The Art and Science of Civil Engineering, an interview with Carmela Roberts
Civil engineering is an exceptionally demanding major, but it is also a major in high demand. Civil engineers design bridges, highways and many public spaces. If you live near a new housing development, the locations of the homes, roadways, sidewalks and driveways were not chosen or designed by an architect, but by a civil engineer who understood the art as well as the science of real estate.
My friend, Carmela Roberts, has been a civil engineer for 38 years. A 1982 graduate of UMass-Amherst, she is president and owner of the Roberts Engineering Group. Based in Hamilton, New Jersey, her clients include local governments, public utilities, developers, architectural and planning firms, and more. Today women represent only 14 percent of the workforce in civil engineering. That number was no doubt smaller when Carmela finished college, and it’s still too small. There’s far more diversity in computing, where 25 percent of workers are women.
As a college admissions advisor I meet many high school students who are considering careers in engineering. The first two years of an engineering education follow a common core: four semesters of Calculus, four semesters of Physics and two of Chemistry, supported by computer programming coursework. Some schools offer freshmen and sophomores an earlier opportunity to “do engineering” than others through projects or volunteer work. This was not the case when Carmela began her education in 1978.
What led you into civil engineering?
Math and science were never hard for me in high school. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was 18. How do most people know what they want to do at that age? But I had an uncle who worked for NASA. To me, he was the greatest thing on two feet. He made me really appreciate math and science, made me think about big ideas, big projects. Construction requires you to think big.
What was the civil engineering curriculum like when you were in college?
It was much harder than high school. I was on the tennis team freshman year at UMass. But I dropped it, after I saw how hard I would really need to study. I couldn’t go to parties when I had to get up for 8 o’clock classes. You needed five semesters of math and four semesters of physics to get the degree. Linear Algebra is the hardest math that I’ve ever taken in my life. Aside from knowing my uncle, I had no life background in engineering or construction. In that way I was behind the boys. They’d laugh at me because I didn’t know what a hex nut was. The education was a lot like training for the military. You need the self-discipline to finish.
UMass got me to everything that I’ve gained in my life. My professors told me to take the first of my two professional exams, The Fundamentals in Engineering, while I was still in college. That gave me a head start towards my Professional Engineering license after I started working.
How has it changed since you graduated?
It’s more demanding, but there’s also more hands-on problem solving. The professors are better. They want their students to see what’s happening in their world and figure out how to design solutions.
What was your first internship while you were in college?
I did not do an internship until after I finished my junior year. I worked for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. They sent me to concrete and asphalt plants, where I learned how concrete and asphalt were mixed and poured.
What do you look for when you seek interns today?
If we get someone, it will usually be a junior. I’m looking at the GPA. But everyone’s taken the same classes. I want to know whether they have had prior experience at another firm, or with projects at school where they’ve done the work that we do. I also like to hire students who have had more than a semester of instruction in AutoCAD. I’ve also found that Eagle Scout and Gold Award (Girl Scouts) winners make for good candidates.
Why a junior?
If the internship works out well for the intern and for us, I would like to have the opportunity to entice the intern to stay with us after graduation.
What was your first job?
I graduated into a recession in 1982. I was supposed to work for a firm in New York that was expected to work on the West Side Highway, but that never happened. Instead I took a job at Fort Monmouth (NJ) where I was actually classified as a mechanical engineer.
And from there?
I worked for two years for the Monmouth County (NJ) Engineering Department designing bridges before I went into consulting. I worked for three firms, 15 years for the last one, before starting my own business 16 years ago.
What would you advise high school students who are considering civil engineering?
The basis of civil engineering is still physics and math. But you must also have a good foundation in reading, history and writing. If you cannot express yourself, you’re going to struggle in college. If you stress over math and science, cannot imagine working late to use it to solve problems, then don’t go into engineering. It’s going to be misery.
You need to be right and left brained in this field. Engineering is analytical, right brained. You have to think step by step. But civil engineering has art, left brained. You can make public spaces beautiful as well as functional. Also, get your brain in the groove early. Get some experience, even if it’s doing yard work, fixing things around your house.
And for college students who have completed most of the curriculum?
Look for an experience that will give you the opportunity to learn as many things as quickly as you are capable. A smaller firm, like mine, will give you exposure in the midst of complexity. A larger firm might pay more, but you will get more menial work for months, possibly a year. You’re also more likely to be laid off after the work ends and have fewer talents to fall back on to find your next job.
I worked around civil engineers at the start of my career, working as a city planner for New Jersey Transit, then for Renaissance Newark, Inc., a non-profit urban economic development corporation. The best, like Carmela, try to create public settings and spaces that are a source of pride, worthy of care by their community after the work is completed. If you thrive in science and math, but also want to work around creative people like architects and city planners, civil engineering might be your field.
Considering colleges and careers? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call me at 609-406-0062