What I Did with My Degree: Civil Engineering
I majored in civil engineering at a midsized state school in Ohio, graduating at the top of my class in June 1982. I chose my major because I wanted a challenging course of study and I wanted to design and build large projects such as roads, bridges and buildings. I had a particular interest in water and water-treatment projects. I planned to initially work for a large consulting company, build my skills and project portfolio, and earn a master's degree, which at the time could typically be done in less than a year, with all or most tuition and fees waived as part of a readily available scholarship or adjunct teaching arrangement.
I had the good fortune of having some rewarding summer internships – two summers with a local firm that designed and manufactured controls equipment for the electric utility industry, and one summer in the local transportation office designing improvements to local highways. When I returned to school for my senior year, everything seemed to be on track for a seamless transition to full-time, professional work.
As often happens, things change along the way, and in my case, the economy took a dramatic turn for the worse in late 1981. By the time I returned to school after the Christmas break, the on-campus placement office had for all practical purposes shut down, as most on-campus interviews had been canceled. Getting into a good engineering graduate program required some advance planning to line up grants, research and teaching positions, so by that point, in January of my senior year, it was really too late to plan for graduate school that fall.
The only interviews that continued to be available that spring were with the military services. I was leery, but my favorite professor, who had served as naval civil engineering officer during World War II and the Korean War, encouraged me to interview and investigate military opportunities. He felt that military service had been an excellent way to start his professional career, because it offered both good technical and professional experience plus something else, a chance to experience some adventure and to develop leadership skills that would take longer to develop in the civilian job sector.
So I signed up for interviews with the Navy and Air Force. At that time, the Navy was actively recruiting for its nuclear submarine fleet, but not for its civil engineering corps. The Air Force was actively recruiting for its civil engineering squadrons. My interviews went well, and as graduation approached, I completed my physical and background checks. When I graduated in June, I moved back to Cleveland with family, and interviewed with a few small firms and spoke with an engineering head hunter. Around the same time, the Air Force called to offer me a civil engineering job, conditional on my ability to successfully complete thirteen weeks of Officer Training School in San Antonio, Texas.
I distinctly remember coming out of an interview with a small residential developer who offered me a position at a starting salary that was below what I had earned in my three summer internships, and even below entry military pay. I suspected the firm was in financial trouble and I seriously doubted it would survive the downturn. After four years of college and many months of a job search, the choice was clear – stay close to family and struggle through the recession working outside of my desired career (many of my college classmates chose that option) for several years, or head for Texas and the service.
I went to Texas, survived training and was assigned to an Air Force base near Salt Lake City, Utah. The experience was great, and in the coming years, opportunities for more responsibility and education were regularly offered. Four years into my Air Force career, I took a business law class at a local college and decided to explore the possibility of attending law school. At the same time, I found out that the Air Force had a program to send active duty officers to law school at government expense, in order to bring attorneys with significant non-legal military experience into the Air Force JAG Corps.
This program allowed me to attend a top ten law school. Six more years of active duty followed, then ten years as corporate counsel to an electric utility, and now I have a private law practice focused on the energy and utility industry. Having an engineering background was a great preparation for law school, where the emphasis is on analytical thinking and problem solving, which are skills engineers develop as undergraduates. My engineering background has helped me obtain positions in environmental, construction and energy law, where the underlying subject matter is technical in nature and the clients typically have engineering or other technical backgrounds.
My main message to new engineering graduates is to encourage them to persevere through tough economic times by taking some chances and considering positions and paths that one might not otherwise consider during booming economic times when job offers pile up as you graduate.