February 2022 Centennial Engineer of the Month – Emmett R. Heltzel, P.E.
Emmett Heltzel joined the Virginia Department of Transportation, VDOT, in July of 2003 after a more than twenty year career that included service in the U.S. Army and engineering work in private consulting practice. In private practice he progressed from design engineer duties to office management responsibilities and worked on a variety of small and large engineering projects from small building, highway bridge, and site development projects to large, complex highway interchange designs. His first VDOT assignment was as one of four assistants to the State Location and Design Engineer.
In this assignment, he provided oversight to two Location and Design Division program areas in the VDOT Central Office in Richmond, Virginia and served as liaison to three construction districts in the northern part of the state. Since joining VDOT he has been involved in the oversight of numerous projects of varying scales and scopes, publicly funded as well as land development permit related. As an assistant, he also provided engineering liaison and design oversight to several of VDOT’s largest projects including the Springfield Interchange Improvement Project, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Replacement Project, the I-495 Capital Beltway Highway and the I-395/95 HOT Lanes Projects. Emmett has participated in or helped lead many internal VDOT Agency and technical area work and special project initiatives, was its early subject matter expert on context sensitive design and solutions, performance based practical design, and innovative intersection and interchanges, and has served as the chair of the oversight committee for a context sensitive solutions research project conducted by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program. Emmett was a founding director of VDOT’s Transportation Project Management Institute, the only DOT led professional program of its type in the community of nationwide state departments of transportation.
It was inaugurated in 2009 with the assistance of the University of Virginia and private transportation industry professionals in Virginia, and, with one exception, has held an annual session each year since. He also taught course modules in project development processes for the first three years of the Institute’s work. He has served as one of VDOT’s legislative liaisons during the General Assembly sessions since 2007, helping both to respond to legislation and guide the Agency development of legislation impact statements and ensuing legislation implementation efforts or study responses.
From October, 2010 to November, 2014 he served as VDOT State Maintenance Engineer with oversight responsibilities for statewide highway maintenance and systems inventory across the state. After a period of six months on special assignment duties for the Commissioner of Highways, he began work as the Director of Engineering Management Services in the Location and Design Division, overseeing consultant contract administration, all Division business functions, and the project management, policies and engineering standards program areas. He was promoted to State Location and Design Engineer effective December 25, 2021. His principal responsibility in this role is to provide statewide oversight of all functional aspects of highway engineering practice and highway construction project development on behalf of the VDOT Executive management.
Emmett is a native Virginian, educated in Virginia’s public school and college systems. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia, respectfully. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Engineer School’s Basic and Advanced Officer’s Courses, its Engineer Construction Officer Course, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is a retired officer of the U.S. Army Reserve since 2010. He is a 2008 graduate of VDOT’s pilot session of the Executive Leadership Program, and a 2004 graduate of the Virginia Executive Institute. Emmett is active in several professional organizations and is a past president of both the Richmond Branch and the Virginia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE. He has been a member of ASCE since 1980.
Mr. Heltzel resides in Mechanicsville, Virginia with his wife, Lynn, a retired elementary school teacher. They are parents of two daughters, both married, and proud grandparents of a granddaughter who will be one year old on March 1st. He is active in his community and church, having served on several boards of directors and governance councils, and participation in church choir. In his leisure time, he enjoys family time, travel, reading, writing, sporting clays shooting, and playing golf.
Centennial EOM Questionnaire
Question 1. What do you consider your major achievements in civil engineering in our Section area?
My career specialty has been in transportation engineering, particularly highway and highway bridge engineering. I can highlight several high profile projects and programs I have been associated with as an engineering professional in private consulting practice and as an employee of the Virginia Department of Transportation, such as the Springfield Interchange, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Replacement and improvements to I-495 in Northern Virginia. But I have worked on so many more mid-size and smaller projects that were just as meaningful to me because I know they helped the citizens of the local communities where they were situated.
As I worked as a technical specialist, I have also had the unique opportunity to help shape statewide transportation legislation and policy, even if only in small ways, so that it is helpful in addressing the concerns of our Commonwealth.
And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, I also see my contributions to the professional development of those engineers and project managers that have followed behind me as my small way of giving back to our profession and ensuring the success of those that support my current work and will eventually assume my role and responsibility.
Question 2. Why did you decide on a career in civil engineering?
My father worked in private industry construction companies for most of his working career, especially in highway construction and maintenance work. I worked several summers with him when I became of age, and learned some of the basics from the ground up, so to speak. But the big push came in my last two years in high school where my chemistry and physics teacher, a retired chemical engineer, strongly encouraged several of us in these classes to pursue careers in engineering. Of course, he was favorably disposed to chemical engineering, but over the years he followed my career and was very pleased with how things had worked out for me. He grounded me in the science fundamentals, and those have stayed with me my entire career. Once I got to my undergraduate work at the Virginia Military Institute, and this included both civil and military engineering, I knew with certainty I had found my calling.
Question 3. Provide some career guidance for young civil engineers.
Here I would like to use the second person noun if I may to convey this guidance as if I were in conversation. I would offer an enumerated list, and it’s similar to what other lifelong professionals offered years ago that I read and tried to embody:
1. Don’t forget the fundamental technical principles that you learned early in your academic or professional school work. There will be a lot of “buzzing bees” around your ears in your early years of practice, but don’t forget that much of engineering is still the sound, economical and technical application of mathematical and scientific principles that are not ambiguous, ambivalent, or situationally relevant.
2. In the mid to late 1970’s, I recall ASCE had a slogan that stated civil engineering is a “people serving profession.” I suppose that slogan has faded a bit over the years, but I have never forgotten it. In the midst of all that you are trying to do as I describe in the first bullet noted above, remember that no matter how true or wonderful your technical engineering solution is in your eyes, if you cannot easily explain or demonstrate its purpose and value to your customers, the end users in the affected population, you probably have not achieved total success. As a public sector engineer, I know this is especially true if my project work has directly impacted a member of the community or a community member has directly or indirectly participated in its development.
3. Seek work experience first. Salary progression will surely follow, and you should trust in that process. That advice was given to many young engineers by the famous geotechnical engineer, Dr. Ralph Peck. I know young professionals have a myriad of pressures that push them to reverse that order, and I understand that, but I still advocate it, just as Dr. Peck did four or five decades ago.
4. Find a good mentor that fits with your disposition and demeanor. This mentor can help with professional development, but might also be able to help you assess yourself, strengths and weaknesses, at various stages of your career and guide you to new levels of learning and awareness. A good mentor can also help you develop a network of other professionals that can be of great assistance to you in your career development and personal life. A strong network is a career long blessing that helps you find your own place in the profession and make contributions that align with your skills, persona, and values.
5. Become more skilled in the attributes of good writing, sound business principles, and effective leadership and management fundamentals. If you choose to, and are able to successively progress to increased levels of professional responsibility in your career, these attributes become more valuable to you, and necessary for continued success. I am not saying you must pursue an advanced degree in any of these areas, unless that is something you truly aspire to do, but at least find some venues to gain these skills that are accessible, affordable, and creditable. As for writing, I have found that reading good written works is a perfect laboratory to help with writing skill development. Couple that with a lot of practice on your own, and you will find yourself quickly becoming more accomplished than you may have first thought. Don’t shy away from it! Engineers that can communicate ideas in writing such that a wide variety of stakeholders can quickly and easily understand them are very valuable professionals indeed!
Question 4. What do you consider the major challenge to a career in civil engineering?
From my point of view, I see two major challenges. The first is that the body of knowledge of our profession has become so vast that continued education or professional development is certainly no longer a luxury but is now an absolute necessity. I realize it can be exhausting, but it is so vitally important that we as a professional body continue to encourage each other along the way to seek opportunities that help us not just maintain, but better enhance our professional skills and acumen. Those who benefit from our work will demand this, and because our profession has been so successful in improving the quality of life for the people we serve, they have come to expect it in some ways. That is a high bar to stay above, but I think we can do it.
The second is the pace with which the technology we use to help us deliver our work is constantly changing. This is a lifelong challenge to master, and the days of it impacting only those of us who are further along in our careers is rapidly passing. I see it now beginning to challenge the engineers who are just graduating from colleges or still in the early years of professional work. It is a challenge for all of us to make sure technology does not become a stumbling block that inadvertently dampens our ability to deliver vital engineering products, projects, services or programs.
Question 5. Tell us about your volunteer activities. What is the motivating factor for volunteering? How has being a volunteer enriched your professional career?
As I read this question my mind went back to the first “volunteer activity” in which I engaged. This was when I was still in public high school. I was a “press booth” announcer for junior league football games that were played on Saturday afternoons at my high school football field. A leader of the local program knew me and liked my speaking voice so he asked my mom if I would consider doing it. I was hesitant at first because I was so young, but I accepted the offer because I felt needed. It was a great learning experience, and I had a lot of fun. I recall that I did it for a few seasons. I was sad when the seasons came to an end, but my ‘Saturday’s were free again!
While there have been times when I saw something that I thought needed to be done, or was interested in working on, I will offer that over the years that same theme has been repeated over and over again in my life in so many areas: someone asked me to help out with something, and I accepted an offer or honored a request. This includes church and community activities, special assignments at work, and of course my participation in organizations such as ASCE. I could not possibly mention all the wonderful people that encouraged my volunteerism in ASCE or that have made it such a meaningful part of my personal and professional life. They have been and are a part of my network of colleagues as well as some of my lifelong friends. While the Section is so very gracious to recognize me as the Engineer of the Month, I believe that the gifts of friendship, learning, and wonderful experiences that have been the substance of my volunteerism far outweigh the sum total of my contributions to the Society in the many capacities in which I have worked over the years. I am very humbled to be in the group of Past Presidents of the Virginia Section, and very honored to be serving it again after many years as one of the Section Directors and as a member of our Section’s Centennial Committee.