Logo: University of Southern California

Recruiting Engineers From 500 Feet Down Under

The Navy hosts Viterbi faculty on the USS San Francisco with the message: Tell your students — we're hiring!

April 02, 2010 —

The difference between submerging at a 20-degree versus a 25-degree angle? Keeping your shoes on deck and falling flat on your face.

Ron Blackwelder learned this plus a few other tricks of the trade during a recent embark on the USS San Francisco, a football-field-long Navy nuclear submarine. Another interesting tidbit?

The USS San Francisco at port in San Diego.
“Some of the crew sleep right underneath the torpedos onboard,” says Blackwelder, a professor of USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

“It’s crowded.”

Blackwelder and six other Viterbi faculty and staff traveled to Naval Base Point Loma, near San Diego, for the daylong embark as part of Navy’s new recruiting tactic: Spread the word about naval careers by getting to the folks who talk to students every day.

This approach has paid dividends for the Navy, says Lt. Damian Smith, a submarine officer and the Los Angeles-based recruiting manager for the Navy’s nuclear programs.

“I could give a presentation to 20 mechanical engineering students,” says Smith. “But it’s better to talk to a handful of professors — who each teach classes of 40 and 50 people.”

Angus McColl, the Viterbi School’s executive director of corporate and foundation relations and a former submarine officer, says the Navy’s recruiting efforts shine the light on outstanding career possibilities for young graduates.

“The Navy’s telling professors, ‘Here’s an opportunity your students might not have thought about,’” McColl says. “Keep an eye out.”

The simple fact that the Navy is hiring in a lackluster economy has proven a boon to its recruiting programs, and interest in naval careers is growing at an exponential rate, says Smith. Navy Officer recruiting is at an all time high and applications for the four-year scholarship ROTC program have also exceeded expectations.

“Nationwide, we’re missioned to put in 43,000 enlisted and 4,000 officers just this year alone,” says Rear Admiral Craig S. Faller of Navy Recruiting Command.

Perhaps the top prize for an engineering graduate interested in a naval career is the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NUPOC) Program. This highly selective program fulfills a critical need: Training nuclear engineers when few other institutions are.

Viterbi School executive director of marketing and communications Leslie DaCruz (right) with a faculty member from another university.

“Only three American universities offer nuclear engineering bachelor’s degrees,” says Blackwelder. “UCLA and UC Berkeley did away with their programs, and USC doesn’t have one either.”

A shortage of engineers in this area could prove a problem with a global energy crisis looming, says Blackwelder, and with the prospect of nuclear power gaining traction again as a viable source of energy.

“The president of Greenpeace has approved nuclear power as a green resource,” adds Smith, the recruiter.

A university graduate accepted to the NUPOC program would commit to a five-year intensive training and education regimen. The program includes 18 months of nuclear power school, nuclear prototype training and submarine school, this training includes hands-on opportunities at land-based operational reactors in South Carolina or New York.

Following that, officer candidates would embark for three years at sea on a navy nuclear submarine, and finish up with a year of shore duty.

Upon completion of the initial commitment, candidates will either be invited to serve another tour as a Nuclear Engineering officer in the Navy, or depart well-equipped to pursue jobs in industry in nuclear power plant operations or other functions.

Recent university graduates or current university students may apply to the NUPOC program, with students of engineering and other technical degrees getting preference. Those successfully selected as Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidates will earn a $15,000 signing bonus and receive a salary of $4,800 every month starting up to 30 months prior to graduation.

The hull of the USS San Francisco, as seen from the conning tower.
“That’s a total of up to $159,000 before you even get your diploma,” says Faller, who added that the “pay gap” between industry and government jobs is a myth.

“We pay our young officers well, and we offer them a chance to lead projects well before their peers in industry.”

Indeed, Smith says, a young engineering graduate accepted into the Navy in the Los Angeles area earns a minimum of $60,000 with automatic promotions and step-ups to $100,000 within four years. Nuclear engineers can earn even more with Submarine pay and Sea pay.

Leslie DaCruz, the Viterbi School's executive director of marketing and communucations, observed that naval training programs amount to a crash course in discipline and leadership skill. That's an opportunity that might not be afforded engineers in industry until years down the road, he says.

"Everyone from commander down to midshipman just exuded confidence," says DaCruz, of the officers he met aboard the submarine. "From the way they stand to the way they communicate — there's such a level of ingrained leadership. And yet there was a lot of genuine laughter, too."

Blackwelder says he enjoyed learning about naval careers during the submarine embark, which included a question-and-answer session with the captain of the submarine, Commander Nathan H. Martin.

“Lunch was good,” Blackwelder says of the chicken they dined on in the crew’s mess. ‘I wouldn’t say ‘elegant’, but better than you’d think it would be.”

Flanked by crew members in the torpedo room of the USS San Francisco, USC faculty and researchers (L-R) David Barnhardt, Marc Schiler, Dan Erwin and Paul Ronney watch a fire-fighting clothing demonstration.

As an engineer, Blackwelder also enjoyed a demonstration of the pressure differential at 500 feet under the sea. A Styrofoam cup hung outside the hull, after submersion, came back at half the size.

The Navy is also reaching out to students directly; in January, three Viterbi students toured a nuclear attack submarine visiting in the port of Los Angeles.

Smith has an encouraging word for USC students; the last four Viterbi engineering students and graduates that applied — were all accepted to NUPOC program.

To contact Lt. Damian Smith about Naval Officer careers, please email damian.j.smith@navy.mil or call 323-230-0141.