Engineers at MS Consultants Find Meaningful Work in the Valley

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Much of the infrastructure here vital to daily life in the Mahoning Valley bears the mark of MS Consultants Inc.

From water treatment plants delivering potable water to our homes to the bridge that carries our vehicles safely over state Route 11, those projects began as a design by the Youngstown headquarters of the engineering firm.

As part of the Brain Gain Navigators virtual career exploration series, The Business Journal talked with engineers at MS Consultants about the engineering career path and how area students can find rewarding and fulfilling careers by working on community projects. Employees answered questions from students during a webinar Nov. 1.

From now until 2026, the United States looks to add nearly 140,000 new engineering jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Civil engineers make up the bulk at 32,200.

Whether students choose to work for private firms such as MS Consultants, a public entity such as the Ohio Department of Transportation or as a city engineer, there are plenty of job opportunities, says Joe Leson, project manager with MS Consultants.

“There is a definite shortage of engineers in the market right now across the board,” Leson says. “Everybody’s looking for the next superstar engineers to bring in and help out on projects – everything ranging from [computer aided drafting] technicians to project engineers, project managers, operations leaders. You name it.”

Joe Leson, project manager with MS Consultants.

And the field allows for plenty of professional growth. Leson started with MS doing construction field inspections. When he expressed interest in design, the firm moved him over to the water treatment group. Eventually, he furthered his career and assumed a position of leadership, he says.

“So I got a number of projects under my belt and then started managing my own projects,” he says.

Project managers oversee a varying number of projects at any given time. Much of their time is spent meeting with clients, getting community input and seeking funding, says project manager Steve Preston. Communication skills are a must, he says.

“I have to present to city councils often,” Preston says. “You could spend half your day talking to construction workers. And then you could spend the other half of the day talking to politicians. I would say at least 30% of my job, maybe 40%, is out meeting with people.”

Since 1963, MS Consultants has provided civil engineering services in the Mahoning Valley, statewide and nationally. Local projects include countless roads and bridges, as well as water and wastewater systems, municipal construction, urban planning, energy, building systems and architecture.

One of Bill Ruggles’ favorite projects is the Canfield bridge that passes over Route 11. The structural engineer and project manager worked on the bridge, which bears the name of Canfield in bold letters on its side, easily visible by drivers.

“That’s the most gratifying part of being a structural engineer is getting to see our design and our work come to fruition,” he says.

At MS Consultants, the firm’s employees – 80-plus in Youngstown and some 300 companywide – all do a little bit of everything, from design to bidding to project and staff management, says Craig Mulichak, regional operations leader. Every day is different, which isn’t always the case at larger firms where people are specialized.

Mulichak says he’s proud of the projects he’s been involved with since joining the firm in 2010. He was heavily involved in the planning for the Phelps Street pedestrian walkway project in downtown Youngstown. Seeing residents enjoying the space now “makes you feel good,” he says.

William Ruggles, Steve Preston, Phyllis Schaab, Craig Mulichak, Brian Hughes and Jillian Penman.

Engineers are important to a community, he says, because the residents – whether they know it or not – entrust their lives and the safety of their families to engineers.

“If you think about how many bridges you drove over today … an engineer designed every part and piece of that bridge to make sure that it’s going to last and it’s going to hold,” Mulichak says. “There’s a lot of things we’re entrusting engineers to in day-to-day life that you take for granted.”

The firm is finishing design on a pedestrian tunnel that will allow students at Jackson High School in Stark County to safely cross beneath a busy roadway to a park and amphitheater, says Brian Hughes, transportation project manager.

Hughes was also project manager for the ongoing Fifth Avenue project in Youngstown that’s part of the Smart2 – Strategic & Sustainable, Medical & Manufacturing, Academic & Arts, Residential & Recreational, Technology & Training – Network.

“You take quite a bit of satisfaction when they’re done. You can look back and say, ‘Hey, I was involved with that project from its inception and helped carry it through to its full development,’ ” Hughes says. “We’re out there at the beginning and just turning ideas into realities.”

In the 35 years Hughes has been with MS Consultants, the firm has provided him opportunities to expand his career. “MS Consultants has been good to me in that way,” he says. “They encourage you to stretch your wings and explore different avenues of work.”

Phyllis Schaab recently switched to director of quality management from her previous role as project engineer.

“I get to develop and maintain company standards to ensure that we’re putting out a quality product on every project,” she says. “I also get to develop and implement standard procedures to make sure that we’re doing our job better and faster.”

In addition to her work with the firm, Schaab volunteers with the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley Young Women’s Mentorship program.

That’s important to Schaab, she says, because engineering remains a male-dominated field. When taking classes on drafting and design or civil engineering at Youngstown State University, she says there would be just one or two females in her classes.

“It’s important for me to talk with the girls and tell them where I came from,” Schaab says. “In the workplace, it’s not as noticeable. At MS, I’ve never been treated as a female engineer. I’ve always been treated as an engineer.”

Jillian Penman finds time to volunteer in the community as well. The graduate engineer has helped at the YSU Physics Olympics and the annual Math Counts event, she says.

Penman earned her baccalaureate in engineering at YSU this year after working two internships with MS Consultants. She joined the company full-time in May.

Like many of her colleagues, Penman had an interest in engineering early in life. An affinity for math and science led her to follow the engineering career path at the encouragement of her high school teachers.

“When I was little, I liked thinking of things in my head and bringing them to life using Legos and stuff,” Penman says. “So with that kind of mindset, I thought, ‘How can I do this in real life?’ And the best field I thought of was civil engineering. Because basically you design something on paper and then it comes to life.”

For students interested in pursuing an engineering career, Leson says MS Consultants provides job-shadow opportunities for high school students in their junior and senior years, as well as some internships. He also recommends students get involved in any STEM clubs their schools or communities might offer.

After earning a baccalaureate, college graduates then must pass a Fundamentals of Engineering exam, which puts them on their professional paths, Preston says.

“Once you pass that, you have to wait four years and then you can take your professional engineering exam,” he says.

“You need four years of experience for that. And that gets you your state license to practice as a professional engineer, to stamp plans. It basically puts all the responsibility on you to make sure that the projects that are going out are done right.”

For engineering graduates, a starting salary of $45,000 to $50,000 “is pretty reasonable for the Youngstown area,” he says.

And there are plenty of opportunities for engineers to work locally with MS Consultants, Mulichak says. Most of its departments – from transportation structures to surveyors to construction – are short of employees. The wastewater group alone is short eight to 10 people, he says.

When he was in engineering school, Mulichak recalls a professor telling him engineers would be in high demand in 10 to 15 years. Now, 15 years since he graduated college, he’s seen the demand rise over the last few years.

“There are a lot of different avenues you could take with engineering,” Mulichak says. “So you’re not pigeon-holed into one thing and your day-to-day life is never going to be the same. It’s not going to be monotonous for sure.”

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.