of Barr’s underground mining clients.
What excites you the most about working at Barr?
Brandner: What initially attracted me, and what still excites me, about Barr is the autonomy that is given to myself and the rest of our staff to follow one’s technical interests/passions and build professional practices that contribute to the collective success of the company. It is this type of culture that breeds top-notch expertise and long-term productive and fulfilling careers.
Sheldon: At Barr, we have a lot of professional freedom to work with clients, engage coworkers to help with projects, and serve on industry technical committees sharing our knowledge and experiences as well as learning from others around the country.
Tell us a bit about the culture at Barr and the types of roles new engineers might fill. What can they expect during their first years at Barr?
Brandner: Many new employees spend their first few years in the field learning the necessary skills and carving out a personal niche or “brand” within Barr. This initial phase of one’s career provides the experience and tools needed to move into the next stages such as task management, project management, and business development.
Mullinix: Barr’s culture is about supporting our staff and our clients. Barr invests in the growth of our staff, which allows them to better serve clients on complex engineering projects. New engineers can expect to collaborate and work alongside our Professional Engineers on complex projects, developing calculations, working on drawings, and collaborating with engineers in other disciplines.
Sheldon: During your first year, we really try to challenge your skills to grow your knowledge. We start small and build on each day, each task, and each project to quickly develop our staff into confident and supported engineers as they work with our project teams and with our clients. This roots our culture as one of continual improvement.
What are some of the goals you have for your team or the projects you work on, in terms of operations, culture and strategy?
Mullinix: The goal is for our team to work on the projects they are passionate about and to continue to develop their professional skill sets. Since we are employee owned, the strategy includes broad input from all staff at Barr, as we want our staff members engaged in the development of the company. If people are passionate about the projects they work on, they will perform well and deliver exceptional service to our clients.
What inspires you in your industry? What challenges you?
Brandner: What inspires me in my industry is contributing to the responsible and ethical management of our planet’s finite natural resources. My biggest challenges arise around navigating the complexity of how to accomplish this, which includes finite client resources, regulatory expectations, and managing different types of personalities and perspectives of the project stakeholders. I also find these types of challenges tend to be the most rewarding experiences because they provide opportunities to shine professionally and they tend to lead to repeat work with Barr’s clients, which accounts for approximately 80% of our annual revenue.
Mullinix: The energy market is always in a state of change as new regulations and technologies are developed and implemented. While this is inspiring, it is also challenging as I need to continuously learn new technologies to be able to support clients with future energy developments.
What is the most interesting project or person you have encountered in your career?
Sheldon: By far it would be my time working at WMU for the maintenance department as a co-op. I worked for a Master Plumber named Greg “Boomer” Roseboom. He was a very opinionated individual who made sure he taught an engineering student how piping was made to go together. I still have lasting memories of his many phrases and rules for pipe fitting that I carry with me today.
Mullinix: Early in my career I was able to design systems for a 2100MW natural-gas-fired combined-cycle power plant and then followed my design into the field working as a construction engineer for two years during construction of the plant. More recently, I was able to perform system design on a lignite coal drying system that uses plant waste heat to dry coal while increasing efficiency at the power plant.
What advice do you have for students ready to launch their careers?
Mullinix: Make sure you are having fun with whatever you are doing. College and work are serious, and you should take each seriously, but make sure to mix in some fun.
Sheldon: Try different methods to managing your time to figure out what works and what does not. College is a great time to learn how to study, work in shifts and limit distractions to help you accomplish your goals.
What skills and qualities do you most look for when interviewing students for internships or full-time employment?
Brandner: We look for staff that are self-starters, natural problem solvers and can work well with others. Graduating with a degree is just the cost of getting the interview; it is really the rest of the story that will make or break the decision to hire new staff.
Mullinix: I look for someone who is a self-starter and is able to communicate. The technical skills are great but if you can communicate and work well on a team, this sets you apart.
How did your education at WMU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences help prepare you to enter the workforce and add value in your career?
Sheldon: I have such good memories of my time at WMU and the Parkview campus whether it was leading the American Society of Mechanical Engineers or study groups. I recall one of my professors, who I thought was incredibly harsh at the time, stating there is no such thing as partial credit since if we as engineers are wrong, people could get hurt. That has made a lasting impact now that I am a senior engineer leading and reviewing designs.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.