NEW ORLEANS — As McDermott International, once one of the largest oil and gas companies in New Orleans, is shuttering its last local office and consolidating operations in Houston, many engineering firms are gearing up to add or expand in the Crescent City.
Johan Sperling, vice president of Jensen Maritime, a Seattle-based marine engineering firm, says he was a bit surprised when he read in July about McDermott’s departure, planned for October. McDermott moved its headquarters from New Orleans to Houston before Hurricane Katrina but opened a small engineering office in 2006 as the city recovered from the storm and levee failures.
Jensen opened its New Orleans office last October, relocating one of its top managers from Alaska to get it off the ground. The company recently added three experienced engineers to its New Orleans team to help support growing demand for services. Jensen employs 10 total at its New Orleans office and also operates an office in Jacksonville, Fla.
Sperling said the new office is key in capturing an anticipated wave of supply boat and equipment design, project management and other work tied to the offshore oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. More clients want a firm that will drive out to shipyards to oversee work or review design details, he said, and New Orleans is the best positioned to offer access to Gulf Coast facilities.
“You can do a lot of things remotely, but over the years we saw a growing demand for services where the only way to really capture it correctly would be to open an office” in New Orleans, Sperling said.
Jensen is among dozens of naval architecture and marine engineering firms seeking to grow their local footprint as work in the Gulf heats up.
Tidewater, Hornbeck Offshore Services, Harvey Gulf International Marine and Edison Chouest Offshore, all vessel operators based in the region, each have multi-million dollar campaigns to expand and refurbish their fleets. Companies need larger lift and construction boats to clean up old oil and gas structures and build new ones farther offshore. The widening of the Panama Canal in 2015 is also expected to bring a surge of ship repair work.
McDermott joined a wave of engineering firms consolidating their operations in Houston this summer, underscoring a focus on overseas energy service work, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
But Lothar Birk, chairman of the University of New Orleans School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, noted many more engineering firms are adding New Orleans offices.
Gibbs & Cox Inc., a naval architecture firm based in Arlington, Va., opened a local office in early 2011. Last May, Elliott Bay Design Group of Seattle reopened its New Orleans office to capitalize on oil and gas support vessel construction.
This year, Birk said UNO’s program, which graduates about 20 students annually, has been barraged with calls from naval architecture firms looking to pull new recruits from its classrooms.
“Companies consistently come and ask ‘Can we give a presentation to your students? We want to hire somebody,’” Birk said.
“There is a constant stream of those requests.”
Kenneth Humphreys and David Bourg, alumni of the UNO program and managing partners of MiNO Marine in Mid-City, said the steady flow of UNO naval architecture grads has been key in growing their company.
Humphreys and Bourg started MiNO in 2006 after careers with larger companies and now employ 24. The two plan to build a new, larger office in Jefferson in coming months.
Bourg noted the firm has developed a niche designing supply boats as well as lift boats that carry the cranes needed to pull old oil and gas infrastructure out of the ocean.
Bourg and Humphreys acknowledged more of their clients, including McDermott, are basing operations in Houston. But they noted customers also value MiNO’s ability to quickly send engineers from its New Orleans office to shipyards in Houma and across south Louisiana.
“We’re not just producing studies that go off to some other ivory tower office and get reviewed. We’re boots on the ground, in shipyards helping solve day-to-day problems,” Bourg said, adding that location will play a greater role as the firm takes on more project management work at regional shipyards.
One looming hurdle for many area firms is a shortage of qualified naval architects. Birk said the UNO naval architecture program, one of only a handful across the nation, has limited ability to fill that gap.
“The fact is we don’t have enough graduates to satisfy the hiring demand,” Birk said.
Adequately funding the program while drumming up interest among prospective students gets tougher each year amid state budget cuts, he added.
While the program receives some industry support — Hornbeck, Elliott Bay, Bollinger Shipyards and Eastern Shipbuilding Group of Florida donated $58,000 to help upgrade its computer lab this month — more resources are needed to put it on stable footing, Birk said.
Sperling said hiring in New Orleans has been gradual, mostly because many of the experienced engineers Jensen seeks in south Louisiana have left corporate positions to take solo contract work.
But Jensen Maritime, owned by international shipping firm Crowley Maritime Corp., has the resources to grow its New Orleans office over time, he said, noting that the region’s deep ties to the maritime industry continue to make it an attractive place for investment.
“There is a lot of history down there and nobody can ignore it,” Sperling said.
Information from: New Orleans CityBusiness, http://www.neworleanscitybusiness.com