WORKING AT HOME
Life seems to be working out just the way Rod Sands and his family planned it.
Family is the operative word here.
It took some planning to set things in place so that Rod could work at home to be near his wife, Sheila, and two boys, Tobe, 3, and Sheylan, 6.
Now, he still flies away occasionally on a project, but it's nice to be able to walk downstairs from his office in the Victorian home on the west side of La Grande and join in family activities.
He can do that now, thanks in part to the computer age, which allows him to communicate with widely scattered business associates. With high-speed DSL, he can quickly receive and send words and pictures or drawings.
In fact, it was the availability of such services that brought him home to La Grande.
Sands worked for Boeing in Seattle for 16 years after attending Oregon State and Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls to earn degrees in diesel engine maintenance, mechanical engineering and electronic engineering.
At Boeing, he worked as an aircraft environment control systems engineer, which he describes as being responsible for all of the systems that provide for temperature, pressure, contamination management, fire situations and heat dissipated by all of the electronic equipment on a plane.
"In my later years at Boeing, I started dreaming of ways to come back to Oregon to be closer to family members. The kids could be closer to their grandparents.
"Also it would be an opportunity to raise our children in a small town; they could ride their bikes to friends' homes, walk to school," he said.
He realized that would not be possible if they remained in the Des Moines area south of Seattle.
A plan began to evolve. He left Boeing in the spring of 1999.
"I spent part of a year about six months doing consulting for another engineering firm."
Then for a similar period, he went out on his own, doing consulting work.
"I intended that time to be to learn how to be an independent consultant."
After a year away from Boeing, he said, "We felt confident we could do work here. We came back to La Grande in 2000."
Now he describes his job thusly:
"I do aircraft systems engineering on a consulting basis."
He has done major projects for Boeing, has worked for Honeywell, and even been called as an expert witness on a court case, requiring him to travel to Florida.
"I have to travel about every two months," he said. Work takes him to California, Ohio, Florida, Georgia and to Seattle.
One day recently, he took off for Atlanta. Before he left, he said, "I'm going to test some aircraft parts. They've been designed and I've completed my examination after getting all the drawings and technical specifications via computer. Now this is the final test to see if they can be certified."
By certified, he means approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. He is one of several hundred people nationwide licensed to do such engineering and certifying of airplane parts. He is called a Designated Engineering Representative by the FFA.
If a company wants to sell a system or parts for an airplane, a DER has to evaluate the product. The DER is hired by the company producing the part to certify it.
Even with fewer new aircraft being built because of the decline in the number of commercial flights and the number of new planes being ordered following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there is still plenty of work, Sands said.
"The design of new aircraft equipment is quite slow, so now I'm certifying the designs of overhaul replacement parts. With the emphasis of the airlines on cost-cutting, this is a big, emerging market. Companies can buy original equipment or they can buy equivalent parts. My role is to act on behalf of the FFA to see if the part meets the design requirements of the FFA."
He has detailed books outlining specific technical FFA requirements for various systems and parts.
He doesn't need to advertise to get work, which keeps him busy full-time, "at standard work hours," he said.
"All my work comes through contacts I made during 16 years at Boeing. I've told other companies what I do, and they all call with projects."
In some respects, it was difficult to leave Boeing.
"I took for granted the security of working for a big company," he said. "But I've since learned it was better to leave."
Before he left, he was promoted to associate technical fellow to work in a branch of engineering charged with developing plans for research and new technology.
"I left two weeks later," he said.
He feels more a part of the community in La Grande. In the Boeing job, he found little or no time to serve his community.
"In Seattle, I was so busy with work, we didn't have children, I didn't become involved in the community."
La Grande is a different world, and he's involved. He has coached age-group soccer teams, serves on the Union County Soccer group's board, and is involved in the Union County Chamber of Commerce.
He is president-elect of the chamber for this year, so he'll become president early next year.
"I really respect this community for the degree it involves people," he said. "It was a big awakening to learn just how much effort comes from community volunteers.
"My wife and I grew up here. I graduated from La Grande High in 1974 and Sheila was two years ahead of me. We didn't know each other in high school, but met while we were in college through a mutual friend. She was in Eugene (at the University of Oregon) and needed a ride to Corvallis."
They were married in 1984. Sheila got a teaching degree and spent two years teaching in France. She taught French in high school and middle school in Seattle before they had children. She works at home now, he said.
They are close by his parents, Don and Donna Sands and Sheila's mom, Edna "Eddy" Higgins.
And Sheila's sister also has taken up telecommuting, moving back to La Grande two doors away from the Sandses from New York City, where she was a book editor for St. Martin's Press. She now does the same job via computer.
"We have no regrets," said Rod. "We are so fortunate to be near family."
Every day, at the end of his workday, he walks downstairs and he's home.