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‘Being from the area has definitely helped me be happy here’

By NICOLE CLARK

Staff writer

Coming from a military family, Kat Cornet said, “I grew up all over.” But for the past 12 years, she’s laid down roots in Southern Maryland. Her family moved here 12 years ago, and she attended high school in Lusby. When she graduated, Cornet settled in Wildewood.

Today, she’s a mechanical engineer working at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, which she says “is the only place to do what I really want to do.” Going gaga over helicopter dynamics — understanding what engineers could load onto Navy choppers and how those modifications would affect vibrations of the aircraft, and ultimately flight quality.

With family, friends and her dream job here, Cornet said she’s staying put. “Being from the area has definitely helped me be happy here at Pax.”

For the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, getting technologically minded Southern Marylanders to study close to home and then work in the area means a better shot at retaining talent.

Working to “homegrow our future workforce” is a strategy that’s been in place for about five years, said Gary Kessler, NAWCAD executive director. And now that those first recruits have graduated college and have been working for two or three years in their engineering fields, command leaders hope to finally be able to determine whether their plan to retain talent is paying off.

NAVAIR has worked closely with the College of Southern Maryland and the University of Maryland College Park to establish a four-year program where students could earn a degree in mechanical engineering. The first two years may be completed at CSM, and the junior and senior years at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, where the university offers classes. Cornet graduated from the Maryland Mechanical Engineering Partnership Program in 2012.

Pax River’s first class of mechanical engineers — five students — graduated from the University of Maryland in 2011. Today, 18 engineers who came through the program are working at Pax River. And, there are 36 more students enrolled now.

“Our next step is to add an electrical engineering program,” said David John Barrett, director of engineering education and research partnerships for NAWCAD. He hopes the program will be in place by 2015. “I’m very optimistic in saying that.”

He’s also looking at strengthening a relationship with St. Mary’s College of Maryland and its physics department. Students there have opportunities to intern at Pax River in the sciences. But, Barrett said, those students also could be candidates for the engineering program. If the program is designed as he envisions it, participants could graduate with two bachelor’s degrees; one in physics and the other in mechanical engineering.

Not all recruitment efforts take place in Southern Maryland. NAVAIR has recruited from as far away as Puerto Rico or California. But, often, those connections with new engineers “don’t take root,” Kessler said. “They get homesick.” And they leave.

St. Mary’s is a remote peninsula, and not an urban environment, Barrett noted. “People have to be enamored to stay here.”

“There’s plenty of talent in the area,” he said. But many of them are leaving St. Mary’s for college elsewhere. So, he’s hoping to “redirect” their aspirations, and show them what opportunities exist for them here.

At 28, Cornet considers herself one of those young engineers. She said she and colleagues joke about how many decades they have left to work for the command, to become like some of those who have 30 or more years of experience at Pax River.

“That’s just how great it is here,” Cornet said. After going through the engineering program, taking tests and studying for classes, there is “light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I get to go to work.”

nclark@somdnews.com