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Civil and structural engineers: improving the nation’s infrastructure

With barely passing grades on the U.S. infrastructure report card, there’s plenty of work for civil and structural engineers

“When we finished my first highway project, I enjoyed driving on it. Now we’re doing a subway project and I use the subway every day.” – Belinda Rivera, HNTB

There is some good news from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE, asce.org), which issues a report card every four years on America’s infrastructure. After holding steady at a D since 1998, America’s ASCE infrastructure grade rose to a D-plus in 2012.

Despite the modest improvement, the ASCE estimates that an investment of $3.6 trillion in this country’s infrastructure will be needed by 2020.

The highest rating – a B-minus – was in the area of solid waste. This score was the result of improvements in recycling and reduction in trash generation. In 2010, the recycling rate was 34 percent, more than double the 14.5 percent figure from 1980. Per capita trash generation rates have remained constant over the past twenty years and have even begun to show signs of decline in the past several years.

Railroads received a grade of C-plus. Ridership on Amtrak has nearly doubled since 2000, and since 2009, capital investment from both freight and passenger railroads has exceeded $75 billion.

At the other end of the spectrum, inland waterways and levees each received a D-minus. The nation has an estimated 100,000 miles of levees, and the cost to repair or rehabilitate them is estimated at $100 billion by the National Committee on Levee Safety.

Infrastructure drives the economy
“The report card tells us what needs to be done to catch up,” says Jim O’Brien, managing director of professional and education activities at ASCE. “Infrastructure is vital to our economy. We truck goods over our roads and bridges, import and export through our ports, and carry raw materials and goods over our railroads.”

O’Brien feels that civil engineering is a very robust and exciting area. “Every day we see new materials and new challenges.”

Right now, civil engineering is focused on the concept of sustainability. “We are looking to balance the environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainability. We have to protect the environment in a way that is economically feasible and has a positive impact on society,” he says.

As for exciting new materials, O’Brien notes one in particular. “We can now put sensors in concrete mix. When this is used on the deck of a bridge or in a building, the sensors deliver ongoing reports on the state of the concrete, alerting engineers of the need for maintenance or repairs.”

Read on to learn what some talented and diverse professionals are doing to improve America’s infrastructure with the resources at hand.

Belinda Rivera is a NY-based project engineer at HNTB
At the New York City office of HNTB (Kansas City, MO), an infrastructure solutions company, project engineer and squad leader Belinda Rivera is the “right-hand man” of the project manager. “I work on design projects for airports, railroads and the Department of Transportation. I make sure the design is moving along. I also handle invoices and progress reports, and interface with clients if the project manager isn’t around,” she says.

Rivera says each job involves developing technical specifications and drawings for bids. During the course of the project she coordinates the work, reviews its progress, and pulls together a bid package to submit to the client. She supervises four or five engineers, depending on the project. “As a project engineer in my department, I also mentor young engineers, which I love to do,” she adds.

One of her current projects is the Tottenville Terminal Station Yard flood mitigation feasibility study in Staten Island, NY. Rivera is responsible for developing an effective plan to protect the terminal station yard and its facilities from flooding caused by severe weather.

Civil engineering from the get-go
Rivera grew up in the Bronx and still lives there. Her mother is from Puerto Rico and her father, a longshoreman from Chile. There are many engineers in her family.

Rivera earned her BSCE in 1989 from Manhattan College (Riverdale, NY) and became a licensed professional engineer in New York State in 1996. During college, she did two summer internships with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, working in aviation planning and then in aviation civil engineering.

After graduation, she started with HNTB, then known as Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff, and worked on highway projects including the Cross Westchester Expressway.

In 1991, when her office relocated to New Jersey, she left the company to start an injection molding business with family members in the South Bronx. “We got it up and running but it never really took off,” Rivera says. The following year she went to work for Consolidated Edison of New York, first in transmission structures and then in the distribution engineering department.

In 1999 she returned to HNTB as a senior engineer. Her responsibilities grew with time, and she took her current position in 2004.

Overcoming hurdles through performance
Rivera says over the years she has faced many obstacles as a Hispanic woman. “You have to prove that you’re more than just a minority or a woman. But once I prove I’m a good engineer, my performance speaks for itself,” she says.

Rivera is also a dancer and says this has helped her confidence as well. “I’ve performed on stage, which has helped me to do presentations at work for executives. If I can get up on a stage in a belly dancing costume, I can present in front of a group at the company,” she says with a laugh.

Her work has its challenges. “There is a lot of work out there. Our infrastructure is hurting and needs to be upgraded, but budgets are tight. Fitting in everything that needs to be done is a challenge,” she admits.

“But I love my work. I can see it and touch it. When we finished my first highway project, I enjoyed driving on it. And now we’re doing a subway project and I use the subway every day. We’re doing a lot of emergency response work for Superstorm Sandy recovery, including flood mitigation at six subway stations,” she says. “It’s very rewarding.”

Rivera received team awards for the Cross Westchester Expressway from the American Council of Engineering Companies of New York in 2006, and for a border crossing at Champlain, NY in 2007 from McGraw Hill Construction.

During her career, Rivera has belonged to the Society of Women Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Outside work, she volunteers with the parish council of her church.

Diversity outreach at HNTB
Amy E. Simmons is director of talent acquisition and associate vice president at HNTB HQ in Kansas City. “We have over 350 job openings in multiple civil engineering areas,” she reports.

HNTB hires engineers at all career levels, from interns to division operations officers. Simmons points out that rail is a hot area for engineers, particularly in power, overhead catenary systems, traction power and signal design.

Simmons says the company constantly monitors postings to ensure HNTB jobs are available to all. “We use major career boards like Monster and CareerBuilder, as well as local, state and federal government agencies, university events, and veteran career fairs. We change posting strategies quarterly,” she says.

“Diversity plays an integral role in our organization. We look for technical excellence which has no face, no race, and no ethnicity.”

This year military and veterans are a big focus, and the HNTB recruiting team has joined in partnership with other companies to work with several military and veteran outreach organizations. In February HNTB attended the Society of American Military Engineers annual transition workshop and job fair.

Other company outreach efforts include Prep-KC, a program for sophomores and juniors from Kansas City high schools, which aims to increase college readiness and access to high-quality employment for more than 60,000 low-income students in six bi-state urban school districts. Students participate in interactive workshops that provide them with a view into the world of architecture and engineering.

Once on board
Two programs at the company help promote engineers’ careers. The HNTB Fellows program recognizes employees who demonstrate leadership and exemplary work.

The young professional development program assists early-career professionals in designing their own career paths. Employees who wish to continue their educations can receive reimbursement for certain educational expenses.

Consol Energy geomechanical engineer Maria Jaime: fascinated by the underground
Founded in 1860, Consol Energy (Canonsburg, PA) produces natural gas and coal, and its operations include mining, hydraulic fracturing and coal processing. Maria Jaime is a geomechanical engineer on the coal side of Consol Energy’s business.

“I’m in the coal operations support group. We provide the technical support to the coal mines. The overall group has engineering, maintenance, processing and exploration teams. I belong to the engineering group and we take care of the mines. We work to keep the mines running and operating safely. We take steps to prevent any rock collapse along tunnels, shafts and mine entries,” Jaime says.

Jaime’s group deals with earth engineering, from surface operations to the 2,000-foot depths of the mines. “Basically, our team of four takes the work done by the exploration group, which investigates the geology in place, and with that information, based on the type of rock, disturbances and other conditions of the mine, we determine the size and strength of supports needed to safely remove the coal,” Jaime says.

She also runs a rock testing laboratory where she supervises technicians and new engineers.

Jaime grew up in Bogota, Colombia, where she attended the University of Los Andes. She received a BSCE in 2003 and an MSCE in 2004. She came to the U.S. in 2005 to pursue her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh (PA) in rock mechanics, which she got in 2011.

In Colombia, Jaime did geotechnical engineering at a large consulting firm and then at a construction company in Bogota. After coming to the U.S., she interned at a geotechnical consulting company, Geomechanics Inc (Pittsburgh). In 2010, she was hired by Consol Energy.

Jaime’s interest in the underground started early. “I liked going in caves when I was a small girl. When I was fourteen, we went on vacation to Norway. I was impressed by the tunnels. My father told me civil engineers were responsible for designing and building those. The civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Pittsburgh launched a certification program in mining engineering, and after my first class I found an application for all my training, passion and interests. I got the Consol offer before graduation.

“I go underground once or twice a week. It’s not for everyone, but I like the feeling. When we go underground to investigate problems, we’re the rock doctors. We prescribe the installation of the supports needed to fix any bad conditions,” she says.

Building credibility
Jaime says there are very few women at the coal mines. “Ninety-nine percent of the people working here are men. I’ve even heard that women in the mines were considered to be bad luck.

“I’m very confident. I have to be firm and give directions without hesitation. Even at the office I’m the only woman among fifty or so engineers. Being young and a foreigner also add to that. It takes time to build credibility,” Jaime explains.

The credibility factor remains one of Jaime’s biggest challenges, particularly when she has knowledge about new technologies others are not aware of. She finds it gratifying when others embrace something that she recommends.

“For some people to adopt new ways takes time. But this industry is beginning to change and adopt new ideas. More women are coming in. Today twenty-five percent of those taking mining classes are women. Only a few years ago it was more like five percent,” she says.

In her spare time, Jaime, who also has a teenage son, teaches bridge design classes at the University of Pittsburgh as a volunteer in a program called Bridges for Prosperity. Bridges for Prosperity helps people in developing countries build and maintain bridges that improve access to healthcare and education. Her students ultimately travel abroad to serve as advisors on the projects.

She is a member of the ASCE, the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration, and the American Rock Mechanics Association.

Consol Energy values diversity
Diversity is playing an increasingly important role at Consol Energy. “We believe that new, diverse ideas from a wide range of partners provide us with a competitive advantage in delivering our products in the safest, most compliant fashion. Whether through our direct hires or our supply chain partners, our commitment to diversity will keep us at the forefront of the energy industry for the next 150 years and beyond,” says Brian Hoffman, general manager of supplier diversity.

Project director Yaye-Mah Boye Sar: due diligence at AECOM
AECOM (Los Angeles, CA) is a glo-bal provider of professional technical and management support services. As a project director at the Arlington, VA office of AECOM, Yaye-Mah Boye Sar works on behalf of private investors and government agencies interested in pursuing large transportation projects via public-private partnerships (PPPs).

After twelve years working fulltime at AECOM, Sar is now working part time while she pursues her MBA at Fordham University (New York, NY). She expects to receive her degree in 2018. She has a BSCE from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (New York, NY), and is a registered PE in the state of Connecticut.

Before deciding to scale back, Sar was director of AECOM’s PPP technical due diligence advisory services in North America. She was responsible for project delivery as well as business development.

The recent Goethals Bridge replacement, a PPP, is one project she remembers with pleasure. “The Port Authority and the public get a new bridge faster and the risks are shared between the public sector and the private partner. The private sector partner gets paid to finance, design, build and maintain the bridge, and is held to high performance standards throughout. This is a fairly recent procurement concept in the U.S., but it is common in Canada, Australia and Europe. Growing U.S. infrastructure needs and constrained state budgets mean we can expect to see more PPP projects in the future.”

Sar, who is fluent in Wolof and French as well as English, was born and raised in Senegal, West Africa. She came to the U.S. in 1999 and started as a construction management intern in 2001 with AECOM, where she worked on highway and bridge reconstruction projects.

“After five years in design engineering, I wanted to broaden my experience and exposure and get more project management experience, so in 2008 I transferred into the PPP group and in 2012, I was promoted to director of the North American technical team,” says Sar.

Not what they expect to see
Sar feels her background has helped her stand out. “My different background and ideas are valued here. I know I have an accent and I look young but having a PE really helps. Sometimes it can be a challenge earning the trust of clients on projects where hundreds of millions are at stake. But it’s a great feeling when a client wants you on the next project. It makes all those late nights and long hours worthwhile,” she says.

Over the last decade, Sar says, the AECOM workforce has evolved to include an increasing number of young engineers and women. “Half of my current team is from outside the U.S. Almost everyone speaks another language. And we work with other talent from around the globe. It brings so much richness,” she says.

Sar has received a number of awards and was named an ASCE 2010 New Face of Engineering. She was featured on the cover of Engineering News Records in October 2006.

Diversity is welcomed at AECOM
Teuila Hanson, vice president of diversity and inclusion at AECOM, says the company integrates diversity and inclusion training into leadership training. “We apply a diversity lens to our promotion and succession activities,” says Hanson.

Director of talent acquisition Rob Burris adds, “AECOM welcomes diversity of talent. We believe a diverse workforce represents the communities we serve and can best address the complex challenges we confront in our work.”

AECOM has put targeted diversity initiatives in place to reach professional-level diverse talent. The company also makes diversity a focal point of its annual college recruiting initiatives and works closely with diversity groups and associations at schools.

Burris expects hiring to remain steady in 2018. “In 2013 we hired a large number of technical staff, and we expect a similar level of need into 2018. All our opportunities are published on our careers site at www.aecom.com/careers.”

AECOM offers alternative workweek and flexible schedules to its employees to improve work-life balance. The company is a sponsor of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, Women in Transportation, ACE mentoring, and other local programs that mentor and sponsor high school students.

Jessica Folkes is a project engineer at Skanska
Jessica Folkes is a project field engineer with Skanska USA (New York, NY), working out of its Tampa, FL office. She is currently working on an I-275 bypass rebuilding project. “The road crosses a lot of small roads. It involves twenty-one bridges and is four miles long. We’re reconstructing the whole four miles, building eight new lanes, then demolishing eight old lanes. I make sure we are building the project to designer plans and specifications as approved by the DOT,” says Folkes.

She explains that the field engineer coordinates between the field and design sides. She makes certain that everything is within the design standards and specifications. “Each project is different,” she says. “My last project was a cable-stayed bridge in Delaware. Skanska gives you exposure to different areas.” Her current focus is on drainage issues, but her next project could be structural.

Folkes, who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, says that she was first drawn to civil engineering as a child on family visits to the U.S. “I was impressed by the buildings and bridges. My first idea was to be an architect, but I took an interest in physics in high school and that got me into engineering,” she says.

She did an internship in Jamaica as a civil engineer for Tankweld Special Projects. “We worked at Norman Manley International Airport. We rebuilt the terminal, and I was a junior field engineer.” Folkes got her 2007 BSCE from Georgia Southern University (Statesboro), then started working at Skanska in Atlanta as a field engineer.

Challenges and solutions
Folkes admits that construction is a male-dominated industry, but says Skanska has been open and accepting. “Sometimes I wonder how to tell someone who has a lot of experience how to do something. Being young, I rely more on specs, standards and the book,” she says.

Meeting budget constraints while maintaining quality and safety is another challenge, but she says, “At the end of a project, when you can look back and see what you built, you forget all the problems.”

Folkes, who is a member of SWE and ASCE, received Skanska’s Making a Difference award in 2012 for the cable-stayed bridge project. She loves being out in the field despite the long hours. “It’s taking something on paper and making it a real thing that others can use.”

Skanska offers many opportunities
Skanska hires civil engineers as field and office engineers, superintendents, estimators and cost engineers. Elizabeth Merritt, human resources services director, says that an aging transportation infrastructure and shifting population centers are driving a need for improved transportation structures, which translates into opportunity at the construction services company.

Merritt says, “I look for candidates who are professional and understand business and management. And to grow professionally in our industry, candidates need to be open to relocation throughout their careers.”

For entry-level engineers and construction managers, Skanska offers a two-year core competency training program, which helps new employees gain experience in safety, cost engineering, field engineering, estimating and field supervision. The company also offers up to $6,000 per year in tuition reimbursement for course work related to the employee’s career path. “This is available to employees starting on their first day of employment with Skanska,” notes Merritt.

Diversity and inclusion are important to the company, Merritt says. “Inclusion fosters communication and brainstorming opportunities that develop and fine-tune best practices in our industry. I enjoy watching groups of young engineers come together at our training events. The ideas they have and the questions they ask always get me to see things from another perspective.”

Catherine Sherbine manages human factors and operations at Westinghouse Electric
Westinghouse Electric Company (Cranberry Township, PA) provides nuclear engineering products and services and is a supplier of new nuclear plants globally. Catherine A. Sherbine, manager of human factors and operations, has been with the company for thirty years. She has a BSCE from the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

“I started right out of school as an engineer doing probabilistic risk assessment. I used my general engineering background to assess risk in nuclear plants. My next job was in fluid systems design for primary nuclear systems,” Sherbine says.

Sherbine moved into project management and licensing in the late 1990s, working on existing nuclear power plants to increase their capacity. “I was often put into the role of spokesperson for nuclear power. I was passionate about it and the designs I had been working on,” she says.

Then she started recruiting new talent. “That prepared me to move into management. It also let me interface with a large part of our international organization. It allowed me to grow and see diverse cultures and fresh perspectives. And it helped me develop relations across the company,” she says. “In my thirty-plus years at Westinghouse I’ve had the opportunity to hone my engineering skills to continually improve processes and to build and lead impactful teams.”

She took on her current role in October. Today she manages a group of about fifteen engineers. The group looks at designing human interfaces in nuclear power plants to minimize errors. “We also validate and verify that the design follows recommendations, that errors are minimized, and if there is an error, that procedures, indications and notifications are in place to allow for quick recovery.” Sherbine also ensures that adequate resources are available and that the group is talking to the right people within and outside Westinghouse.

Doing her best professionally and personally
Female civil engineers were a rarity when Sherbine was in school. “I felt I had to work harder. It was hard at times, but it made me a better person. Now there are a lot more women engineers, and we’ve hired quite a few,” she says proudly.

Seeing others grow and become successful is one of the rewards of management, she says. “I’m dedicated to seeing that my team does the best it can. I’ve had success in getting people who were struggling in various ways promoted into leadership positions. I helped them find the right path,” she says. “A lot of people now come to me for advice on leading teams.”

Melissa M. De La Pena: project manager and operations lead at CH2M Hill
Melissa M. De La Pena, PE, is a project manager and operations lead at CH2M Hill (Englewood, CO), an infrastructure and environmental company.

“My primary responsibility is managing transportation projects: highways, bridges and transit projects. I lead a staff of twelve and deal with clients, stakeholders and subcontractors in our Los Angeles office,” says De La Pena. “I put out fires every day.” She makes sure projects keep moving forward, often traveling between state and local agency offices in the Los Angeles area.

Engineering: a family matter
De La Pena has a 1992 BSCE from the University of California-Los Angeles. She comes from a family of engineers. “All three of my siblings are engineers and all went to UCLA.”

During school, she interned at engineering company Parsons Brinckerhoff (New York, NY) for two years. After graduating she entered a two-year Caltrans rotation program, where she worked in hydrology, traffic design and construction and planning.

She followed that with nine years at Parsons Brinckerhoff, where she did geometric design and layouts, environmental work, drainage design, and planning work. She became a certified project manager and began managing projects.

In 2004, De La Pena was recruited by CH2M Hill as a project manager. “I took over as group lead. I also started doing marketing, project soliciting and working with clients. I was involved in building new relationships and growing our base of projects,” she says.

Keeping up with the workload and clients is a challenge, but De La Pena loves seeing things get done. “I love seeing my staff grow and take on more responsibility; I love seeing a project through to completion.”

De La Pena also enjoys giving back. She attends career days with SHPE and talks to students in colleges. She also enjoys going to high schools during Engineers Week. But WTS, an international organization for women in all aspects of transportation, is her main volunteering passion at this point. “WTS encourages women’s participation in this industry. I was the president of the LA chapter in 2011 and 2012, and I’m still on the board,” she says.


Check websites for details.

Company and location Business area
AECOM (Los Angeles, CA)
Engineering and support services
CH2M Hill (Englewood, CO)
Infrastructure and environmental support
Consol Energy (Canonsburg, PA)
Coal and gas production
HNTB (Kansas City, MO)
Infrastructure solutions
Skanska (New York, NY)
Construction services and development
Westinghouse Electric Company
(Cranberry Township, PA)
Nuclear engineering products and services

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