Civil & structural engineering offer many fine career paths
The nation’s infrastructure needs expanding and a good overhaul. Companies are gearing up for the work; job prospects look excellent
Big companies appreciate the benefits of diverse staffing. Minority men and more and more women are flourishing in the field
By Sue Marquette Poremba
'The market is very strong for civil and structural engineers, and we foresee a high demand in the future,” says Rick Beyer, HR SVP at construction, program management and design/build giant JE Dunn Construction Group Co (Kansas City, MO).
JE Dunn vice chairman Steve Dunn explains that career paths for CEs lead in two likely directions: field supervision and project management. Within these two major categories there are “a lot of opportunities for students who major in construction,” he adds. For example, “Right now there’s a strong demand for safety engineers.”
Both Dunn and Beyer have noted an increase in the number of women and minorities entering CE, including a growing pool of diverse applicants from large universities. Large firms, Dunn says, should help promote this diverse student body by making it very clear to the schools, as JE Dunn has, how important diversity is to the company.
Iana Tassada: PM at JE Dunn Construction
Group’s RJ Griffin
Growing up, Iana Tassada loved architecture, but in college she decided engineering fit her skills better. “Because of my interest in architecture, civil engineering made the most sense.”
At first she thought of a career in site design. “Then I realized I didn’t want to be behind a computer most of my time, so I went into construction.”
The project management aspect intrigued her the most. “When you’re a project manager in construction it’s like you’re running your own little business. You’re managing subcontractors, working within a budget, solving problems.”
Tassada got her BSCE from Georgia Tech in 2005. “At career fairs I interviewed with a lot of construction companies, and RJ Griffin was the one I was most interested in.”
She was hired by RJ Griffin & Co, a member of the JE Dunn Construction Group, as a project engineer. This is the company’s entry-level position. “You typically start out in the field,” Tassada explains. “You work under a superintendent and you see the everyday processes and procedures of construction.”
After finishing her fieldwork Tassada worked as an assistant project manager. She was helping build the Cage Center, an athletic facility at Berry College (Mt Berry, GA). Now she’s a project manager on the job. She’s currently finishing up the athletic facility and when that’s done she’ll manage further construction at Berry College. “They liked the work we did,” she says happily.
Her job makes her the female boss of a lot of male construction workers and subcontractors, but Tassada says that’s gone very smoothly. “At Tech there were a lot of men in my classes, and I learned how to have a thick skin,” she says. “I started off in the field with a good attitude. I told them that I wanted to learn from them and would ask a lot of questions.
“I also told them I’d do whatever I could to help them and they liked that. They’ll test you, but as long as you do your job well, they’ll be OK.”
Black & Veatch: the broad view
As a global engineering, construction and consulting company, Black & Veatch (Overland Park, KS) takes a broad view of diversity, often going beyond the common U.S. definitions, says Shirley Gaufin, chief HR officer. Craig Anderson, employee relations director, adds that the company has a number of diversity initiatives.
“Our division leadership teams focus on inclusion and diversity management. We make our folks aware of the many cultural differences represented in our organization.”
The company defines inclusion as recognizing and valuing the differences of its global workforce and providing a platform for professional and personal growth, client satisfaction and value creation.
Gaufin and Anderson agree that the Black & Veatch hiring market is strong for civil and structural engineers. In addition to its large, active internship program, the company has hired 200 new college grads in the last year, plus a number of experienced employees.
Moussa Sissoko: multidisciplinary approach at Black & Veatch
Growing up in Bamako, Mali, West Africa, Moussa Sissoko was fascinated by “tall buildings, bridges and other engineering marvels. “I was amazed and intrigued by how they can be so tall yet so sturdy, so heavy but never crushing under their own weight!
“So many questions went through my head. When I got older I discovered all the things engineers do to improve our way of life and what I would need to do to become one. I knew from that moment I had it in me to become an engineer.”
In 2000 Sissoko arrived in the U.S. to study at Michigan Technological University. He received his BSCE in 2004. As a student he was president of the school’s African Student Organization.
At a campus career fair Sissoko talked to recruiters from Black & Veatch. He was hired soon after by the company’s Ann Arbor, MI office. After eight months he was promoted to his current position of Level 2 structural engineer. He’s a design engineer, working with teams of other techies on projects that require a multidisciplinary approach.
Sissoko’s projects usually have him designing steel and concrete foundations. His most recent project involves a retrofit of an existing power plant, where he’s designing a transformer foundation.
Last December, Sissoko was selected as a modern-day technology leader at the Black Engineer of the Year awards STEM global competitiveness conference.
Monique Aguilar: bridge-building for Caltrans at DMJM Harris
When Monique Aguilar was a kid bridges fascinated her. Her Miami, FL hometown has dozens of bridges, and she saw them as works of art.
“When I was little I told my father that I wanted to be one of the people who builds the bridges,” she says. “Eventually I understood that I wanted to be a structural engineer.”
Aguilar had to break some barriers to reach her dream. “When I was a child a female engineer was almost unheard of in an Hispanic home,” she says. Partly due to her own strong efforts, she thinks that’s starting to change.
She got a BSCE and a BSAE from the University of Miami in 2002 and followed with a 2003 MSCE from the University of California-Berkeley. After working for a while in Tampa, FL she decided she wanted to be back in California. She worked briefly at a building design firm, then returned to her first love, bridges, when she was hired by DMJM Harris (New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA).
Her job consists mainly of designing highway bridges for Caltrans, the California State Transportation Authority. She was recently promoted to bridge engineer, and added the interesting task of mentoring new hires in structural design.
One of Aguilar’s current projects is the Clinton Keith overcrossing in Murrieta, CA. “It’s a replacement bridge,” she explains. “We’re putting in a much larger bridge to accommodate the area’s growth.”
The bridge has to remain open at all times, so Aguilar planned the new design in stages. “Instead of one simple bridge, it’s designed as three bridges. We build two new bridges, one on each side of the existing bridge, and when they’re complete people drive on the new bridges while we tear down and reconstruct the middle bridge.”
She’s also working on a two-bridge project on I-405. “One is a new bridge, and the other is a widening.”
One of the greatest challenges in California is seismic design. “That’s especially interesting in bridges,” Aguilar says. “Designing to withstand earthquakes is the most interesting and most challenging thing I do.”
Because of the constant need to improve the infrastructure, the call for bridge designers is expected to grow. This, declares Aguilar, is definitely a career that demands on-the-job training. “In school you learn a lot of theory and technical things, but it isn’t until you have an actual bridge to design and really start working on it that you learn all the things you need to do.”
Patricia Metcalf: deepwater projects for ExxonMobil
Like many kids, Patricia Metcalf didn’t know what engineering was. But she did well in math and science, and she enjoyed her hands-on training in construction.
“My dad built our house as an ongoing project,” she says. “We grew up without a lot of money, but whenever Dad could spare some money he bought material to work on the house, and we kids helped him. We did everything from mixing concrete to nailing up two-by-fours. We all lived in a trailer while this was going on, so I saw firsthand how construction improved my personal quality of life.”
Today Metcalf is a construction execution supervisor in the development company of ExxonMobil (Houston, TX). Her job responsibilities involve offshore fabrication.
“I’m doing deepwater projects,” she explains. She is part of the process that turns ships into production vessels, and has a variety of other projects, too. As a supervisor, she works with employees based in Spain, Singapore, Africa and the Middle East who are managing the construction.
CE was a natural in college, she says. She got her BSCE from the University of Texas in 1985, and she also has a 2003 MBA from Rice University (Houston, TX).
As an undergrad she was in a car accident and had to drop out of school for a semester, but kept up with her work in one difficult course while she was recuperating. Her perseverance helped her get her first job with Exxon, now ExxonMobil.
“That semester showed up on my record as all Qs, for dropped courses, except for the one A,” she says. “The recruiter from Exxon asked about that and I told him the story. He was so impressed with the way I could keep working even in the hospital and I think that’s why they hired me.”
Her first job was in the field, in charge of new gas station projects. “I loved that job,” she says. “But ExxonMobil develops managers by providing lots of different experiences, so they move you around.”
She was working on her MBA about the time that Exxon merged with Mobil, and took the opportunity to try the commercial side of the business. She wrote economic models for a number of transaction agreements, particularly for pipeline deals.
“Working on construction projects, I’ve often seen that commercial issues can be a challenge. Having an engineering degree with commercial experience gives me the right background to support this area of the business.”
The emergence of technical women is an exciting change that Metcalf has seen over her twenty years in the industry. “Today I am confident in sending young women engineers to work anywhere in the world,” she says.
Site leaders, whether they’re male or female, wear the same white hardhats. “When construction workers see that white hat it doesn’t matter who’s wearing it. They respect the folks with the white hats. It takes away any gender issues.”
As CEO Rex Tillerson has made clear in the ExxonMobil diversity statement, the company’s global policies promote diversity and inclusiveness and prohibit any form of discrimination in any company workplace, anywhere in the world.
Laura Kelly is a “city” engineer with the U.S. Coast Guard
The U.S. Coast Guard base in Kodiak, AK is the largest in the U.S. Taking care of it is like running a small town, explains CE Laura Kelly. “We’re in the midst of upgrading all the underground utilities. I’m like a city engineer.”
Her job with the Coast Guard is in a multi-faceted design office. “We have a lot of former WWII Navy base infrastructure,” she explains.
She recently finished a major water/sewer project that goes under the major highway linking the base to the city of Kodiak and to the airport. “I reworked the entire design and located new utilities within legal easement boundaries,” she says. “We had subtenants who built over the sewer, so we can’t locate new lines in exactly the same place.”
Kelly is proud to be a governor’s appointee and vice chair on the Alaska Seismic Hazards Safety Commission. She’s initiated action to make sure the state’s schools are designed to withstand earthquakes. Thanks to her efforts, five schools are now scheduled for seismic retrofits.
Kelly always wanted to live in Alaska. She grew up in Wyoming, and was working as a staff engineer for Aqua Terra Consultants there when she and her husband decided to make the move.
“He’s a teacher, so we knew we were flexible to move almost anywhere,” she says. He found a job at a school in Kodiak, and Kelly followed him with their six-week-old baby. “I stayed home for about six months after we moved but I put in applications,” she says. A job opened up with the Coast Guard and she applied and got it. She’s been with the Coast Guard since the beginning of 2000.
Kelly has her 1995 BSCE from the University of Utah, but CE wasn’t her first career choice. She began with a BA in American studies with a minor in physics from Smith College (Northampton, MA).
She interned at the Smithsonian Institute (Washington, DC) and was offered a job as an assistant researcher, but the country was in a recession, and she thought engineering would be a better field. “I wanted a job where I could earn a paycheck without having to live in a big city.”
Kelly says the transition from attending a women’s college to studying and working in a male-dominated field wasn’t difficult. “There’s at least one major advantage,” she says with a laugh. “I never have to wait in line at the restroom.”
Dwayne James: engineering RFPs at Jacobs Engineering
In high school and at the University of Kansas, Dwayne James had the opportunity to intern with Sverdrup (St. Louis, MO). When he completed his BSCE in 1994 he went to work for Sverdrup fulltime. After hours he went to the University of Missouri-Rolla for his 1997 MSCE. In 1999 Sverdrup was acquired by Jacobs Engineering Group (Pasadena, CA), and James continued at the St. Louis location.
After years as a structural engineer working mostly on bridge projects, James recently accepted a new job at Jacobs. He’s now in marketing, as the inside sales coordinator.
The new job, he decided, would enlarge his knowledge of the company. “I’d been working in engineering for thirteen years, and I decided that learning the marketing and sales part of the business was a good career move for me.”
The transition hasn’t been easy. “Engineering is math- and science-oriented. Now I’m answering requests for proposals (RFPs) from clients and prospective clients. I’m marketing the services of the company by writing instead of designing. I’m learning how to use the other side of my brain.”
All the same, he’s using his technical skills on the new job. His engineering background helps him quickly grasp the language of the RFP and make sure the response matches up with the stated need.
Many RFPs, he explains, go into detail about the services the client expects. “We have to go back to our engineers and project managers,” he says. “I talk engineer-to-engineer on past project history and an approach to solve the problem. Then I go back and match it with the marketing side of things, putting what the engineer in me is saying into proposal language.
“The company has noticed how engineers can smooth the way. They are bringing more engineers over to the marketing side of things.”
James believes it’s important to stretch your horizons and challenge yourself. “That’s also why I decided to get involved in politics,” he says. He’s been on the Ferguson, MO, city council since 2006. Before that he served on the town’s planning committee and was president of his neighborhood association.
He is also active in NSBE. “On a local level I’ll be a speaker at events, and on the national level I make sure my company is represented.” He’s also using the NSBE connection as a networking avenue for African American engineers at Jacobs.
The firm, he notes, is huge. “With more than 54,000 people, you can feel lost. At a recent NSBE conference there were thirteen representatives from Jacobs and none of us knew each other.”
Now, working with HR, “We’re launching a NSBE strategic initiative to promote networking, and it’s expanded company-wide. It helps other African Americans know they are not alone.”
Networking and mentoring are important to Jacobs. “I was lucky enough to have people who took me under their wings,” he says. He’s doing his best to return the favor.