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Big Challenges, Big Rewards in Transportation

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dan wittliffA licensed professional engineer can face big challenges, and as Dan Wittliff, President of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), explained, “With awesome capability comes awesome responsibility.”


Since he finished his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering over 40 years ago, Wittliff served in the U.S. Air Force and worked as Managing Director of Environmental Services for GDS Associates in Austin, Texas. These experiences taught him how a successful path can be shaped.


Wittliff suggested that students should try lots of ideas and become comfortable making mistakes early in life.


In college, Wittliff’s adviser gave him some valuable guidance about where to aim his interests in math and science. He warned Wittliff that certain areas that seemed exciting could always become too popular and make him less marketable.


To overcome the ups and downs of the job market, Wittliff’s adviser suggested a more general area. Wittliff said he knew that mechanical engineering would give him a variety of skills with many different applications.

The lesson learned? Be flexible.


“It’s a lot like playing basketball,” he explained. “You’ve got to be in position to make the play, and it’s your feet and legwork that get you in position. So you can think of your undergraduate degree as your foundation to get you in position for whatever changing environment.”


Wittliff suggested taking many math and science courses, but also English, journalism, or speech courses to learn how to relate to people. Getting involved in extracurricular activities such as student council could also foster a well-rounded education, he said.


And what if a student made mistakes along the way? Wittliff explained that taking small risks and facing frustrations earlier in life would have far easier consequences than making bigger mistakes later as a professional.

He told students, “That’s the way people learn.”


Wittliff explained that this would help students build the discipline they would need as a professional. His organization, the NSPE, helps ensure that the licensing laws for professional engineers are similar - if not identical - across all states.


“A licensed professional engineer is an engineer who’s received an engineering degree and has gone on to get years of experience,” he said. “It’s like an apprenticeship.”


Wittliff said professional engineers were licensed by the state in which they practiced and that they helped protect public health and safety. He is licensed as both a mechanical and environmental engineer, and said he knew the great responsibility that could come with any project.


He gave the example of a situation from years ago in which a bridge in a St. Louis hotel collapsed, leading to tragic consequences. Wittliff compared the duty of an engineer to that of a doctor: human lives rest in the hands of professionals.

“We have to be right all the time,” he said.


But this duty can be a team effort: Wittliff said that his service in the Air Force taught him that much.

“I was a commander of a unit on a mountaintop in Turkey,” he began. “I had 40 U.S. military [members], 16 contractors, and nine Turkish military [members] on the site. ... And there were some trying times.”


Wittliff said that everything from deep snowfall to nearby terrorist activities challenged his group, but that everyone from the mission made it home safely.


“I’ve never had a better feeling,” he said. “That’s not a personal accomplishment: that’s a team accomplishment. That’s really what engineering is these days. It’s about the team.”


Today, Wittliff said, the NSPE is interested in engaging with students and programs that will help form the next generation of leaders.


“We have a lot of programs for young students, and we’d encourage you to come to our website,” he said. “And contact us. Let us know what you want.”


But Wittliff said that he couldn’t make a student fall in love with transportation: they had to pursue that passion.


“Don’t take my word for it. ... Try it for yourself,” he said. “And get a sense for how much of a challenge and how much of a reward it can be for you.”

National Engineers Week
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