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 Building the Future

Few disciplines offer as many possibilities as civil engineering, which lays the foundation for future success.
This year marked the 10th anniversary of the I35 bridge collapse in downtown Minneapolis, MN. The structural failure, which resulted in 13 deaths and hundreds of injuries, heralded in a modern awareness about the deteriorating state of the country’s bridges.
That prompted a closer look at other components of the American infrastructure, including roads, dams, airports and water treatment systems, and the news wasn’t good. Over the past decade, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has continued to issue poor grades when evaluating the infrastructure.
While the professional association recognized that some gains have been made, the fact remains that aging elements in our infrastructure pose significant risks. Many individual elements have surpassed their original life expectancies, but are still expected to withstand an expanding workload.
What the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card doesn’t address is that a significant number of the country’s civil engineers, those who are most experienced with designing, retrofitting and assessing infrastructure, are readying for retirement. Their departure could leave a significant knowledge and experience gap, which would only exasperate and delay attempts to improve the country’s infrastructure grade.
But there’s an upside to all of this: Heavy demand plus shrinking workforce equals job opportunities for civil engineers entering the workforce today, as these featured engineers have found.
Davis & Fang Modernize Wood Group’s Portfolio
As a little girl, Mary Davis watched her father pore over the technical drawings he’d bring home from the office. Plus, he would take her and her twin sister out to the refinery, which may sound boring to many young children, but not to Davis.
She’d get excited when he explained how he designed some of the massive structures on site. These experiences inspired Davis to also want to create large entities.
“At a young age, I knew I’d follow in his footsteps,” she recalls. “Since I got to go with my father to the refinery, I was always interested in construction and appreciated how big things are.”
And Davis has done just that. First she earned a degree in civil engineering. Now as a civil/structural engineer for Wood Group, she’s actually been assigned to the very refinery her father used to bring her to during her childhood.
With U.S. corporate headquarters in Houston, TX, Wood Group is a diverse engineering and technical services firm that operates in a multitude of industries, including oil and gas.
“I get to update one of the units my dad engineered in the 1980s. I’m upgrading it with my name on the new construction work packages,” she says proudly.
At the moment Davis is involved with two refinery projects, both of which demand she venture into the field on a regular basis.
“A lot of engineers only see what they’ve engineered on paper. I love to see things as they’re getting built,” she comments. “There are things you see differently on site, like anchor bolts. On paper, they look one way, only a few inches, and when you stand next to one, you realize it’s taller than you.”
While Davis focuses on land-based structures, Sam Maopeng Fang’s expertise is assessing the structural integrity of off-shore oil platforms.
“In the U.S. there are 2,000 platforms, and two thirds of them have been in the water for 20 years, and they experience corrosion and cracks. We have to know how to repair them in place and keep people safe. That means there’s a lot of work for engineers to shore up those structures,” says the structural engineer who’s been working with Wood Group since 2015.
Like his colleague, Fang traces his engineering interests back to his father. In fact, he attributes his decision to specialize in the ocean engineering subspecialty of civil engineering to a tradition his father started when Fang was a young boy.
He explains: “My dad traveled around for work and before he’d go, he’d build a paper boat for me. Even back then, I knew I wanted to do something with water. I wanted to build, but I also wanted an element of water.”
Additionally, Fang credits a mentor in helping him keep perspective when projects become complicated as they so often can.
“I’m always climbing a steep learning curve,” Fang comments. “The task is important and the stakes are high, but there’s never enough time to learn and master every part. But [my mentor] told me the journey truly matters. By thinking of the journey, that makes me focus on the moment. For these few hours, I can make sure I get all I can out of them, and that helps me deliver.”
Find Wood Group career opportunities at woodgroup.com/careers. Connect on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Employer Profile: Wood Group
U.S. Headquarters: Houston, TX
2016 Sales: Approximately $5 billion worldwide
Core Services: Projects and modifications, operations and maintenance, decommissioning, subsea, automation and controls, clean energy, digital solutions
Company Highlights: More than 600,000 kilometers of subsea pipeline; largest semi-submersible gas production facility
Website: woodgroup.com
Wiley Taps Into Variety at American Water
By definition, infrastructure consists of the basic structures and services required to sustain a society’s everyday needs. What’s more basic to those needs than clean water?
And it’s not just about the water coming into homes, offices, medical buildings or manufacturing facilities, but it’s also treating the wastewater generated by humans and businesses.
Of course, there’s also the danger from natural disasters, such as the Oroville dam overflow in California last winter or the record-breaking levels of untreated water flowing through the streets of Houston, TX during Hurricane Harvey at the end of August. These incidents strain water treatment systems’ capacities to meet customer and regulatory requirements.
Civil engineers lead many of the efforts to ensure the water streaming out of our faucets is safe. Civil engineers also build, maintain and upgrade the treatment equipment and facilities. Nicole Wiley, PE, has experienced virtually every aspect of these duties to some degree. For the first 12 years of her career, she assisted clients in a variety of roles, assigned to a variety of projects, such as pilot-scale testing studies and planning studies.
“The planning studies included a projection of population and water/wastewater demands and an evaluation of the system’s ability to meet those needs in terms of capacity, reliability and performance,” she says. “The studies included recommendations for capital improvements over the next 15 years with cost estimates for the recommended projects.”
Wiley enjoyed the eclectic nature of consulting, and hoped she’d be afforded the same variety when she accepted a staff position with American Water. The publicly traded water utility and treatment company is based in Voorhees, NJ. Fortunately, Wiley needn’t have worried. After nine years with the organization, she still experiences a diversity of assignments.
“Since American Water owns so many water and wastewater systems, [there are] opportunities to work with a lot of different water and wastewater treatment processes with diverse issues that challenge me,” she notes.
Many of Wiley’s projects involve legacy engineering, and learning the back stories of the facilities and systems has become a favorite task because she can confer with the senior technical staff that helped design and operate the processes.
“I’ve been able to travel the country and visit dozens of treatment plants. And each was unique, as were the people. The best part of my work is being able to talk with people who’ve been operating a water treatment plant or system and hearing the history of the system and learning through their experiences and their lessons learned,” she says.
“The challenging part of my job is working collaboratively to find a solution that satisfies all of the stakeholders,” continues Wiley. “Often we have to recommend solutions that balance the desires and needs of operators, regulators and investors while limiting the impacts on our customers.”
Personally, she also feels she must balance the satisfaction of finding a competency niche with her desire to fight complacency.
“It’s easy to stay at a job or position you have been at for a while because you’re comfortable, and the feeling of knowing what you’re doing and being in that role is pretty great. However, it’s important to challenge yourself and step outside of that role to learn new skills and really become a valuable employee,” she remarks.
Wiley exercised her own advice this year when she accepted the job as senior planning engineer at the company’s New Jersey American Water offices.
“In the end I believe this versatility will help me contribute more to my company and will help me move up more quickly,” she states.
Find American Water job opportunities at amwater.com/corp/careers. Connect on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Employer Profile: American Water
U.S. Headquarters: Voorhees, NJ
2016 Revenues: $3.3 billion
Core Services: Contract services for operations, maintenance and management, including for municipalities; supplies and treats water and wastewater for the military
Company Highlights: Largest publicly traded water company serving 15 million people in 47 states and Canada; named one of CR’s 100 Best Corporate Citizens
Website: amwater.com
Ksontini Implements the WisDOT Roadmap
From potholes to detours to congested highways, complaining about the state of our streets has become a favorite pastime for daily commuters. Apparently, there are legitimate reasons for their gripes.
ASCE reports Americans spent more than 6.9 billion hours in heavy traffic during 2014, 20 percent of highway pavement is in poor condition and another 32 percent of urban roads are judged to be in poor condition. In fact, the country’s road infrastructure received a D grade on the 2017 ASCE Infrastructure Report Card.
Given the condition of our roads, civil engineers practicing in the transportation sector should be revved up for the possibilities of projects to repair, expand and construct new roads, highways and bridges. But plans can sometimes get stuck in neutral when budgets and resources are restricted. ASCE reports an existing backlog of $836 billion in highway and bridge capital needs.
Despite the fiduciary limitations inherent to state and federal government endeavors, Najoua Ksontini, PE, a consultant review and hydraulics supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), still finds the work fascinating.
“I’ve always had an interest in solving problems and [working] in the built environment,” she explains. “I’m especially interested in the impacts of urbanization on the natural environment.”
Ksontini’s first professional experience with the state agency, with lead offices located in Madison, came as a college student when she landed an internship. Although she accepted a position with the Wisconsin Southeast Regional Planning Commission after graduating, Ksontini remembered her experience with WisDOT and how she was intrigued by the technical aspects of the work being done by staff engineers.
So when the opportunity to rejoin the department arose, she was eager to say yes. Ksontini entered WisDOT as a senior hydraulic engineer in the Bureau of Structures, and in 2010, moved into her current position.
In addition to applying her technical skills, Ksontini enjoys supervising other engineers.
“Two engineers in my unit specialize in hydrology and hydraulics. They work with regional staff and with structural engineers in our office to develop preliminary designs for highway bridges over waterways,” she explains.
Other members of her team collaborate with consultants regarding bridge designs and various plans, and then relay the details back to Ksontini, who coordinates all of the elements for everyone in the unit.
“The most challenging part of my work is prioritizing tasks and balancing the workload,” she observes.
Indeed, large projects, such as designing and constructing bridges, typically involve multiple parties, often representing multiple disciplines. That requires a lot of coordination and teamwork. Directing it all and interacting with people in different roles happens to be the part of her job Ksontini enjoys the most.
“Throughout my career I’ve found I’ve learned so much from my coworkers. There are always several ways to solve a problem. Reaching out to others to get opinions and hear different perspectives will broaden the options and always ensure a more successful project outcome,” she explains.
However, an effective team doesn’t form without guidance. It behooves hiring managers to identify a group’s personality and then identify candidates whose skills and individual personalities will blend in rather than detract. When building her team, Ksontini insists on strong technical abilities, but also seeks candidates who demonstrate refined communication skills and a desire to further their knowledge and abilities.
“I look for someone who shows initiative and isn’t afraid to ask questions,” Ksontini offers. “The best advice I’ve received is don’t stop learning and keep asking questions.”
Find WisDOT career paths at wisconsindot.gov/Pages/about-wisdot/careers/default.aspx. Connect on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Employer Profile: WisDOT
U.S. Headquarters: Madison, WI
2017-19 Total Budget: $6.64 billion
Core Services: Works with county and local agencies to support transportation systems, including roads, air and rail, along with bicycle and pedestrian projects
Company Highlights: The ZOO Interchange in Milwaukee is one of the largest projects in the department’s history; upon completion, it’ll showcase 9 miles of reconstructed freeway and 73 bridges
Website: wisconsindot.gov
Lewis Recycles Career Options at Waste Management
According to Ken Lewis, PE, “any where there are people, there are solid waste jobs. It’s a unique service, and it’s underutilized.”
Lewis is Waste Management Inc.’s director of post collections for the Northern California and Nevada market. Headquartered in Houston, TX, Waste Management consists of three primary divisions - collections, post-collections and recycling - but serves communities in 16 states.
For most people, once they discard trash, there’s little thought given to what happens when those items arrive at the landfill. But that’s exactly when Lewis gets to work.
“I’m very heavily involved with strategic landfill composting businesses, landfill gas and recycling operations. I want to help position the facility to provide new types of services, away from being the final resting place to entomb solid waste,” he says.
Over the past several decades, landfills have become energy generators, as well as repositories for rubbish. As this transformation unfolded, new roles were created for engineers, and Lewis was uniquely poised to star in them.
After receiving his graduate degree in geotechnical engineering, a subspecialty within civil engineering, Lewis joined a consulting firm that partnered with landfill owners. As an entry-level engineer, he was often charged with conducting measurements and pulling samplings.
“I actually really enjoyed it,” he remembers.
From there Lewis made a few more career moves, and by the mid-1990s, he landed a position with a landfill company through which he learned more about the business and regulatory elements of the industry. In addition during this time, companies began investing in recycling, as well as initiated processes to capture the natural byproducts generated via decomposition and finding practical applications for the gas produced.
“Straight disposal in landfills is not a growing business unless there’s a newly populated area. We offset that by recycling and taking advantage of waste byproducts,” says Lewis.
Accomplishing these new endeavors necessitates engineering expertise, and Lewis stepped up to the challenge once again.
“In 1999 I was asked if I wanted to run a landfill. It was an opportunity to utilize my engineering and geology, but start acting as a business manager,” he notes. “A lot of managers were not engineering types at this point. I had a background others didn’t. My geotech background was invaluable in that particular job.”
As the industry continued to broadened its scope, there was a lot of shuffling between companies as they merged and formed new entities. That’s how his employer joined forces with another business and morphed into Waste Management Inc.
“We were adding new operations and sites, and I had opportunities to grow and learn,” Lewis states.
However, growing pains bring business challenges, and the company responded with various reorganizations. With each corporate restructure, Lewis assumed greater responsibilities, which eventually led to his current director role. As he gained managerial experiences, though, he made sure he retained a technical presence, too. Even today, Lewis keeps a hand in the engineering realm.
“Day to day, I’m not in the design end, but managing those who do the designing. I’m also helping to convert disposal facilities into other types of recycling and resource recovery [operations]. A real value to an organization is being able to see where the business is going and develop it with a large-scale strategy to help us take advantage of the trends on the regulatory and commercial sides,” he says.
“For me, I like that mix. It provides a wide range of experiences.”
Find Waste Management job paths at wm.com/careers/index.jsp. Connect on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram.
Employer Profile: Waste Management Inc.
U.S. Headquarters: Houston, TX
2016 Sales: $13.6 billion
Core Services: Collects, recycles and disposes of solid waste, along with handling resource recovery
Company Highlights: Developer and operator of waste-to-energy and landfill gas-to-energy, including 100 natural gas fueling stations
Website: wm.com
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