Engineering Nebraska, Summer07
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The People Make the Place
Story by Stephanie Geery-Zink • Photographs by Amy Hensley

UNL graduates and interns working at Square D

Employees are what make a company’s reputation—either good or bad.

Square D has had its share of employees who have made significant contributions to the quality of its products and success through the years, culminating in being named one of the top three plants in 2006 by Plant Manufacturing magazine along with plants making products for the high-profile vehicle manufacturers Toyota and BMW.

Square D, a division of Schneider Electric and located at 1717 Center Park Road in Lincoln, designs and manufactures electrical breakers for residential, commercial and light industrial use. Square D employs 376 in its Lincoln facility, 85 of which are salaried, according to Plant Manager Jamie McDonald.

Susan Howell works in packaging area

The award is due in part to several University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Engineering graduates, who in their different jobs at Square D have made their mark on the products, automation of the plant and in making the electrical breaker manufacturer one the industry’s leaders.

McDonald looks favorably on UNL engineering students and graduates when choosing interns and hiring employees.

“We do recruit on campus at UNL,” he said. Square D usually takes about four interns a year. The number of engineers hired each year depends on needs but includes graduates who majored in electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering.

Not only does UNL engineering have an excellent reputation, McDonald looks on people hired from UNL as potential long-term employees because of their ties to the community.

“We know it’s an excellent school that produces quality candidates,” he said. “They are also most likely from or have ties to Lincoln,” he added, which helps with employee retention.

“The great work environment and excellent facility helps with retention,” McDonald said. “Typically that’s what we find.”

It helps that the College of Engineering has such a great working relationship with Square D, both in a
hands-on approach with interns and in ongoing employee training.

Harolynne Troeger works the automated assembly machine

Terry Stentz, associate professor of construction management, recently trained Square D employees in ergonomics and has worked with the company on a regular basis for training and other projects for several years, but more steadily in the past four years. He also closely supervises students who take internships at Square D.

“My impression is we produce good, strong industrial engineers,” Stentz said. The reputation of an excellent engineering college started in the 1930s and 1940s and has continued to the present, with employers seeking out engineers with a UNL degree.

Even students who have a minor in engineering have been sought after and successful in engineering jobs, he said.

Stentz said one of the strong draws for employers choosing UNL engineering graduates is the reputation of Nebraskans.

“So many Nebraska students are still from an agricultural background, so there’s the character quotient and strong work ethic,” he said, citing rural values and especially that strong work ethic as an incentive for employers to hire UNL engineering graduates.

Stentz said some graduates who took jobs in California, Texas and Florida, among other places, decide to come back several years later because they miss Nebraska, and the engineering college provides alumni with career assistance.

Susan Howell

Those fortunate enough to start working at Square D early in their careers may not have to go anywhere else. The turnover rate is low, Stentz said, probably due to the great work environment.

“I think Jamie is one of the best plant managers Square D has ever had,” Stentz said, adding that the Lincoln plant produces world-class products. Receptive management helps keep people in their careers for years.

“(Square D) has a stable, aging workforce,” Stentz said.
Jim Fixemer is one of those who have found a career at Square D. Now a senior staff engineer, he has worked at Square D for 30 years. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1971 and a master’s in mechanical engineering in 1974.

“UNL did a very good job,” he said.

A team led by Fixemer redesigned the QO breaker—Square D’s premier product—for automated assembly and in the process, made it better.

Although he and his team contributed significantly to the top plant award, he said it was a team effort by everyone in the plant.

“It took a lot of effort by a lot of people,” he said.

Harolynne Troeger

While Fixemer decided to take a technical path with his career, Luis Vasquez decided to take his technical knowledge and couple it with his people skills, leading him to his current position as manufacturing manager in the molding department and sending him all over the world.

A 1997 graduate in industrial engineering, Vasquez started in a two-year professional development program with one year in Lincoln and the second year in Tijuana, where Square D has a plant. A native of Chile, Vasquez has used his language and interpersonal skills to travel for Schneider Electric to Dubai and Zurich, and he still plans to go to Paris and Milan. He will graduate with a master’s degree in industrial and management systems engineering this year.

“Even though I came from engineering, there’s a human element in everything we do,” Vasquez said. “I’m comfortable with numbers and engineering and at the same time enjoy working with people.”

He was also willing to change jobs and do something unfamiliar to him when the opportunity came his way at Square D, something that has helped him move up the career ladder faster than a friend who chose to change companies every few years. He said his success is partly due to finding and working for a good company where employees can have a solid career while advancing.

“Be flexible and learn to adapt to change,” Vasquez advises new engineers. Sometimes you might not use every tool you learn, but you can make a big difference.”

Randy Reiss came to UNL as a nontraditional student, starting his degree program as a 30-year-old who had been in the workforce since high school. He graduated from UNL in 1996 in mechanical engineering.

“It definitely gave me the tools to manage and figure things out, as well as problem solving.”

One of the most valuable skills he has used in his position as maintenance supervisor at Square D has been load calculations on installing overhead hoists. In fact, many of the equations he learned as an engineering student have come in handy.

“As a nontraditional student, it gave me more confidence after I got out,” Reiss said. “With a vast knowledge basis, I interviewed well.” He believes his understanding of engineering on a practical basis and being mature helped him get a job at Square D.

“Square D is an excellent place to work, both financially and emotionally,” Reiss said, noting that no one wants to work in a place they don’t enjoy. “You want to be satisfied in what you’re doing. You get out of it what you put into it.”

“Twenty years ago I don’t think a degree was as important (for engineers) as it is today,” Reiss said. “I went back (to school) because I had the questions of why or how (something works). For me personally as a nontraditional student, I knew what I wanted.”

He said it was a tough program, but he was committed to it because he realized he wanted to be an engineer. “I thought it was a great program,” Reiss said.

Growing up in nearby Dorchester, he also knew he wanted a job close to family.

For new graduates looking for their first jobs, possibly at Square D, Reiss’ advice is “don’t sell yourself short. School taught me so much; be confident and utilize everything you do learn. The information I’m using I’m applying it in my job.”