Civil & structural engineers: doing great things
in transportation, energy, infrastructure & more
From bridges and traffic circles to gas and electric supply, these techies love the jobs they’re doing
“We need engineers who understand the issues of communities. We need diversity for growth.” – Adiele Nwankwo, SVP at Parsons Brinckerhoff
By Sue Marquette Poremba
The federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is providing funding, both directly and indirectly, for projects by companies that focus on civil and structural engineering. That’s helping, but it has not transformed the industry, says Adiele Nwankwo, SVP at the Detroit, MI office of Parsons Brinckerhoff (New York, NY), a worldwide planning, engineering and program and construction management organization. “I suspect that without the stimulus money there wouldn’t be as much work as there is now, but the industry is still suffering the effects of the recession,” he declares.
On the other side of the coin, the industry will probably be facing a shortage of technical talent in the future, Nwankwo and many others fear. The pool of young people going into the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions is shrinking in the U.S.
“The client base in the infrastructure industry is changing,” Nwankwo says. “We need engineers who understand the issues of communities. We need diversity for growth.”
One way to rebuild the talent pool and improve diversity is for industries and colleges to reach out more actively to minorities. Parsons Brinckerhoff is building relationships with schools to encourage minority students in STEM, Nwankwo notes. “We also encourage our employees to reach out to clients and the community to improve our diversity.”
Carlos Ramirez: building bridges with Parsons Brinckerhoff
Growing up in rural Mexico, Carlos Ramirez had no TV and no computer, but this, he says, actually spurred his curiosity and inventiveness. His family moved to California when Ramirez was a teenager, and he entered high school not knowing a word of English. But he learned fast. With his family crammed into a trailer, Ramirez studied in the shed.
“There were a lot of circumstances against me,” he says, “but I used those adverse circumstances as the fuel to make me want to succeed.”
Ramirez wanted to study engineering, and after high school he landed an intern job with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Sacramento, CA. The job, along with scholarships, funded his education at Sacramento State University, and he got his BSCE in 1998.
“My focus has always been the design of bridges,” Ramirez says. “Even since I was little I marveled at the massive structures and knew I wanted to be involved with them. Now, as a professional engineer, I have that pleasure every day.”
As a senior bridge engineer at Parsons Brinckerhoff, Ramirez is happily involved in all aspects of bridge design, including cost estimating, modeling, structure inspection, load rating, retaining-wall design and construction support. Bridge engineering is fascinating, he says, because every project is different.
It’s the complexity and challenge he enjoys most about his job. “Even the smallest project brings unique problems and solutions,” he says.
Ramirez has spent the past two years on the Hazel Avenue Bridge project in Sacramento.
He was lead engineer for this bridge widening, which includes two miles of corridor improvements. “The project includes a multi-use path for cyclists, pedestrians and equestrians,” he says. The estimated cost of the project is $25 million, one of the most expensive projects in Sacramento County history. Construction began in the summer of
2008 and completion is anticipated this year.
Remembering his own struggles and the help he got from a local minority engineering program, Ramirez does his part to help others reach their goals. He mentors engineering students and high school kids interested in engineering, and does recruiting in the Hispanic community.
“Getting to where I am today was certainly not easy, but I think that many people go through what I did to make something happen,” he says. “I know I’m an engineer today because people believed in me and helped me. Now I’m happy to mentor as many people as possible and help them reach their potential.”
CE Michelle Gribler: roadway design at Parsons Brinckerhoff
Michelle Gribler thought she wanted to go into aeronautics, but as she progressed through her courses at the University of Washington (Seattle, WA) she discovered a keen interest in civil engineering.
“I liked the problem-solving skills CE required,” Gribler explains. “I also thought it would give me opportunities to make an important impact on
She got her BSCE in 2002 and found a job at a local branch of consulting firm HW Lochner (Chicago, IL), where she worked on roadway design projects and took a special interest in roundabout design. She moved to the Transpo Group (Kirkland, WA) for a year and a half, learning more about traffic operations and signal design and further honing her roundabout skills.
Parsons Brinckerhoff was a logical next move. “I wanted a company that offered the challenge of a wide range of project types and sizes,” she says. As a civil engineer at the company’s Seattle office Gribler is responsible for designing roadway alignments, profiles and channelization using Civil 3D software.
She’s currently working on a realignment to eliminate a traffic chokepoint at SR 522 where two state roads meet. The junction has a rush-hour delay of 48 seconds, which is bad enough, but it’s predicted to degrade into a 233-second delay by 2030. “That means there would be 150 cars queued up for a green light if nothing was done,” she notes. Fortunately, as the engineer responsible, Gribler is making sure that something will be done.
At BP, Dr George Li is an Arctic/floating systems engineer
CE George Li, PhD sometimes spends his morning in the Gulf of Mexico and
his afternoon in the Arctic. He doesn’t usually go there, of course, but his daily responsibilities as an Arctic/floating systems engineer at BP (Houston, TX) require him to shift his focus between hot and frigid conditions.
“For the Arctic project I work on characterizations of ice conditions for facility design,” he explains. “For deep-water projects I focus on risers: pipes connecting the platform on the sea surface to production or export facilities on the seabed.”
His Arctic project involves long-term exploration to find oil or gas under the Arctic Ocean. “We look at environmental conditions, how the ice moves about, the thickness and strength of the ice.” For the deep-water project in the Gulf of Mexico he’s developing test models of steel risers and simulating how they’ll move in the water and interact with soil on the seabed.
Li comes from China, where he got his BSCE in 1993 and MSCE in 1995 and worked as
a project manager. But he wanted to come to the U.S., where he got his PhD in CE at
Rice University (Houston, TX) in 2001. Then he went to work for BP’s technology group in Houston, TX.
His role as an Arctic engineer is very specialized. “I’m the only person in Houston working in this area,” he notes. The engineering he’s doing for the two projects is similar, and “Both my work background and my educational background gave me the fundamental knowledge for these projects,” he explains.
“In the Arctic projects I work with a well-defined customer base and act as a consultant. In the deepwater projects I’m working on new technology that customers will need in the future.”
His dual engineering role has given Li opportunities to travel and work on unique projects.
“I enjoy that,” he says.
Carla Suryamega: a wide range of projects at AECOM
The substandard transportation infrastructure in her Indonesian homeland inspired Carla Suryamega to become a civil engineer.
“I was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was fourteen when we emigrated to America,” she says. “The lack of transportation infrastructure was very noticeable in Jakarta. The roadways were overwhelmed with cracks and potholes and during the monsoon season the streets would always be flooded.”
Her brother, a civil engineer, told Suryamega about his interesting projects and she decided to try for CE, too. While she was working on her BSCE with an emphasis in transportation at the University of California, Irvine, Suryamega interned with AECOM in Orange, CA. She joined the company fulltime when she graduated in 2005.
Today she’s an associate CE, contributing design expertise and creativity to a wide range of transportation projects like highways, roads, bridges and drainage.
She uses Microstation/Inroads and AutoCad/Civil 3D software to prepare detailed plans, profiles and sections of roadways. She coordinates drawings with project managers, team members and others, while working to keep the projects moving along on time.
Her current project involves grade separation, a constant challenge, she says. It’s a long-term project, including construction of a railroad bridge and retaining walls to let two railroad tracks cross over a street and eliminate the grade crossing. “This grade separation will improve circulation of traffic and safety for the community,” she says.
When her work schedule permits, Suryamega stays involved with SWE and WTS, the professional network for women in transportation. She’s also getting ready for grad school.
“An MBA will definitely help my professional career,” she declares.
VP/CE Michael Jones oversees three units at Philadelphia Gas Works
Michael Jones was born in Philadelphia, PA. He began working for Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW, Philadelphia, PA) in 1981. He had just graduated from a dual degree program with a BS in general science from Lincoln University (Lincoln, PA) and a BSCE from Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA). Since then he has added an MSCE from Drexel University.
The new grad joined PGW’s gas distribution department to learn the operation of its systems and supervise construction and leak response crews. Today he’s the company’s VP of technical compliance and oversees three business units: the chemical services lab, environmental services and gas safety regulatory services.
“When I was a junior, my plan was to be an ME,” Jones recalls. But while he was at Lincoln
he had a chance to co-op in Nigeria for six months. “The work there was more civil than mechanical. The company had a contract to install oil storage depots in the north part of the country. I liked the civil aspect so much that I made the switch.”
At PGW, “We have more than 550,000 customers and more than 6,000 miles of mains and services in a densely populated urban environment. PGW brought me in with other young engineers to learn its operations: leak response, leak repair, pressure operations, gas main construction and all the other processes that go into running a local gas distribution company.”
He began to move up in the company, transferring to the distribution engineering and planning group where he did pipeline installation, contract admin, design work and more. “I got a higher-level view of the whole distribution system,” he notes. He moved up through several staff engineer positions to become a design engineer, manager, director, and now a VP.
But even as an exec Jones likes to be hands-on and visit worksites. “I was out recently on
an environmental cleanup,” he says. “I like to get out to sites for projects like geo-probe installations and monitoring or recovery well installations. I can get more familiar with the projects, and see our vendors and workers and even our regulators in action.
“Much of the construction work we do is involved with infrastructure replacement or improvement work by other companies,” he notes. “The water company might be replacing
a sewer or water main that could affect the integrity of the gas infrastructure, so we do the engineering and construction that has an impact on our system. And we coordinate the projects to bundle infrastructure improvements.”
Besides his regular duties Jones is an advisor to young engineers at PGW. Outside work he coaches his kids’ baseball team, and serves as a landing pad for their occasional flying knee drops.
Matthew Nyambega: high-voltage transmission lines at Pepco
Matthew Nyambega is a senior transmission engineer with Pepco Holdings (Newark, DE), which provides electric service to customers in Washington, DC, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. His group, he explains, designs high-voltage transmission lines. “It could be something simple, like just moving an existing pole, or it could be designing an entirely new transmission line.”
He grew up in Kenya where he went to Kenya Polytechnic and studied the design of buildings and civil works. He had wanted to study EE, but there was a mistake in his application process and he was admitted to college as a civil engineer. “So rather than wait for another year to start, I decided to be a civil engineer,” he says.
“But I felt boxed in. I wanted to improve my education and see more of the world.” He applied for and got a green card, but his Kenyan experience didn’t lead to a job when he first came to the U.S. so he enrolled at Temple University (Philadelphia, PA). He got a BSCE from Temple in 2003 and found his job with Pepco Holdings through a job fair.
As it turns out, his job lets Nyambega get involved in EE as well as CE. “I have the best of both worlds,” he says.
Currently he’s working on a new high-voltage transmission line for the city of New Castle, DE. “It’s a 138 kV line that will run from our New Castle substation to one of the city’s substations,” he explains. “The design calls for fifteen heavily loaded steel poles that will carry the transmission wire, hardware and three decks of distribution underbuild.”
Nyambega hasn’t forgotten the people he grew up with in Kenya. “I’m trying to build a library in the village where I was born,” he says.
David M. Velazquez, Pepco’s EVP for power delivery, adds that “As we transition our business through smart grid technology and begin to use more advanced equipment and materials, skillful civil engineers are invaluable. We need the innovation, creativity and varying perspectives that a diverse workforce brings, across all the dimensions of diversity, to be successful,” he says.
DIVERSITY-MINDED CIVIL ENGINEERING COMPANIES & OTHERS EMPLOYING CEs
See websites for current openings
|Company and location
|AECOM (New York, NY)
|American Water (Voorhees, NJ)
|Bechtel Corp (San Francisco, CA)
|Engineering, construction and project management
|BNSF Railway (Fort Worth, TX)
|BP Global (Houston, TX)
|Oil and gas
|CSX (Jacksonville, FL)
|The LPA Group (Columbia, SC)
|Parsons Brinckerhoff (New York, NY)
|Transportation and utilities infrastructure
|Pepco Holdings (Washington, DC)
|Electricity and natural gas delivery
|Philadelphia Gas Works (Philadelphia, PA)
|Natural gas utility
|Southern Co (Atlanta, GA)
|Energy for the U.S. Southeast
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