ANAHEIM — Working at Airborne Systems Inc.'s plant here is a little like attending a session of the United Nations.
Jack Van Eden, president and co-founder, is a native of the Netherlands. More than half of the company's 25 employees are engineers from Asia, the Middle East or Latin America.
Immigrants from Iraq work alongside those from Iran--two nations at war not long ago. And engineers from China work next to those from Vietnam and the Philippines.
The international flavor is no accident, said Dudley W. Line, executive vice president and co-owner. Airborne Systems had to hire engineers from outside this country because of a shortage of U.S. engineers trained in the company's field.
Like many of his employees, Van Eden was trained as an engineer in photogrammetry--the science of using aerial photographs to survey large tracts of land.
Photogrammetrists measure photographs for depth and distance, then feed the information into a computer to create small-scale, three-dimensional maps for engineers, developers and city planners.
Information about gas and electrical utilities, the location of utility pipelines, and various topographical details are added to the maps.
It is a labor-intensive job that requires a lot of technical know-how, as the engineers must tediously plot and transfer the photographs to computers.
Some U.S. colleges offer professional degrees in photogrammetry, but just a handful have four-year training programs. Fewer than 50 people graduate as technicians in the field yearly in the United States, according to the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing in Bethesda, Md.
"There has been a shortage of this skill in this country for several decades," said William D. French, executive director of the photogrammetry group. "I've helped many American engineering companies bring in trained professional photogrammetrists to this country."
So companies such as Airborne Systems go abroad for skilled employees. Van Eden was hired by a Long Beach engineering firm in 1956, when it could not find a local photogrammetrist.
Van Eden has since worked for several engineering firms and has come to realize that there is a big demand for his skills. After working 27 years for various Southland engineering firms, Van Eden, co-owner Line and several colleagues were ready to go into business on their own.
When their former Dutch employer, Fugro Inc. of Long Beach, decided to sell its small photogrammetric division in Anaheim, the engineers pooled resources and bought the unit for about $1.5 million in 1983.
The division had annual sales of about $1.5 million then. But Line and Van Eden thought the company's potential was much greater. Their intuition proved correct.
"Much to my own amazement, sales that first year reached $2.5 million," Van Eden recalled.
Van Eden and Line, a Los Angeles native, hold monthly forums with employees to discuss details of their projects and to encourage technicians to share expertise with one another.
To help employees from so many different cultures better understand each other, the company holds potluck lunches every few weeks.
At one recent gathering, Daputa Anna Orlowska, an engineer from Warsaw, brought Polish sausages cooked with pitted prunes, carrots and sauerkraut. Duntha Chhay prepared a spicy Cambodian meat dish, while Juan Carlos Sanchez brought spicy Colombian fried rice. Two Filipino engineers, Nick Burgos and Ofelia Alontave, shared with everyone their \o7 adobo\f7 --stewed chicken and pork. American employees brought stuffed baked potatoes and corned beef.
Company officials say such activities help employees overcome occasional language barriers and foster loyalty among workers.