African American civil engineers are on the rise
A new emphasis on infrastructure and the environment is attracting African Americans to civil engineering
Job opportunities are shifting from the private sector to the public sector
By Laurel McKee Ranger
'We’re seeing an increase in interest and enrollment in civil engineering,” says James H. Johnson, Jr, PhD, dean emeritus of the college of engineering, architecture and computer sciences at Howard University (Washington, DC). “We expect the incoming freshman class to be 10 to 15 percent larger than in the past.”
Johnson notes that civil engineering has not been a popular career choice for African Americans. He attributes the sudden interest to the new administration’s recent emphasis on infrastructure and the environment. And he expects Howard’s experience to be repeated elsewhere.
Job prospects for new grads have changed too. “We’re seeing a shift in who’s looking for civil engineers,” says Johnson. He reports a 5 percent drop in the number of companies turning out for career fairs, but the more significant change is in who’s attending. “For example, the automotive industry has had a big presence in the past,” he says. “Now it’s more likely to be defense contractors, the armed forces and government agencies like the EPA.”
Getting a job may also mean making sacrifices. “Students are not telling us they can’t get jobs,” Johnson says, “but they’re having to take jobs that aren’t their first choice, or move to locations they wouldn’t have chosen.”
Johnson believes it’s unlikely that today’s grads will end up retiring from the companies where they start their careers. “Over the course of your career you must be flexible and ready to learn new skills,” he cautions.
New undergrads may want to consider grad school as a way to prepare for the future when the market picks up, Johnson suggests.
Everyone counts at AEP
Mary Cofer, director of diversity and culture at American Electric Power (AEP, Columbus OH), says that attracting and maintaining a diverse workforce is a key focus of the company’s business strategy.
“While our primary philosophy is based on equal opportunity for all employees, we understand the value a diverse workforce brings to our company,” Cofer says. “Our goal is to create an environment that is inclusive and draws on the strength of our diverse workforce.”
AEP has established strong relationships with universities that have large minority and female populations, including Howard University, Spelman College and Tuskegee University, and is
re-establishing relationships with Southern University, North Carolina A&T and Fort Valley State University. A recent addition is the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, which is among the top five U.S. schools in number of graduating female engineers. AEP also has had considerable success in recruiting Hispanic engineers from Texas A&M-Kingsville.
AEP is an electric utility with customers in eleven states. It hires civil engineers to create the infrastructure that moves power from one place to another. Its transmission engineers work with state and local government officials and oversee construction of transmission grid elements. Distribution engineers analyze distribution designs and structures and conduct field surveys. Generation engineers provide technical requirements and specifications for the procurement, maintenance and installation of equipment, and do specialized engineering analyses.
AEP urges its engineers to pursue professional engineering licenses. The company supports participation in organizations like the American Association of Blacks in Energy and NSBE, and has many internal programs that support its diverse employees.
AEP’s Anthony Chiles works in distribution engineering
Anthony Chiles is from a military family and has lived throughout the U.S. and abroad. He was born in Italy. “By the time I was eight or nine, I wanted to be an architect,” he says. “The Romans were great engineers.”
He spent some of his high school years in Germany and remembers sitting inside a restaurant that had been built into the side of a mountain in 1492.
“I was inspired knowing that something could be built that would last that long,” he says.
Chiles finished high school in Missouri and was referred by his teachers to the architecture and engineering program at the University of Missouri-Rolla, now Missouri University of Science and Technology (Rolla, MO). He settled on CE. “It was more comprehensive and there were many career options,” he says.
Chiles earned his BSCE in 2009 and started at AEP that June. He’s an engineer IV in distribution engineering and work management best practices. His group makes sure that technicians are properly trained on the software and GPS devices used in the field.
The group is also responsible for ensuring that the distribution of power meets efficiency and safety standards. The group evaluates lines, pole designs, conductors and wire. Chiles is the only civil engineer in his group of seven engineers and a technician.
Chiles worked at AEP as an intern for two summers during college. “I was a member of the student leadership conference, NSBE and the school’s retention committee, and I helped found a group at the school called the Black Man’s Think Tank,” he says, “to help African American students adjust to the majority white environment at the school.” African Americans are only 10 percent of the student population.
Chiles advises new grads to be well rounded and hone their communications skills. “I take every opportunity to speak in front of groups,” he says. Through his leadership activities he’s learned how to organize meetings and resolve conflicts. “Being on committees taught me how to put myself out there. Get involved on campus, but don’t neglect your GPA,” he warns.
Parsons Brinckerhoff values diversity
“We need civil, mechanical and electrical engineers,” says Julie Rosica, director of HR operations at Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB, Herndon, VA). The company provides strategic consulting, planning, engineering, and program and construction management services to both public and private sector clients.
PB hires design engineers and construction managers as well as project controls and program managers with highway, structures, geotechnical, buildings, transit, water resources and other civil engineering experience. Projects include major highways, transit systems, airports, tunnels, bridges, buildings, disaster recovery
efforts, power plants and energy storage facilities.
The company recruits from organizations like NSBE, SHPE and the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials. “We expect a strong GPA from an accredited university, some internship experience and an EIT,” Rosica says. Internships are also available.
To ensure balanced participation, Parsons Brinckerhoff has a diversity oversight committee made up of senior managers. “Our succession planning process ensures that we identify diverse candidates to build our bench strength,” Rosica says.
The company has several employee resource groups, including the Black Professional Network, where women and minorities can take leadership roles in advancing programs and proposing policy changes.
Jameelah Muhammad works on bridges at Parsons Brinckerhoff
Jameelah Muhammad is an engineer II in the structural engineering department of the Chicago office of Parsons Brinckerhoff. “We inspect bridges for the city of Chicago,” she says. “We use a barge and manlift to access the structures that are over the water.”
Muhammad is also a project engineer for phase one of lakefront trail improvements over the main branch of the Chicago River. That project includes modification of a movable bascule bridge constructed in 1937. The moveable sidewalk will be widened, and will tie into a lakefront bike trail. “Modifying the bridge is complicated,” she notes, “because a bascule bridge requires that the weight be properly balanced.”
After earning her 2004 BSCE at Princeton University (Princeton, NJ), Muhammad went to the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA) for her 2006 MSCE with a structural engineering focus. Her degree from Princeton had the same emphasis, but with a concentration in architecture.
A 2002 internship took Muhammad to Tokyo, Japan, where she worked in the earthquake motion and wind climate group at Kajima Technical Research Institute. She learned about retrofitting structures to withstand earthquakes and studied wind tunnel testing. “I also got to practice the Japanese I’d been taking since my freshman year in high school,” she says with
Other internships included two stints at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and a job at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc (Atlanta, GA), an engineering consulting firm, where she learned about rehabilitating structures and investigating structural failures.
In 2006 Muhammad started at PB. “All those experiences taught me how structures work on a practical basis,” she says, “so when I began doing design, it was easier because I had a clearer concept of how bridges work.”
Muhammad’s interest in structures was piqued during an eighth grade class at the Art Institute of Chicago. “We took an architecture walk,” she says, “and from that point on it seemed like architecture was everything I wanted.” That is, until a high school physics teacher and former aeronautical engineer introduced her to engineering.
At Princeton, she learned about bridges in a course with David Billington, who is well known
for combining the study of engineering with an exploration of its aesthetic and social values. “Princeton did a great job of blending engineering and the arts,” she says.
In school Muhammad belonged to ASCE and NSBE. In fact, a visit to PB’s booth at a NSBE job fair led to an interview and job offer. She urges students to take advantage of the seminars and networking opportunities offered by these organizations. “You should also consider taking the EIT exam in your senior year,” she adds.
Muhammad says that focusing on work and subject matter has given her the power to deal with any difficult situations she might encounter. In the end people look at your performance and work ethic, she says, rather than your race.
In her spare time Muhammad talks to elementary and high school students about engineering and bridges. She’s also mentoring several female college freshmen.
She’s currently treasurer of the ASCE Illnois Section structural group and is on the associate board of the DuSable Museum of African American History, the first black history museum in the U.S. “We do programs to bring young people into the museum,” she says proudly.
AECOM: committed to hiring
AECOM (Los Angeles, CA) provides architecture, engineering and project management services worldwide. The company is committed to its college recruiting efforts, says Suzanne D. Hovhannesian, VP of talent acquisition.
“AECOM recruits actively on college and university campuses and has continued to hire both interns and college graduates this year. In fact, we’re enhancing our college recruiting efforts,” she reports.
Diversity is important across the company’s many subsidiaries and locations. “As a global organization, AECOM values diversity in our hiring and business operations. We make full use of the wealth of backgrounds, thought and opinion that a diverse environment offers to provide premier services to the markets we serve,” declares Anthony B. Bouchard, PE, chief operating officer of AECOM’s southwest and mountain region.
AECOM’s Stephanie Taylor makes roads safer
Stephanie R. Taylor is a graduate engineer 1 at AECOM. She works in transportation at the company’s Fort Worth, TX location.
Taylor does traffic studies, prepares technical reports and develops transportation network models. She recently worked on a speed study for a small Texas city in response to safety complaints. “I find ways to maximize
the efficiency of the existing capacity,” she says. “Right now I’m doing signal design and timing.”
She explains that signal timing is complex. Traffic engineers use data to determine which road has the priority, but that can change depending on the time of day. The closer together the intersections are, the more important coordination becomes. “We try to give everyone as smooth a ride as possible,” she says. “We use software programs with built-in algorithms.”
Taylor works with another EIT and a professional traffic operations engineer who’s in charge
of the traffic department. Her team is responsible for northern Texas, but there is coordination with other transportation groups around the state. “The work is done at a local level, so you must know the local needs and geography,” she says.
Taylor earned her 2005 BSCE at Rice University (Houston, TX) and her 2008 MSCE with a focus in transportation at the University of Southern California (USC, Los Angeles, CA). At Rice, she was a member of ASCE and she joined the WTS (formerly the Women’s Transportation Seminar) at USC.
Today she’s a member of the greater Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of WTS and chairs the mentoring committee. She’s also a member of TexITE, the Texas Institute of Transportation Engineers.
Taylor started at AECOM in July 2008. At Rice, her focus had been environmental, and she interned at the Shell Center for Sustainability (Houston, TX), which focuses on environmental issues. From 2005 to 2006 she worked in residential land development at MMA (Arlington, TX), an engineering, surveying and landscape architecture firm.
But her real interest was transportation. “I had taken one transportation class at Rice and loved it, but I knew I needed more classes,” she says.
In grad school, Taylor encountered a demographic difference. “In undergraduate school I was often the only African American, the only woman, or both in the classroom,” she says. “In grad school I was often the only American.”
While working on her masters at USC, she interned as a transportation planner at Foothill Transit (West Covina, CA), which provides transportation for the San Gabriel Valley.
Taylor began her job search early. She used online search engines, scoured newspapers and sent applications to every job she could find. She attended conferences and industry events, read industry publications and did a lot of networking. “I was relentless,” she says with a smile. “It turns out that an AECOM officer was president of the local WTS chapter.”
Networking worked to open doors for Taylor, but she feels that being well rounded helped her land the job. She was an AP English teacher for high school students on the USC campus and she provided tutoring services.
She also took two years of South Asian dance at Rice, which taught her a lot about South Asian culture. “It opened up a whole new world for me,” she says. “I’ve become very comfortable around all sorts of people.”
Taylor cautions students to stay focused. She found herself taking courses just to prove she could master the material even though she wasn’t really interested in the subject. “Now I focus on my goals,” she says.
As one of the few black women in her industry, Taylor finds working in the community challenging at times. “Some of the pressure is self-imposed because I want to put out a good image of my race and gender,” she notes. “But I’m learning not to worry about people’s perceptions of me.”
Natinael Tollera oversees pipe replacement at Philadelphia Gas Works
Natinael T. Tollera is an engineer II at Philadelphia Gas Works (Philadelphia, PA), a natural gas provider for the city of Philadelphia.
He works in the construction section of the company’s distribution department, overseeing the installation of new gas lines and replacement of old cast iron main pipes. “Plastic pipes are more cost effective, longer lasting and easier to install,” he says, “so we’re replacing the old cast iron network little by little.”
Tollera is part of a team that’s responsible for assessing the nature of each job, scheduling the work crew and then overseeing the work. “Sometimes we find unexpected obstacles to construction,” he says. “We may have to move the pipes or enlarge or reduce them. Of course everything has to be approved by the design engineer.”
He’s still in training, but is already anticipating the challenges he’ll be facing in the future. “When installing large, high-pressure pipes, I may encounter broken mains,” he says. “Decisions regarding leaks have to be made quickly because of the potential for fire and explosion.”
Tollera is a member of the Oromo people and grew up in Oromia, East Africa. He attended high school in the Wollega region and completed his secondary education in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. After a year and a half in Kenya he came to the U.S.
He started his engineering studies at Polytechnic Institute of New York University (New York, NY). He was living with his sister, and changed schools when she moved to New Jersey. Tollera finished his BSCE at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ) in 2005, and is currently pursuing a masters in engineering management at Widener University’s School of Engineering (Chester, PA). He hopes to graduate in December 2010.
Before joining Philadelphia Gas Works, Tollera worked at K. Hovnanian Corporation (Edison, NJ), a large developer of residential homes. As assistant land development manager, Tollera would work up the preliminary layout of the buildings and estimate earth work: the amount of excavation, the square footage of sidewalks and roadway pavement, and the percentage of landscaping for the proposed development. He also prepared land development cost estimates and maps for meetings.
“The job was very interesting, but I wanted to work on getting my PE,” he says. At Philadelphia Gas Works, Tollera works with different crews and departments. “The company moves us around so we can get a good idea of what the company is about, and learn from many different people,” he explains. “We’re assigned mentors. The company really encourages us to grow.”
Tollera has always wanted to be involved in construction. “When I was young, my sister used to send us magazines so I could see pictures of high-rise buildings and highway overpasses,” he says. “We didn’t have highways like that so I was fascinated.”
Tollera stays in touch with his roots. He’s involved with an Oromo community in the tri-state area. “I get to help others, and we play soccer,” he says.
Internships and networking skills are key to landing your first job, Tollera says. But in the current market, you must be willing to move and even consider unpaid internships.
TxDOT’s Marlena Kelly is learning transportation engineering
Marlena Kelly is an engineering assistant in the Dallas district of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). She’s in a rotation program that includes two years in design and two years in construction, and training in other departments. “I’m learning what’s involved in transportation engineering,” she says.
Kelly joined TxDOT after earning her BSCE at Alabama A&M University (Normal, AL) in December 2007. As a student, she researched concrete using nano materials for the National Science Foundation.
“College and the real world are different,” she says. “You develop your skills on the job. You have to have a good attitude and learn to listen.” She adds that although it’s a male-dominated field, the challenges are mostly personal and can affect everyone. “You have to work hard to prove yourself and earn respect,” she says. “But I feel comfortable in my environment.”
A chance meeting with a recruiter from TxDOT on Alabama A&M’s career day led to Kelly’s current position. Like many, she believes that internships, networking and getting to know your professors improve your chances of landing a job.
Kelly finds being a newcomer the most challenging part of her job. “Not knowing how to complete a project without asking questions and looking everything up in manuals can be frustrating,” she says. “But you have to learn how things work, and that takes time.”
The federal stimulus for transportation has been very good for transportation engineers, she notes. “TxDOT is now constructing projects that have been on the shelf for years,” she says.
Kelly has her EIT and is now working toward her PE. She has a five-year old son and a baby
on the way. “It’s been a challenge,” she says, “but faith and perseverance have gotten me through.”
Barry Brown does wastewater engineering at Malcolm Pirnie
Barry Brown is a municipal wastewater treatment plant consultant at Malcolm Pirnie (White Plains, NY), an environmental consulting firm that provides services in water and wastewater engineering and solid and hazardous waste.
Brown is site engineer on a project in Ann Arbor, MI. He’s overseeing the first phase of the project: demolition. “It’s my job to ensure that the contractor adheres to specifications and the contract,” he says.
Since it’s an existing plant, there are a lot of utilities that have to be avoided or re-routed.
“Any time you excavate, you run into surprises,” he says.
Brown earned his 2007 BSCE at the University of Detroit Mercy (Detroit, MI). He grew up in Detroit and is glad to be back in his hometown after starting with Malcolm Pirnie in Ohio.
During school Brown did an internship with NTH Consultants, Ltd (Detroit, MI), an infrastructure and environmental engineering firm. “I was a testing technician,” he says. “We did soil bearing capacity and analysis.”
But he also interned at Malcolm Pirnie, where he conducted research for his current project. He got the internship through a UNCF scholarship, which involved submitting grades and writing an essay along with his application.
The major selling point for Brown was a presentation on the company’s commitment to diversity during an orientation at corporate headquarters. He learned that he would get to shadow a more experienced engineer. “There was a good balance of field and office experience,” he says. “That’s very important at a younger age. You’re learning about what happens in the field and how to deal with the client and how to find solutions to problems,” Brown says.
Brown feels that his willingness to learn and ability to pick things up quickly helped him stand out during his internship. “Everything isn’t in the book,” he says. “You have to be able to learn on the job.”
He suggests that in today’s tough market, standing out from the crowd may also mean demonstrating how well rounded you are. “Volunteer, demonstrate your sociability, do something that will show how you would interact in a situation,” he says. “Let them get a feel for you as a person.”
Brown’s father is a mechanical engineer, but he chose civil engineering because it struck a chord with him during a Purdue University engineering camp he attended one summer while
in high school. “They introduced us to every kind of engineering,” he says. He notes that the small Jesuit high school he attended helped him make a smooth transition to the university. “Our curriculum was rigorous.”
Communicating and interacting with contractors is one of Brown’s biggest challenges on the job. “You have to know how to communicate effectively when you’re enforcing the specifications with the contractor,” he says. “You have to be a good people person because when problems occur, things can get complicated.”
But Brown thinks it’s all worth it. “The rewards are the successful completion of the job, client satisfaction, and having a positive impact on the environment.”
Caltrans’ Rashaun Spears works on bridges
Rashaun Spears is a transportation engineer at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans, Sacramento, CA). He works on freeway construction and repair, bridges in particular.
“There’s a lot of deterioration in our bridges,” he says. “If a bridge deck needs to be repaired or an existing bridge needs to be widened, we get a contractor in and I inspect the work to make sure it meets Caltrans specifications.”
Spears works in structure construction, a division of 500 engineers that helps build, repair and maintain 12,000-plus state highway bridges and an almost equal number of bridges owned by local California governments. His team of five spends a lot of time in the field in the San Francisco Bay Area and around Sacramento. A lot of the work is done at night. “If we’re doing a bridge deck treatment, lanes have to be closed,” he explains. “The roads have to be up and running in the morning.”
Spears earned his 2007 BSCE at Sacramento State University (Sacramento, CA). His interest in structural engineering and seismic design began with the Loma Prieta earthquake that struck the San Francisco Bay area during the 1989 World Series. He was impressed by the number of structures that were able to withstand a 6.9 magnitude quake.
When a slab on the upper deck of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge built in the 1930s collapsed onto the lower deck, “I wondered how the bridge stayed up,” he says. “Today, everything is designed to seismic standards.”
Spears urges students to nail down an area of specialization and become good at it because civil engineering is such a broad area. “If you’re really good in an area, pursue it,” he says. “Read engineering magazines to get a better perspective.”
Spears enjoys tutoring and mentoring students at Sacramento State. “Some of those classes are really difficult and I don’t want the students to get discouraged,” he says.
Eric Rogers: consultant at McDonald’s
Civil engineering is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of McDonald’s. But the fast food giant does have an architectural arm and hires engineers to work on designing new and remodeled restaurants.
Eric Rogers is one of them. He’s an EIT who works as a consultant in the architectural studio at McDonald’s USA (Oak Brook, IL). He’s a structural designer in the division that covers the eastern third of the country from Florida to the Canadian border.
“I’m responsible for the preparation of documents and structural plans to be signed by the licensed structural engineer of record,” says Rogers. “I’m one of only three engineers in this position at McDonald’s.”
Rogers works with geotechnical engineers to determine the wind, snow loads, earthquake and flood potential the buildings will have to withstand. In Florida, the threat is hurricanes; in the north, it’s snow.
His job is to determine the type of foundation system for a given soil bearing capacity. He works with local people in the field to determine requirements. Although McDonald’s conforms to an international building code, designs are modified when necessary to meet local regulations. Rogers notes, “We use the strictest code in every case.”
Rogers is continually in contact with the contractor and construction management. “When problems arise in the field, we have to come up with fixes,” he says. “I field a lot of phone calls.”
Rogers earned his 2008 BSCE at the Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago, IL) with a specialization in structural engineering. He joined ASCE and NSBE as a student and remains a member today. “It offers great networking potential,” he says.
Rogers interned at HDR, Inc, a Chicago-based architecture and engineering firm, and at the Chicago DOT. He helped design layouts for speed humps, working with surveying equipment, laying out markings and calculating the amount of asphalt needed and where the roads could be cut.
Rogers grew up in an area just outside Chicago where gang membership was the norm. His high school was one of the lowest-rated in the state. “Just getting to college was the most difficult part,” he says. “We didn’t know how to learn, which made my transition to college a bit challenging.”
Of his current job, Rogers says, “McDonald’s is a lot more than I thought it would be. It’s a company that’s serious about design.”
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