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Making professional associations work: Four ways to get the most out of your time

Using professional organizations properly drives collaboration and communication in the AEC industry

Author: Tony Hunley (Lexington, KY)

I became a structural engineer because I love bridges. I enjoy solving the challenges that come from bridge obstacles to connect Point A to Point B. Because it’s my passion, I am constantly seeking out innovative ways to solve challenges, and ultimately, provide clients with better-constructed bridges.

Related item: Bridges – Supporting our communities

Eight years ago, I joined Kentucky Society for Professional Engineers (KSPE) and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Kentucky’s (ACEC-KY) joint committee for professional development. At the time, Kentucky’s professional development opportunities rarely focused on bridge design and I was interested in learning why and how I could increase opportunities for bridge industry professionals.

Seminar offerings were typically more general or discussed bridges only in the context of roadway projects. While several “seminar days” were offered across the state, very few addressed the specific challenges I faced as a bridge engineer. I decided to use the professional development committee to initiate the first step toward offering a more targeted program for engineers working in Kentucky’s bridge industry.

Taking the first step
I reached out to the main client/owner in the state, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC), and asked them, what could consultants learn from them? What would KYTC like to hear from us? They saw the value in the program and agreed to participate. Instead of using the day for consultants, they opened it up for their bridge design and bridge maintenance groups. This let both consultants and their own staff learn together. We also agreed that we needed to have contractors at the seminars to provide insight and lessons learned—something that was lacking in our industry. Their participation opened the door for us to ask questions like, how can we produce better quality construction documents to improve cost and quality? As a bonus, we’d have an opportunity to educate contractors about the engineer’s design process.

Setting an agenda
After reaching out to the consultant community, contractors, fabricators, suppliers, and others, we soon had an agenda. Topics included new foundation technologies, bridge design and rehabilitation projects of local interest, steel bridge design, trending pre stressed beam shapes, and the highlight of the day, a contractor-led session on what bridge designers are doing wrong (it was lighthearted, of course).

We had around 75 people at our first annual Kentucky “Bridge Seminar Day” in Lexington. The program received tremendous positive feedback, and this success prompted me to try to grow and diversify the event for the following year.

Over the next two years, I worked to make Bridge Seminar Day an all-inclusive gathering of every discipline involved in bridges. The KYTC Division of Construction and Geotechnical Branch joined design and maintenance groups and we gave special attention to presentations that crossed the lines of these four disciplines, boosting attendance by both consultants and KYTC staff.  Today, the two highlights of Bridge Seminar Day are KYTC’s active participation and the end-of-the-day roundtable discussion with contractors, bridge designers, and staff from the KYTC.  It is the only time of the year that everyone involved in bridge construction in Kentucky is in the same room talking about what we love. We have an opportunity to hear from different perspectives, ask questions you wanted to know the answer to but didn’t know who to ask, deliver good-natured jabs, and come away with a few ideas and lessons learned that improve construction plans and give contractor’s a completely different insight into what drives decisions before we arrive at constructing a bridge.

On February 1st, we held our 6th Annual Bridge Seminar Day and more than 200 people attended. Organizing Bridge Seminar Day has been one of the most professionally rewarding things I’ve ever done and I look forward to it every year. If you’re looking to build a program like this in your field, here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Identify the need(s). In Kentucky, we saw a need for more specialized bridge training and value in giving the industry an opportunity to connect that was lacking, so we built a day around that. If your professional community could benefit from more specific training opportunities, consider starting there first.
  2. It’s all about your audience. Your main criteria in selecting speakers should be defined by the value they will offer attendees. I’ve been careful to keep this day focused on enhancing the bridge industry verses this day becoming more of a promotional event for Stantec, consultants, or other presenters. The key to sustainable success has been KYTC active participation and getting bridge contractors to attend.
  3. Actively engage professional organizations. KSPE and ACEC-KY already had a joint professional development committee, so that was a perfect vehicle to support what we wanted to do. Reach out to your local professional organizations—they can help you reach your peers easily.
  4. Don’t get caught up in analytics. We didn’t set out to create an event that would grow from 75 people to over 200. We underestimated ourselves that first year and only had a room for about 60, but ended up with chairs around the walls and a few folks standing most of the day! Growth happened because we identified a need, and solved it.

Outside of getting to work with some great folks who share my passion for bridges and working on challenging projects, developing and organizing this Seminar Day has been the most rewarding thing I’ve been associated with professionally. It’s been used as a model for other targeted seminar days and has helped to increase communication and collaboration across Kentucky’s entire bridge industry. It’s even raised awareness of the strength and vibrancy of ‘those bridge people’ among the broader transportation network in Kentucky.

Getting involved in your local professional organizations is so important and can give you an avenue to take ownership of a problem and provide leadership to address it.

Tony Hunley is passionate about bridges. He’s worked with nearly every bridge type, at every phase—bridge type studies, preliminary and final design, construction engineering, construction administration, inspection, load rating, and rehab. His primary area of technical expertise is steel bridge design and rehabilitation.

Bridge Seminar Day is the only time of the year that everyone involved in the bridge industry in Kentucky is in the same room talking about what we love.

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