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From the Editor: What’s Past Is Prologue, But the Future Seems Uncertain

Robert Schickel on December 3, 2020 - in Articles, Column

For the last three months, I’ve been teaching a senior design class at Valparaiso University, my alma mater. When I say “at Valparaiso University,” I mean “at home, for the university, through online software.” The pandemic has had a significant impact in the way classes are taught worldwide, and I can only speak to my experiences. We’ve been using Zoom software and, as you probably know, all you see are a number of windows with the students’ faces.

Difficulties of Online Learning

It’s a challenge to get any real interaction with and among the students. It’s easy for them to just sit and watch, and it’s easy for me to just talk. Asking questions helps some, but it just doesn’t work as well through the screen.

Another negative aspect is that I really don’t get to know the students. My normal way of teaching and mentoring has always involved a closer teacher-student relationship, but it’s difficult online. The students have really tried, and I credit them for their efforts. As the semester comes to a close, I hope this was successful. (I’m in the process of writing the final exam, so I will find out soon enough.)

Adding Old Friends

One of my students asked if I would make a presentation to the Valparaiso University Student Chapter of American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), discussing my career and noting differences in the places I’ve worked. The topic was general enough, so I suggested a panel discussion with two of my colleagues, both also retired.

The three of us started working in the same room in Indianapolis in the Bridge Design Section at INDOT. Through the years, however, our careers took very different paths. Mark followed a very technical route, designing and leading the designs of various types of structures. I followed a much more general-management approach, albeit primarily in the design field. Bill received an MBA degree while working at INDOT and settled on a career in development, first with the state commerce department and then later with Duke Energy.

Some of our other coworkers remained at the State Highway for the remainder of their careers. Others became, among other things, a manager of a chain of furniture stores, the head of the national site-selection group for Target, and a safety manager for a large corporation. We all started “in the room where it happens” as Lin-Manuel Miranda sings in his musical Hamilton. It’s amazing what you can do with a civil engineering degree! I’m sure Informed Infrastructure readers all have similar colleagues.

Personal Paths

Most interesting to me were the questions and thoughts of the students after we finished talking. One of the more-insightful questions was how our personal relationships with colleagues affected our career paths. As we each tried to answer, I think we all remembered those early years.

Bill knew fairly quickly that he didn’t want to work in that type of environment doing that type of work for the rest of his life, and he mentioned it was most likely because of his boss’ lack of enthusiasm. Mark was noticed for his technical expertise, and he was asked to move to different departments and found some early opportunities that challenged him. I witnessed the section leaders and department heads and how they seemed to thrive in supervision and leadership of groups of people. For the three of us, the relationships we had very early on paved the way we would follow for years to come.

Strange Times

We had trouble when someone asked for advice on how to deal with this pandemic as it relates to interviewing for positions, and developing good work habits and relationships. I was the last one of the three to retire (in February 2020), just before everything was shut down. So except for the occasional birthday celebration, none of us has much experience with this type of virtual environment. Doing a job search, applying and interviewing online seems like a huge challenge to me, and the three of us weren’t sure we could do this successfully. I hope those of you in positions to hire new graduates can provide as much guidance, support and understanding as you can.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve met during my professional years, including Bill and Mark. Interacting with students helped me remember those influences, and I recommend talking with young engineers whenever you can. Share with them your career path to help them understand the various ways a career develops. It’s good for them … and good for you. 


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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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