Edited by Margaret M. Mitchell
Like others featured in this column, Kathleen (Katie) Kelly, EIT, A.M.ASCE, took the nontraditional path to engineering, explaining that her road has been “anything but normal.” Her journey began at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, where she studied music and mathematics.
However, life threw her a curve during her sophomore year. Her mother relocated to West Virginia, and Kelly went with her.
Because she couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition, she took on work as an administrative assistant at an aerial mapping and survey company. It was there that she was introduced to civil engineering as a viable career.
Eventually she enrolled at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. After graduating, she entered the civil engineering industry as a public utility water/wastewater engineer, working with municipalities to provide waterline extensions, among other duties.
In 2018, she relocated to Atlanta and spent six months at a heavy civil construction firm working in estimating.
Kelly knew construction wasn’t quite right, but she says it was great experience while she searched for the right fit. She eventually landed on structural bridge design with a mid-sized firm and was employed there for more than three years before making the switch to her current role as a structural engineer in training at Arcadis.
When Kelly is not at work, she is just as busy. She is the director of the Georgia Section’s Younger Members Group, a practitioner adviser for Kennesaw State University’s student chapter, and the chair-elect for the ASCE Concrete Canoe Competition Committee.
What are some of the responsibilities that come with your new position at Arcadis?
In my new role, I’ve had the opportunity to not only continue bridge design for the preliminary and final design stages but also to expand my knowledge in the post-let world of engineering. Working as a reviewer of Georgia Department of Transportation design/build projects, I have gained invaluable insight that has helped me prepare my design calculations and understand much more about the project life cycle.
Additionally, at Arcadis I am much more involved with clients. One of my favorite aspects of my new role is working as the general engineering consultant for Cobb County, Georgia. I have the opportunity to be in the field more, interact with clients, and represent my company.
What personal traits or characteristics do you believe helped you achieve this new position?
Perseverance has always been my greatest strength. I believe it is my ability to persevere that facilitated my career move. Before accepting my offer at Arcadis, I took a two-month sabbatical after I almost left the civil engineering industry.
During my sabbatical, I interviewed for companies in various markets and received offers in Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, in varying roles from bridge design to management in an unrelated field. Ultimately, I chose Arcadis (in Atlanta) and am happy I did. I feel less like an impostor engineer.
I look forward to my projects. The flexible work policy at Arcadis allows me to serve my community and ASCE as well as achieve a healthier work-life balance.
What do you hope to accomplish in this position?
I am surrounded by knowledgeable engineers who are willing to teach and listen. It can be slightly intimidating as a young engineer, but I strive to maintain a growth mindset — professionally and personally. In this position, I hope to obtain my structural engineering licensure and continue learning the detailed cycle of a project.
What’s been your favorite design project to date and why?
My favorite project was an accelerated bridge construction project I had the opportunity to work on at my old firm. At the time, this was a new concept to me, and it really highlighted the advancements in project delivery and materials. This project replaced an interstate bridge in a weekend using ultra-high-performance concrete for closure pours of precast bridge pieces. Basically, it’s real-life Legos in bridge construction.
You helped launch a job shadow program for high school students. Why are opportunities like these important for students and the engineers?
Opportunities for exposure to civil engineering seem to be limited to existing connections. While not all civil engineers have family members who are engineers, in my experience, many engineers were introduced to civil engineering through their families.
My mom is a forklift operator who initially dropped out of high school at 15, and my dad passed away while I was in elementary school. As a first-generation college student, I did not have the opportunities others had. I relied on mentorship and job shadow programs in school to get this exposure to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
I strive to provide these opportunities for kids like me who may not be the typical engineer. These programs are helpful for me as well as the students. Talking about why I do what I do and why I love it helps keep my stress levels down, and these talks remind me why I became an engineer in the first place: to help people.
How can others get involved in STEM outreach/mentorship efforts as you have?
I would love to get anyone involved who is interested. You can email me at [email protected] Even if you aren’t in the Atlanta area, I would be happy to work together to get STEM outreach programs set up near you!
What is your No. 1 piece of advice to students who want to be civil engineers?
What is your No. 1 piece of advice to young engineers trying to move up in their careers as you have?
As Oprah Winfrey said, ‘You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.’ If you’re not happy in your role or with your salary or you’re experiencing problems, speak up! Your manager should want to work with you, and he or she most likely does not know what problems you’re experiencing.
I’ve spoken to so many young engineers who tell me they are looking for X, Y, or Z in a new position, but they really love their current roles. My first question is typically, ‘Have you talked to your supervisor about wanting to learn X, about having more flexibility for Y, about a pay raise to match your responsibilities?’ Not one person yet has told me they’ve already talked to their current employer about what they want.
There are some situations that may require you to change companies to advance your career — and that is OK! But before you do, ask for what you want.
How has volunteering and dedicating your time to the next generation shaped you as an engineer?
I know that my STEM efforts have shaped me as an engineer. At first, standing in front of 50 kids, I was awkward. Heck, I probably still am; I’m pretty sure it’s a personality trait for me. But speaking twice a month in front of large groups of children has kept me on my toes. I have never been asked as many questions from clients as I receive from fifth grade students. They have helped prepare me for anything that comes my way in a meeting!
What do you like to do for fun?
Fun for me comes in many forms. I love music, and I play the alto saxophone with a local community band. I craft and recently opened an Etsy shop selling resin crafts. I enjoy running (slowly), and I trained for a 5k for my 30th birthday in the summer. I love to read, and I love audio books and TED Talks. And I have fun taking my dogs for long hikes on weekends.
What is one item that you can share from your personal or professional bucket list?
One item on my professional bucket list is to design structures in outer space or on the moon. With technological advancements, I think it will happen in my lifetime. The effect of lower gravity on concrete curing has already been tested in space, as has using the moon’s surface as aggregate in concrete. Designing a structure that’s literally out of this world would be an amazing feat.
Margaret M. Mitchell is the editor in chief of Civil Engineering print magazine.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Civil Engineering as “Perseverance Has Its Place.”