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Competition and qualifications challenge AEC

by: Marcus Hathcock, The specialized work of AEC Inc. makes hiring decisions especially crucial.

Jaye Tyler has her work cut out for her.

Tyler, the human resources manager for AEC, is responsible for hiring the right people to work at the Sandy-based technical publishing company.

But it's not as easy as finding someone with engineering experience, a degree in English or writing, or even technical writing experience.

'We do have kind of a niche market,' Tyler said. 'Technical manuals for custom business aircraft isn't something people hear about every day of the week.'

AEC, founded by Ernie Brache in 1984, employs about 70 people, half of whom crank out manuals, technical specifications and other industry literature to suit their wide range of international clients.

One of AEC's largest and most established customers is the Lufthansa Group, an airline and avionics firm. A typical AEC project might involve one of Lufthansa's private jets, for which a universe of luxury minutiae - from leather seats to a ventilated onboard cigar cabin - must be documented, proofread and printed.

AEC also has created manuals for planes that have multiple entertainment centers, a medical room and other luxurious accommodations.

Standard technical writing experience and education doesn't necessarily qualify a person to work at AEC.

'Documenting the maintenance of custom interiors of business aircraft is a lot different than writing software manuals,' Tyler said. 'Some of the same skills apply, but it doesn't relate in the same way.'

It's simply a highly specialized job, one that makes it even more important to hire the right, trainable person.

Overall, Tyler said, AEC looks for three qualities when hiring technical writers, which make up about half of the company's 68 employees:

1) Mechanical or electrical experience or aptitude; work history that involves any type of mechanical assembly, including automotive and avionic. That experience typically comes from a military background, Tyler said. 'Former military is a very big thing for us,' Tyler said. 'A lot of folks here are former military.'

2) Familiarity with Framemaker, the specialized software AEC uses to write its manuals.

3) The ability to write clearly, concisely and with good grammar also is necessary.

Finding all three characteristics is extremely rare, Tyler said, 'so two out of three is good. We train all the time on Framemaker in-house.'

Employees at AEC quickly find that their company has a pretty decent setup. It offers living-wage jobs with flexible hours, a supportive management team and an easy commute.

But sometimes, it's not enough to keep them around. The engineering and technical writing field has become so competitive, with so few qualified workers out there, that companies with deep pockets are hiring otherwise happy employees away from their jobs.

Tyler has seen it happen at AEC.

'Other companies are having struggles finding people as well,' she said. 'One of our employees applied to a company two years ago, and they called him back just a couple weeks ago.'

They had his résumé on file and asked him if he was interested in a higher-paying job, 'and they recruited him away from us,' she said. 'He wasn't even looking (to move on). But a lot of people out there want AutoCAD experience, and they're willing to pay a lot more money than a local Sandy company can.'

Hiring and keeping new recruits is a bigger concern right now than losing existing employees to retirement, Tyler said. Very few employees are near employment age at AEC.

Staying competitive as the little guy will require AEC to take a new approach to recruiting. Tyler says she has begun to work with area high schools and Mt. Hood Community College in hopes of establishing internships and training that would create a steady supply of qualified, local workers.

'People are training to do things like education and nursing,' Tyler said, 'but they don't really think about learning to write technical documentation. It would be great if we could get some local people here that we could train.'

That would be the best-case scenario for AEC - to create a pool of locals who are qualified to do the job and have a commitment to the community and the company.

In the meantime, AEC will have to keep competing against the big boys for employees to do the ever-increasing workload it gets.