On the ride of his life

September 1st, 2018 Posted in From Our Alumni
Engineering co-ops open doors to dream jobs for alumnus

By Laurie B. Davis

Jeff Piggrem began his career as an engineer at Walt Disney World. He completed five co-ops at the theme park company while enrolled in the College of Engineering’s co-op program from 2007 to 2012.

Jeff Piggrem was only 11 when he mustered the courage to take the ride of his life. As he moved at 93 miles per hour, dropped 300 feet at one point, then finally returned safely to a stop, the inner sensations he experienced swung from anxious to awestruck. And now, the force was with him. The Millennium Force that is. At the time Piggrem (Eng ’12) and his family made the trip to Cedar Point amusement park, the Millennium Force was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world.

He says the coaster intimidated and intrigued him at the same time. After that ride, he marveled at the idea of creating this theme-park masterpiece. “It was that moment I realized somebody had to design this, somebody had to build this, and there are people in this industry creating fun,” says Piggrem. “That’s what became my inspiration and my drive.” He told himself then, “If I’m going to sit at a desk for 40 years, I want it to be related to something fun like that.”

Reaching for the Pinnacle

When Piggrem, a native of Columbus, chose to get a mechanical engineering degree at The University of Toledo, he became laser-focused on designing amusement rides. “I had peers, of course, in the mechanical program, who loved cars; that was their passion. And mine happened to be theme parks. I wanted to work for the theme park industry and the pinnacle of that industry is Disney,” says Piggrem.  

Within the past month, Jeff Piggrem began a new role as a civil engineer at Universal Orlando Resorts.

His dream job designing Disney-inspired rides came true through UT’s College of Engineering mandatory co-ops. At UT, each student enrolled in an engineering program is required to complete a minimum of three semester-long cooperative education work experiences. Piggrem began at UT in 2007 and graduated in 2012, voluntarily completing five co-ops in his Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering program.

“I kind of said I would roll the dice and do everything I could, and if it happened, it happened, and if it didn’t, it would be something that I would keep reaching for. I was very fortunate that it happened very early on, and I really attribute that to the co-op program.”

A Change of Heart

While engaged in his third co-op, Piggrem was part of a ride engineering team at Disney. “I thought this was the pinnacle, this is what I wanted my whole life. During that co-op I realized, wow, the reality of what this takes … I’m stressing myself out, and I’m not enjoying it. That was one of the things I didn’t intend to find with the co-op program. You think you’re finding everything you wanted to do and it’s different.”

Piggrem discovered that managing projects, their schedules and financial implications, as well as applying his technical expertise while solving problems with engineers, was both challenging and more fun. “It’s just a different side of the business. I wouldn’t be sitting there in AutoCAD, I’d be managing 20 or 30 different projects. It’s a different type of stress,” he says.

The Millennium Force roller coaster in Sandusky, Ohio, was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world when alumnus Jeff Piggrem first rode it at age 11. The ride was his inspiration to work at Walt Disney World and design rides. Photo credit: Eric Marshall

Piggrem came to realize his dream to build roller coasters wasn’t the right fit, but the internships at Disney revealed that reality before he got his degree. “Without the co-op program, I would have gone into a full-time job and then would have been trying to switch careers early on, which could have been detrimental,” says Piggrem.

Disney offered Piggrem a full-time, project management position right after he graduated. His work ethic also launched his career further. A manager of civil infrastructure projects tapped his talents. “So, I took that leap of faith to try this civil thing out and ended up finding a real passion for it.” Then he obtained his professional engineering license and nine months later a colleague referred him for yet another role; this one with the civil engineering team at Disney.

Piggrem’s career evolution continues. Currently he’s pursuing a master’s in civil engineering online through the University of Illinois, a degree he’ll complete in December. He also was wooed away from Disney by former colleagues who told him about an opportunity at its competitor, Universal Orlando Resorts. Piggrem says he found the potential for professional growth a promising option.

Inspiring Next Generation

Kira Welker of Wexford, Penn., has been inspired to apply to UT’s engineering program after hearing Jeff Piggrem’s story about landing a dream job with Walt Disney World in Florida. Welker also wants to work for the theme-park giant and met with Piggrem to hear how UT’s engineering co-ops provided the steps to take in that direction.

As a UT success story, Piggrem’s influence reaches to prospective students. Kira Welker, who heard Piggrem’s story during an admissions counselor’s visit to her robotics class, reached out to Piggrem. “We go on an annual trip to Disney,” says Welker, “and I thought it would be good if I could meet up with Jeff.” She obtained his email address and connected.

“First, we talked about what his job was and then about his different internships with Disney,” says Welker, who also hopes to work at the theme park. “Then we got into colleges and how to get into the internship programs at Disney. He told me about The University of Toledo where he came from and how the scholarships he was awarded there were so much better than everywhere else — and they gave him the exact path to get to what he is doing now. I thought that was really cool; and that’s what I want to do,” says Welker.

“When I was looking at schools,” says Piggrem, “I would ask some of the Big Ten programs I was accepted to, ‘what if I’m gone for 12 months?’ I consistently would get the answer, ‘well, you would lose your scholarship.’ Upon visiting Toledo, I said, ‘I could be gone for 12 months,’ and the program [directors] opened their arms and said, ‘that’s fine, we’d be happy for you.’ That’s what really drew me to UT. Their openness and encouragement. They understood that it’s great to get a degree but ‘there is life after college and we want to support you in your career, even if that means you’re gone for 12 months.’”

Piggrem told Welker about the various ways to get into Disney internships, with the caveat that there are no guarantees. “The biggest feedback I could provide is that with a company as large as Disney there are many roads to Oz,” says Piggrem. “This just happened to be my path.” But the people at The University of Toledo — Dr. Steven N. Kramer, Dr. Matthew Franchetti, Jon Pawlecki and Dr. Brian Randolph — encouraged and supported Piggrem’s dream, doing everything they could to make it happen, he says.

Winnie the Pooh and ‘Battle Bots’

Welker, who lives in Wexford, Penn., and attends Pine Richland High School, says she was born into a family of engineers. That influenced her high school curriculum choices, including robotics, and why she is learning to master AutoCAD, a standard computer-assisted design application.

Jeff Piggrem provided this unsolicited video about how The University of Toledo’s co-op program in the College of Engineering improved his chances to land his dream job working for Walt Disney World, and now for Universal Orlando Resorts.

Family vacations to Walt Disney World piqued her interest in working there. She remembers waiting for the Winnie the Pooh ride as a little girl, but also the interactive attractions that occupied families during their wait. “My dream job, in particular, is to design activities and fun little animatronics for people to do while waiting in line because that can be the longest part of your days. With all of those little things to do, it makes it go by much faster.”

Welker already has designed and built “battle bots” for robotics competitions and uses a shop full of design tools, including 3-D printers, laser engravers, and metal and plasma cutters. She’s planning to build another robot during her forthcoming and final year of high school. She also will visit the University this fall and apply to UT’s College of Engineering.

“Definitely meeting with Jeff has opened my eyes to see what I need to do to get where I want to be and how I need to start my tasks towards that,” says Welker. “If I hadn’t met up with him, I’d probably be going the wrong way. So, I’m very grateful and glad I had that experience.”

Piggrem is thankful for his UT co-op experiences and for the revelation that he enjoys project management. “I thought my dream was going to be designing roller coasters, and I got to do that and can certainly check that box,” he says. But being exposed to a professional work environment helped him discover fun in his career on his own terms.

“That exposure, which the co-op program is, opened my eyes to: I don’t want to be this stressed if I’m going to do this for 20 years; I want to have more fun.”

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