The engineering industry attracts professionals with wonderfully diverse and varied backgrounds. And last year, ACEC California launched a Diversity Leadership Council, as part of an effort to highlight just that.
For the next few months, will be publishing blog posts that introduce engineering and land-surveying professionals with varied and diverse backgrounds. The engineering profession, after all, is made up of people – people from all walks of life, with different cultural influences, different academic backgrounds, and different (and oftentimes extraordinarily unique) stories about how they came to be an engineer.
Kwasi Akwabi is a registered civil engineer and project manager in the intelligent transportation systems group at Kimley-Horn, with 13 years of experience leading a wide range of transportation planning and design projects throughout California and other parts of the country. Kwasi graduated from UC Davis in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Kwasi’s core practice focuses on planning and design of freeway and arterial intelligent transportation systems projects. Outside of the office, Kwasi is an avid golfer and soccer player, and enjoys spending time traveling with his wife and two young daughters.
Q: What first attracted you to becoming an engineer? Was there a specific childhood connection? Or did you come across the engineering profession in your later academic career?
I loved to draw as a kid, and I was pretty good at it, so I really wanted to become an architect. However, the colleges I wanted to attend either required an art portfolio/evidence of formal art training (which I didn’t have) or didn’t have an architecture program at all. So, I scratched that idea.
I entered college as an electrical engineering major, but after a few quarters of computer science classes, I realized that wasn’t something I really wanted to do. My roommate was a civil engineering major, and had taken a lot of the same prerequisite classes I’d taken. His civil engineering classes seemed way more interesting and more practical, so I decided to switch my major to civil engineering. I’d always wanted to do something technical, specifically in engineering or architecture, but I sort of stumbled into civil engineering.
Q: What do you work on in your current capacity and what project(s) are you most proud of?
I mainly manage staff working on transportation infrastructure and operations projects. A lot of my projects involve designing systems and infrastructure that make transportation networks “smart,” allowing those who maintain and operate roadway systems to communicate with roadside devices, and roadside devices to communicate with motorists. I’ve had the chance to work on a lot of really cool projects in my career, but the one I’m probably most of proud of is the I-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility project here in the Bay Area. It was a cutting-edge project that was technically complex and involved a lot of different stakeholders.
What is the one thing you wish people understood about your job or civil engineering in general?
One specifically comes to mind, especially regarding transportation: not all roadway projects are intended to make things “better” for drivers. Oftentimes, we’re looking at roadways as a whole, and trying to figure out how to make them more efficient and safer for everyone, including motorists, transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians. Sometimes what’s better for one type of user, may not be as good for a different type of user. But at the end of the day, the idea is that it’s better for all users as a whole.
The other thing I wish people would recognize is that small changes can make a big difference. I know it’s difficult for people to get excited about a project that reduces their commute time by 5-10 minutes. But if you think about all the other cars on the road making the same trip 4-5 days a week over the course of a few days, a month, year and beyond, the travel time savings really add up. That also results in reduced wear and tear on your vehicle, less fuel consumption, reduction in vehicle emissions, and more time to spend with friends and family.
Q: Is it important to you to help develop the next generation of engineers? From your perspective, how might the profession do better at helping recruit both more students of color and women into the engineering profession?
It’s extremely important. I think a lot of the issues and challenges we face today in the engineering world are very similar (if not the same) to the challenges that our mentors and predecessors faced throughout their careers. The difference is that we now have significantly more powerful technological tools at our disposal to help take on those challenges and an opportunity to come up with more useful, comprehensive, and (hopefully) lasting solutions. We need people who can understand and fully embrace those tools, but also know when to use their best judgement and trust their instincts rather than relying on the machine to do all the work. It’s a pretty challenging time for young engineers outside of tech. Young civil engineers may feel like they’re being left behind, in many ways. But I feel very optimistic about our industry. I think the demand for the skill set that civil engineers possess will continue to grow, and grow more quickly, into the very near future.
In terms of recruiting more women and minorities, I think this is an issue with as many obstacles as there are solutions. But I’m optimistic that it’s a solvable problem. My perspective is that a big part of it (though certainly not all of it) comes down to exposure. If we want more women and minorities in the profession, then we need to expose more women and minorities to the profession to get them interested and engaged early on. There aren’t enough women and minorities in the engineering workforce because there aren’t enough women and minorities studying engineering in school, or in the pipeline behind those who’ve already made it to college. We have some now, but we need many more. So, we should work with engineering departments of universities and colleges to actively recruit women and students of color, similar to the way universities recruit student athletes. I’m not saying we need to offer all of them a scholarship, but be serious and deliberate about recruiting: seek out and invite students who have demonstrated high aptitudes in math and science (or even just those who are interested) to spend some time discovering what it’s like to be an engineering student. Provide them with information on scholarships and financial aid. Put them in contact with current students and alumni who are in, or from, their area. Make it clear to them that being an engineer isn’t something out of their reach.
And while I truly believe it will take an all-hands-on deck type of approach to increase the number of women and minorities in engineering, I also believe it’s very powerful to see people who look like you doing things you maybe never thought you could do, or maybe never even considered. So, having strong representation from the demographics we’re looking to encourage is also very important.
On the professional side, I think companies and agencies are doing well to break down internal barriers to advancement for women and minorities in the workplace. So, that obviously needs to continue. I think the next logical step is for companies and agencies to actively promote a diverse workplace, and articulate the benefits (both from a business perspective, and a company culture perspective) that come with it.
Q: What would be the dream project you would choose to work on?
My dream project would probably involve some kind of cutting-edge technology. I think in the transportation world, connected and autonomous vehicles are something we all know will very shortly be entering our everyday lives and will disrupt our industry. I hope to work on a design project that will accommodate this technological advancement and provide the infrastructure needed to maximize its potential so it can be safe, efficient, and improve people’s lives.