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Civil Engineering Overview 

Vincent J. Ziparro, P.E.

Chief Engineer, Vice President, and Director
Harza Engineering
Chicago, IL

B.A., Physics, De Paul University
B.S., Civil Engineering, University of Notre Dame
M.S., Civil Engineering, University of Notre Dame
"As Chief Engineer, Vice President, and Director, I am responsible for engineering operations, reporting to the company president. I am responsible for hiring, training, and the professional development of staff. I also serve as Project Manager on major Haiza projects."
"Get as much contact with the profession as possible. It's good to go to town meetings where they deal with engineering problems and hear the reaction and to listen to people, their complaints, and to get a sense of how people view the things that are happening around them."

"I have recently taken on additional responsibilities in covering from the board level, the Asian market, which encompasses the Philippines, Malaysia, and China and Korea and Laos. In that capacity, I will visit the various countries and various clients that Harza maintains in those parts of the world, and also the various project offices that we have there and maintain a liaison with both the client and with the Harza people on site with this office here in Chicago."

Q: Why did you decide to study civil engineering?
I studied civil engineering primarily because of the influence of my father who was a small contractor in Chicago. And he had always instilled in me that the most important person that showed up on the job was the engineer. Always dressed very nicely. And always working with the superintendents and in explaining how things are to be done. So he felt this would be a good profession for his children to enter.

Q: So when you went to school did you immediately decide to major in civil engineering?
I also was kind of a tinkerer, so I kind of felt I had a little bit of an aptitude for engineering, so with that in mind I kind of stayed with it and I enjoyed both math and science and again, talking to counselors in my high school, all indications were that, since I liked it and since I had the aptitude for it, engineering would be a good profession for me.

Q: What was school like?
School was very rigorous, although I also participated in band, so there was some diversion. I took a combined course. My high school counselor felt that, at the time, engineers were spending too much time in numbers and science and not enough in the arts and letters, so at the time I graduated from high school, there was a three/two program, where you spent five years in college, three at a liberal arts college, and two at an engineering college, and ended up with a degree both in arts and a degree in engineering. So, because of that, the course load was always quite strenuous. I remember sixteen hours a semester being a light load. Usually it was eighteen or twenty-one hours per semester. And, of course, a lot of laboratories with the science -- physics and a chemistry lab, which took more time than you got credit for, of course.

Q: Did you zero in on a specialty?
I always felt that I wanted to be a structural engineer. In the summers I would work with my dad in the construction business, and we were always doing structural things - concrete foundations and steel erections. So I never deviated from that focus.

Q: What did you specialize in, in your graduate degree?
Structural engineering.

Q: Is grad school different than undergrad?
Much different, I felt. I felt at grad school there was maybe a less structured type environment, where you got to participate a little more with your professors and got to work more on an equal level, rather, where the professors have the upper hand, so to speak in a classroom situation in undergrad school, but there seemed to be a better working atmosphere with the professor at the graduate school level.

Q: Did you think that school prepared you, for the way the work gets done in the real world?
That's an interesting question. I think the academics are very important and prepare you for the work environment. I did not participate in the concrete canoe building, although our university did. I did participate in the American Society of Civil Engineers -- at the student level and we did have some meetings and invited guest speakers and did those kind of professional activities. Didn't have a lot of time for too many other activities. So as far as how the university prepared for the work environment, other than the academic preparation and knowing the subject matter, there wasn't a whole lot of interaction for team type activity. Although we did have, thinking back, we did have a seminar wherein we worked in teams preparing a presentation which was a very worthwhile experience.

Q: How has technology changed within engineering?
Ziparro: Well primarily through the use of the computer, which has opened up significant areas that were just not available when you working with a slide rule and a calculator and with mathematical models primarily. Computers just make things that were impossible, when I graduated from school, possible today in the way of modeling structures, for instance. In addition to that, all the drafting that we're doing today is done by CAD, by computer again. And when I first joined the company, I remember a major project we did in Virginia, the Bath County Pump Storage Project -- we had maybe two floors of drafts people working on that project -- 50 to 70 draftsman as the job peaked. We just recently completed a similar project in Georgia called the Rocky Mountain Project -- and that project, we had a handful of CAD operators producing as many drawings in maybe half the time. So I think that will continue. That process will continue. One of the biggest challenges we have is keeping up with the hardware and the software technologies. As soon as we buy a computer it seems that in three to four months there's some new speed or some new chip or some new advancement that requires us to invest more. And it's that way with software. And I think that will continue. Those are some of the things that are happening in the field and I think that's throughout engineering basically.

Q: Where do you see jobs for engineers in the future? What should students be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
Ziparro: Several things. I think engineers will need to be a little bit broader in their background and I know engineer curriculums are pretty jammed as they are currently, dealing with the technical aspects. But I think an important attribute would be a language. I think a language -- if some engineer can take on some language, working knowledge, fluency, if possible, they will have a tremendous advantage. I think also to take on some financial type background is important these days. The most recent buzz word in our profession is privatization and most of the utilities are privatizing their businesses and they're looking toward engineers to opine on asset value, for instance. I never knew what that meant when I got out of school, but I think obtaining those kinds of skills and being able to present is also important. Make presentations. Communication skills. Again, engineer's curriculums are filled with laboratories and number crunching and there isn't a lot of time to develop those other skills, but they are becoming increasingly important.

Q: What about your specialty in particular, do you find that there's a great demand of structural engineering?
Ziparro: In our particular field, structural and civil engineering there is a continuing need for rehabilitation and of existing structures. There's constant concern over seismic activity. We see that in California all the time. It seems that we still have a way to go in developing seismic criteria and seismic designs that can withstand predictable -- not predictable earthquakes, but earthquakes that occur. Here in Chicago we have been looking for structural engineers, licensed structural engineers and we find that they are very hard to obtain. Obviously there's a demand for those folks in the engineering profession. It is very important, though, that you obtain a license. I found that some people have not paid attention to that and they get on in their career and find it very difficult to go back and take an exam to obtain that license. It is very important for a company like ours to have its people licensed. It's a form of recognition and in many cases it's required that they actually put their license on the drawing.


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