Alumni Profile: Marcus Thomas
MARCUS THOMAS (BCE 1994), PRINCIPAL AT BOLTON & MENK, INC., IS ENCOURAGED AND INSPIRED BY YOUNG CIVIL ENGINEERS ENTERING THE FIELD.
Marcus Thomas began his career at Bolton & Menk as an intern during his sophomore year of college and has been there ever since. CEGE met with Thomas recently to hear his thoughts about civil engineering and the future of the field.
Bolton & Menk hired me right out of college and I have no intention of leaving! The firm let me create my own career within the company based on what I was good at and what I loved to do. What Bolton & Menk did for me is what I try to do for young engineers and technicians.
My philosophy is that if you can help an individual figure out what they love, they will to do their best work, they will be happy, they will succeed, and the company will succeed. When I interview people, I let them know, ‘If you’re the engineer I want to hire, my intention is to get you to retire from Bolton & Menk.’ I think candidates want to come to a company that’s committed to them. We invest a lot into each individual’s success. And, frankly, it makes good business sense to keep them.
I am very, very encouraged by young engineers coming into the field. They have values conducive to the practice of good civil engineering. They're looking for ways to contribute, to support people. They come out of college ready to pay it forward, and they want to make a difference. I see that attitude in a lot of the younger engineers, and it matches perfectly with what we as civil engineers do. Infusing their passion into our projects will help raise awareness and garner the support we need to renew city infrastructure.
FamilyI met my wife, Nicole, in the marching band. She played flute; I played saxophone. We have a lot of nostalgia about our time there - it was the beginning of us.
Now we have two children, a boy and a girl. My wife and I hope they will be future Gophers! We exposed them to the U from an early age and had them singing the Rouser by age 2! They both play instruments, saxophone and trombone. My daughter wants to go to a school with a great marching band, so that will be an easy sell for UMN!
Neither of them are definitive about what they want to do long term. Both are excellent in math and science and would be excellent engineers. I encourage them both to find their passions and align them with their strengths.
I'm very proud of the relationship I have with my kids. I love to impress them in the right way. Civil engineers do grand projects. We can show our families the things we have built and boast about that. I like to show the, not only the end product, but also how to work hard to get there. I tell them see the value of your work, see what you can create, see how you can help the people around you. My family inspires me to do my best work.
BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR INDUSTRY
Public awareness about infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges for public works. A generation ago, civil engineers working for cities took pride in being invisible, in the fact that people could move through their days without being aware of all that engineers were doing for them. Unfortunately, through inattention, priorities shifted to the point where people have forgotten the level of effort and funding needed to sustain these endeavors.
Our challenge is to bring positive awareness to infrastructure and what it takes to keep it safe and functional. One way that can be done is by getting better at how we as professionals relate to the public—developing a diverse workforce that reflects our communities is part of that. Another way is to make infrastructure more visible and attractive.
We can transform infrastructure from a minimal solution for basic needs to something more like an amenity. There is room for aesthetics and art in what we do. If infrastructure could become more of an experience, people would be more aware of it, would value it more and be more willing to support it.
One example of visible and attractive infrastructure is the Artery Project that Bolton & Menk is working on with the City of Hopkins, related to the Southwest Light Rail Transit expansion. The Downtown Hopkins station will be two blocks from Hopkins’ Mainstreet. Bolton & Menk is working with Hopkins to design the corridor connecting the light rail stop with downtown Hopkins. The city wants the Artery corridor to be a “pedestrian-seductive corridor,” a space where people want to walk. Passengers will be enticed to follow the corridor to downtown. The Artery’s infrastructure will be integrated with streetscaping, vertical gateway features, public art, and interactive displays. The Artery is a more extreme example of bringing awareness to infrastructure and what it can provide, but not every project needs to be elaborate.
Through design, engineers can add form to function through vertical elements, creative gathering spaces, colorful pavements, vegetation, and identifiable character, versus a plain black street with white sidewalk that goes on and on. Bolton & Menk’s landscape architecture staff brings good practical ideas that help raise the bar a little bit in our designs.
It takes a long time to change people’s perspectives about infrastructure, but we cannot give up just because it takes a long time. In a lot of cities, the public works directors and city engineers are trying to help their city councils understand the importance of aesthetics. Some are proposing, for instance, that a percentage of each project budget be dedicated to aesthetics. There are small, incremental ways to tell the story about infrastructure and change perspectives over time. The new generation of civil engineers can do that.
The caliber of student I see coming out of the U is outstanding. These students get a strong technical education. They also see value in understanding how those principles apply in real world practice. They reach out early in their programs to get to know professionals and the field. The young students are obviously being encouraged by the faculty and staff to network, and they are doing that. There are a lot of universities represented in our 500-person firm, but personally, I seek out UMN grads.
I am a member of the Professional Advisory Board for CEGE, and I appreciate the opportunity that gives me to see correlations between what the U is trying to accomplish and what the profession is trying to accomplish.
Civil engineering projects take a long time to plan and construct and affect a lot of people; we have to take a long perspective. The public works industry is experiencing a lot of attrition as our engineers retire, and at the same time, much of our urban infrastructure is approaching the end of its life. I see this need for new professionals as an opportunity to revitalize and to create a work force that reflects the diverse publics we serve. We want public understanding and support for the projects we propose. Local support can lead to legislative buy-in, which can lead to political support and funding for public projects. It is a grass roots effort.
WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER
Facing this challenge reminds me of a lesson from college. Professor Ladislav Cerny, a concrete guy, taught the civil engineering materials course. At the time, it was probably one of the toughest classes in terms of effort. It took one or two all-nighters every week to get his reports done. It was torturous! He would look out over a sea of students—just tired, worn out. He related our experience to a stress-strain curve of materials: “You have to be exposed to stress and you have to yield before you find your limit strength.” He’s absolutely right. You have to push your limits to reach your ultimate potential. I thought that was brilliant to take that technical idea of the strain hardening phase and relate it to our life experience.
That is one reason I am grateful for the young people coming into the business. They are pushing themselves. They are asking, what can I do for the world? I hope to foster that attitude; I see it as a real asset for our industry. I am passionate about taking advantage of the talent and the values and the spirit of these new engineers. They are a new, refreshing kind of people with attitudes that are aligned and supportive of what we do as civil engineers. They will undoubtedly help elevate our quality of life!
At this point in my career, I am looking for new and different ways to connect with the communities I am working with and working for. The Rotary is one of the opportunities I’m involved in. There are a number of UMN alumni in Rotary. Part of the fundraising in my club supports scholarships for Burnsville high school students. I also work with the Dakota County Workforce Development Agency.
I am on the board of 360 Communities, a nonprofit social services agency that supplies resources for self-sufficiency. I got to know the former CEO of this organization through my Rotary Club. I’m now on my second term on the board, and I have a lot of passion for this work. 360 Communities is the largest non-profit in Dakota County and is widely known and respected. The name comes from our holistic approach. When someone comes in seeking assistance, we ask comprehensive questions so we can understand the whole picture and give them a sustainable solution. I have been proud to participate with this organization.
Continuing Gift of MusicMy wife and I stay in touch with the marching band, we support the band. Most recently, we participated in a fundraising event for new uniforms. They embroidered the donors' names on each uniform, and we got to meet the student wearing "our" uniform. She plays the mellophone. It was fun to do that
We also marched in the last homecoming parade and halftime show to celebrate the bands 125th anniversary. It was fun to meet up with old alums and friends. We got to tour the back halls of the stadium and see the marching band facilities, which I hadn't seen yet. We really appreciate being able to stay in touch with the band in these ways.
Playing the sax has been a lifelong hobby and creative outlet. I play now with the Prior Lake Windjammers - check this summer's Music in the Parks schedules for the cities of Hopkins, Edina, and Shakopee!