In a difficult economy, civil engineers seem to be holding their own. In fact, civil engineering job offers increased by 1.3 percent in 2002 over 2001, according to Salary Survey, a publication of the Committee on Professionals in Science and Technology (www.cpst.org).
New CE jobs are mainly with engineering service firms, says the report. And it notes that the representation of women and minorities in science and engineering does seem to be rising, although slowly.
Civil engineers draw up complex plans for large-scale projects and transform them into reality. It was precursor CEs who dreamed up Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. Present-day CEs are involved in design and construction of roads, transit systems, water-treatment and nuclear power plants.
Today’s CEs typically work for engineering consultants, contractors, public-service authorities and utilities. Consultants design and plan projects and study their effect on the environment. Contractors manage construction work onsite and develop construction processes and techniques.
The public-service organizations and utilities determine the need for projects like roads, bridges, dams, waterworks and power plants. Then they get them built and oversee their management and maintenance.
One of the great satisfactions of being a civil engineer is working on high-profile projects that affect and hopefully improve the environment for thousands of people. The thirteen CEs we interviewed agree that they get a kick out of pointing to something really big and saying, “I built that.”
|As a DMJM+Harris project engineer, CE June Susilo checks out the site of the Grand Avenue realignment for the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, CA.
June Susilo lays out roads and highways at DMJM+Harris
CE June Susilo does design work and lays out plans for construction of roads and highways. She works as an associate engineer for consulting firm DMJM+Harris (Los Angeles, CA). The firm’s clients include cities, counties and states across the country.
Before joining the company about two years ago, she worked for another consulting firm. “I was more of a designer there,” she says. “Here I have more responsibilities, including project management.”
Susilo’s family came to California from Vietnam when she was six. She became the unofficial translator for her father, whose English was limited. “I would try to sell my father’s landscaping services and also explain the aspects of landscaping.”
CE seemed like a logical next step, and Susilo received her BSCE from the University of California-Davis in 1997. CE, she says, “affects all of society, and you see the product, the outcome, right there. It’s just wonderful to see these huge infrastructure projects. We’ve got an important responsibility to the public.”
She advises job seekers to “get yourself out there, meet people and understand what real CE work is all about, whether it’s in the public or the private sector.”
|CE Alain Kouassi of Booz Allen Hamilton helps transit agencies build rail systems.
Booz Allen’s Alain Kouassi helps build rail systems
“I mainly work in transportation,” explains CE Alain Kouassi, an associate in the Newark, NJ office of consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton (McLean, VA). He helps transit agencies in New Jersey and North Carolina build light rail, heavy rail and monorail systems.
Systems integration and interface management are key parts of the job. For the monorail at Newark Liberty International Airport, for example, several contractors did the actual design work while Kouassi monitored the big picture.
“My role was to understand each discipline,” he explains. “Because of my civil background and my knowledge of systems, I was able to relate to both the CEs and the systems engineers.”
Kouassi joined Booz Allen about six years ago. Before that he worked for a small consulting firm in Atlanta that specialized in transportation planning. One of his notable assignments there was the transportation system for the 1996 Olympic Games. Kouassi also served as an attaché for the Olympic delegation from Ivory Coast, his home country.
He graduated in CE in Ivory Coast in 1987, and moved to the U.S. to work for his 1992 MBA degree from the State University of West Georgia-Carrollton in 1992. Then he went to work at the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority while earning his MSCE from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Kouassi believes that civil engineering provides an even broader foundation than other engineering disciplines. “Not only is it an exciting field, but it’s easier to change directions to another branch of engineering if you wish to.”
|CE Tanya Townsend graduated last year and joined a Florida water district.
Tanya Townsend designs for South Florida Water Management
CE Tanya Townsend designs structures for water quality control for the South Florida Water Management District (West Palm Beach, FL), including pump stations, levees and projects related to Everglades conservation. She received her BSCE from Florida State University last year and started with the district this January.
She generally works in a small, mutually supportive group made up of an engineer, a project manager and a construction manager. “Each person checks the others. You do the work and you have a colleague go over it to see if it works well,” she says.
“Later you have to work with the governing board for procurement. Then as you come closer to finalizing the project you deal with the contractors.” Typical projects range from six months to a couple of years or more.
Townsend sees the value of “being able to work in groups with each person contributing and offering checks and balances. Whether it’s in the office, in the field or in meetings working on contracts, it’s very important for you to have those skills.”
She chose CE as a profession because “It’s practical,” she says. “It’s stuff that people use every day.”
And she loves fieldwork. “It’s one thing to see the plans on paper; it’s another to actually see the physical structure. You learn more out in the field.”
|Isabel Solano of B&V; works in both the areas of water and wastewater.
Isabel Solano is in a CE support group at Black & Veatch
Working in the civil support group of Black & Veatch (B&V;, Kansas City, MO), CE Isabel Solano specializes in detailed design work for pumping equipment and layouts of water-treatment plants. That involves working with other CE and support groups, and touching base with EEs and MEs “to make sure that everybody is coordinated.”
She may also work with B&V;’s international division and with offices anywhere in the U.S. “Whenever they need more CE work than they can handle locally they call our group for help,” Solano explains. “That’s why I’ve been able to work in the areas of both water and wastewater.”
She’s also had the opportunity to inspect wastewater facilities in Puerto Rico and water, wastewater and solid-waste management facilities in Honduras.
Solano grew up in Colombia. She came to the U.S. for college and picked CE because one of her sisters is an IE. She received her BSCE from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is now studying for an MS in environmental engineering from the University of Kansas. She’s been with B&V; for about three years.
Being a woman in a typically male profession has been OK. “I think the male engineers I work with admire that a person can go into an area that isn’t traditional,” she says. “I’ve always had very good work experiences.”
Attention to detail is the most important skill a civil engineer can possess, Solano believes. “Most engineers are very organized and you just can’t be organized enough. We have to make sure that everything is done right. We do it once, then we check it, then we backcheck it.
“You have to be the type of person who looks at things and sees not just the outside but the inside – how it works and why it works and how you can make it better.”
|Marie-Elsie Dowell of Parsons Brinckerhoff: “CE is our family business.”
Marie-Elsie Dowell plans roads at Parsons Brinckerhoff
At Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Miami office, traffic engineering is the specialty of senior project manager Marie-Elsie Dowell. The work, she says, is “pretty exciting. We are involved from the beginning of a project all the way through to the design of it.” Her work involves a lot of planning, sometimes looking out twenty or thirty years into the future.
The team she oversees includes five engineers, a planner and an intern. The group also analyzes existing road conditions to recommend improvements, and figures how to minimize the impact of construction.
One of her major public works is the Miami Intermodal Center. This project of the Florida Department of Transportation includes new roads, a center to connect with an existing commuter rail system, plus a people-mover for Miami International Airport. On another project, Dowell works with the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, helping to plan future toll roads and improve existing ones.
Dowell has a 1979 international baccalaureate degree from St. Francis Assisi College in Port au Prince, Haiti, where she grew up, and a 1986 BSCE from Florida International University. She’s a member of the Women in Transportation Seminar, the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials and the Institute of Transportation Engineers.
“Civil engineering is our family business,” says Dowell with a smile. Both her grandfathers were CEs, and so are her father and her brother.
She’s the first woman CE in the family, but she doesn’t perceive her gender as an obstacle. “I make it a point to present what I do rather than who I am,” she explains.
Her first job was in traffic engineering, and she loved it. After that she joined a small firm in order to get “a good view of all the other disciplines.” But she still liked traffic engineering the best.
She joined Parsons Brinckerhoff eleven years ago. “It’s never monotonous. Every project is different, and I like the variety,” she says.
Communication skills are paramount for civil engineers, Dowell notes. “We deal with highly technical issues. Trying to put those into words that the public understands can be challenging,” she says. Besides, nobody wants a road in their own back yard, but everyone wants the most efficient way to reach their destination. “It’s always a balancing act.”
|CTE Engineers’ Oranit Pimsarn: “You get to go out and see what’s happening.”
Oranit Pimsarn works on roads and drainage at CTE Engineers
In her first job as a civil engineer, Oranit Pimsarn designs roadways and drainage systems for Consoer Townsend Envirodyne Engineers (CTE, Oak Park, IL). Her most recent project is a tri-level highway interchange near East St. Louis, MO. She’s part of a team of ten: mostly CEs and some structurals who design the bridges.
Pimsarn was born in Thailand. She lived in Hawaii before coming to Chicago about ten years ago. She interned with the Cook County, IL highway department while working on her 2000 BSCE at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
She likes CE because “You get to go out into the field and see what’s happening in the real world. You can really expand in this field and specialize in areas like structural work, drainage or environmental engineering.”
Teamwork is critical in the profession, she thinks. “And you have to be able to communicate with the public as well as internally.”
Barbara Chongtoua handles water resources at CH2M
At CH2M Hill (Englewood, CO), CE/ PE Barbara Chongtoua is a water resources engineer. “I work on a diverse set of projects, including flood-control design and storm-water quality permitting and management plans,” she explains.
As an associate project manager, she works with teams of two to five people, which may or may not include other civil engineers. “You could also have structural engineers involved and a transportation engineer if you’re designing something that would affect a roadway corridor – even MEs and EEs.”
Chongtoua joined CH2M about eight years ago after she received her BSCE from the University of Colorado-Denver. She was born in Laos, emigrated to the U.S. as a child and lived in California and Oregon before moving to Colorado in 1985.
When she started college she wasn’t sure which engineering field she would prefer. It was interning at the Denver Area Drainage and Flood Control District that helped her make up her mind. “When you take classes, everything seems so abstract, but in the field you see and touch things that are being built,” she remarks.
“In water resources, you’re going in and adding to the value of the environment. That has a strong appeal to me.”
Chongtoua has some interesting insider advice for CE job seekers. “Be persistent; continue to call,” she says. “We like to see engineers willing to ask questions and approach us. Don’t be afraid to pursue the firms you feel will be a good fit for you.”
|Juan Carlos Sanchez, a project engineer for HNTB, works on Texas roads.
At HNTB, Juan Carlos Sanchez works on Texas transportation
As a project engineer for HNTB Corp (San Antonio, TX), Juan Carlos Sanchez has been involved in a variety of road projects throughout Texas. His work includes design schematics, environmental assessments, tech proposals and project plans, cost estimates, route studies and right-of-way plans.
Sanchez was born in Texas and lived for a while in Mexico. “My dad was a plumber,” he notes. “Sometimes he would take the kids along to a job and tell us that if we went to college we could do even better than he did.
“Both my parents really stressed the importance of getting a college education to better ourselves. Those values stuck with me and now I preach them to my six-year-old.” Later, he plans to do the same for his two-year-old twins.
Sanchez started college as a pre-med student, but “After three years I switched over to CE. I hung out with the engineering students at school and I thought it would be cool to work on high-rises, bridges and interchanges.”
He’s been a CE for four years now and knows he made the right decision. “I’ve loved every minute of it, the late nights and long weekends included.”
He received his BSCE from the University of Texas-San Antonio in 1998. He went to work for a local engineering firm, where he’d been a CAD technician during his senior year of college. Three years ago he joined HNTB.
Sanchez belongs to the American Society of Civil Engineers and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Communicating, juggling multiple tasks, managing others and working on teams are crucial CE skills, he adds.
|Ignacio Murillo of MWH Global: “Teamwork is the name of the game.”
Ignacio Murillo: teamwork at MWH Global
Senior engineer Ignacio Murillo works in the Pasadena, CA office of MWH Global (Broomfield, CO), a firm involved with energy and environmental engineering, construction and water-resource management. His duties relate to municipal wastewater treatment plants. He evaluates and recommends treatment process alternatives, drafts preliminary design reports and generates detailed designs.
Murillo has been with MWH since he received his BSCE from the University of California-Irvine in 1995. He completed an MSCE at Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, CA) in 2000, and got his California PE license in 2002. He started in hazardous-waste remediation before moving to wastewater treatment.
“Teamwork is the name of the game” in civil engineering, he says. Designing a wastewater treatment plant, the CE must team with EEs, MEs, process or environmental engineers, and probably other CEs with structural and transportation focus.
“My mindset is that, as long as there are people on this planet, there will always be a need for safe drinking water and proper disposal of wastewater. Civil engineering looks at a solution in terms of benefits to humans and impacts on our environment. For me, the environmental impacts are sometimes the most challenging and interesting problems tackled by CEs.”
|Narendra Prasad of Westinghouse: tech leadership in nuclear plant design.
Narendra Prasad pursues nuclear safety at Westinghouse
Nuclear plant structures must be designed to withstand extreme environments. Hopefully they can ride out earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, even missile attacks.
At Westinghouse Electric Co, which builds and services nuclear plants worldwide, Narendra Prasad is a Fellow of structural and civil engineering. He provides technical leadership in nuclear plant design, review and analysis. “Public safety,” he says, “is the primary concern for a civil engineer.”
Prasad completed his undergraduate degree in CE in India, where he was born and raised. He was a teaching Fellow while working toward his 1732 PhD in CE at the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA), and joined Westinghouse about twenty-five years ago.
“Civil engineers work on projects for the benefit of the public,” says Prasad. “It can be the design of a school or shopping center, a water-supply project, a highway or bridge or nuclear station – the beneficiary is the public. And a fundamental requirement in any product coming from an engineer is safety.”
|Raphael Frost of Chicago’s MWRD: using the taxpayers’ dollars effectively.
Raphael Frost reviews permitting for Chicago’s Metro Water District
CE Raphael Frost works for the local sewers and systems section of the engineering department of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. He’s a permit reviewer, checking out proposed construction projects to ensure compliance with the district’s requirements.
“I make suggestions to help the engineering firm submitting the permit application meet requirements,” he explains. The projects he reviews are sanitary sewers or, in some cases, storm-water detention facilities. They may be for homes small or large, or for schools, fire-stations, hospitals, shopping malls, high-rise buildings – nearly everything requires a sewer.
Frost received his BSCE from the Virginia Military Institute in 1993. He worked for the bureau of construction of the Illinois Department of Transportation, first as an inspector for highway-improvement projects and later as a plan-preparation and maintenance engineer. He joined the Metro Water District in 2001.
“I think that government jobs tend to be more secure and provide a wide range of learning opportunities and chances for advancement or changes in career paths,” he says. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. “We are accountable to the public, and taxpayers want to know that their tax dollars are used effectively.”
|CDM’s LaJoyce Mullins-Williams handles liaison with Detroit Water and Sewerage.
CDM’s LaJoyce Mullins-Williams: liaison with Detroit Water
“I work in the specialties of water resources and environmental engineering,” says LaJoyce Mullins-Williams.
Currently she’s serving as liaison between her employer, CDM (Detroit, MI), a consulting, engineering, construction and operations firm, and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. She works on wastewater billing data, and with the flow-management and planning aspects of Detroit’s wastewater master plan.
In her four years with CDM, she’s been involved in sampling and long-term monitoring maintenance, surveying and pilot study inspections. She’s been part of a sewer overflow study and reviewed site plans and evaluation calculations, as well as long-term meter-trend analysis.
Mullins-Williams isn’t a CE; she’s one of those ancillary people so important on CE teams. Her 1993 BS from Tuskegee University (Macon County, Alabama) is in ChE and her 1997 Tuskegee MS is in environmental science. Before joining CDM four years ago, she worked as an environmental engineer for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, and as an environmental/water quality chemist for Clean Harbors Environmental Services, Inc (Braintree, MA).
“As an African American female,” says Mullins-Williams, “I’d like to see more women and minority engineers entering my field and moving toward top management positions. I look forward to being a mentor in the upcoming years.”
|Christine Reilly is a senior CE supervisor for highway admin at PennDOT.
Christine Reilly supervises highway admin at PennDOT
Christine Reilly is a senior CE supervisor for highway admin at the Bureau of Construction and Materials at
PennDOT (Harrisburg, PA), the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. There’s a lot of variety to the job, she says with a smile.
One highlight is project management for the Statewide Construction Documentation System Next Gen Project, which involves documenting procedures to ensure compliance with plans and specifications. She’s also responsible for helping to develop and implement new specs and procedures, and for setting up tech training and maintaining the statewide training budget.
On the side, she’s second VP for the Northeast Penn Section of the American Society of Highway Engineers. And she’s a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Reilly got her BSCE from Pennsylvania State University in 1994. She then worked as a transportation construction inspector with L. Robert Kimball & Associates (Ebensburg, PA), moving up to structures supervisor for an interstate expansion and reconstruction project.
She joined PennDOT in 1998 as a CE engineer trainee in the bridge design unit, moved to the QA unit of the bureau of construction and materials, and started her current job a year ago.
“The variety of positions appeals to me,” she says. Her projects have included computer-system development, working with electrical contractors on signals and lighting, environmental construction requirements, design of structures, work with material suppliers and more.
“In college, there were very few women in my classes and sometimes I was the only woman,” Reilly remembers. “My career has been a good experience.
“Sometimes I’ve felt that I needed to prove myself to some of the older gentlemen who were more set in their ways. But I didn’t mind that. I always work very hard to prove to everyone that I can do the job well, and I always gained their respect by the end of the project.”
Michael Gates is a freelance writer and editor based in Jersey City, NJ.