Journey around the world: WVU Tech degree leads to a global career for civil engineering graduate
Richard Thomas, P.E.
Where can a degree from WVU Tech take you?
“It can take a guy from Huntington, West Virginia, and take him around the world. I’ve been to almost all the states, Asia and Europe. I’ve done so many things because of my degree,” says Richard Thomas, P.E.
Thomas graduated from WVU Tech with a degree in Civil Engineering, where he was vice president and president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has spent his entire career with the US Army Corps of Engineers, starting with a co-op position when he was still a student to his current position as Area Engineer at Robins Air Force Base, a position he was recently promoted to. He is responsible for all the construction at Robins and Moody Air Force Bases and in the Atlanta metro area.
“I’ve always liked construction and building things, so I got into engineering from that perspective. I really thought I wanted to be an architect until I found out how much art there was, and I couldn’t draw. I found out engineering was the place for me,” says Thomas of his interest in engineering.
Thomas ultimately chose to attend Tech because he knew wanted to go into civil engineering. He initially looked at other schools, but his dad encouraged him to check out Tech.
“We went to an open house at Tech and the guy [speaking at orientation] said if you come to this school, I can guarantee you’ll have a job when you graduate. My mom looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to Tech’”, Thomas said with a laugh.
He said going from his hometown in Huntington to Montgomery was an adjustment, but soon found a home and belonging on campus.
“It was a great experience. Within two weeks I knew everybody because it’s so small you become a family. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started but it was just fun and a great experience.”
"I’m not going to lie, I struggled. Everybody’s smart and for the first time in my life, I had to study. I found the American Society of Civil Engineers, and I found comradery because everyone was struggling. If you asked for help and were involved, someone would help you out. It was challenging but it was really fun,” he says.
During Thomas’ sophomore year, he got involved with the Corps. Most of the people he worked with, including his boss, were Tech grads.
“I got to hear 40 years’ worth of stories from them, so that was really cool. At that point, they were actively looking for people to hire. They said you can always tell a Tech student from another graduate because what we do is just different,” Thomas says.
Upon graduation, Thomas accepted a permanent position with the US Army Corps of Engineers and worked in the construction branch. Since beginning his career, he has worked for the Huntington, WV, Louisville, KY, Jacksonville, FL and Savannah, GA districts. He also has had one-year deployments to Afghanistan and Bulgaria and has been responsible for more than $400 million in construction projects domestically and abroad.
The field is so varied, Thomas explains, and has done a little bit of everything throughout his career. He’s worked on projects in towns with flood problems in Kentucky, beach restoration in Florida, levy restorations in California, and building entire military bases, including roads, wastewater treatment sites and facilities in Afghanistan and Bulgaria.
“I didn’t even know where Bulgaria was. I had to look it up on a map,” Thomas laughed. “This little kid from Huntington got to work in Bulgaria and travel, and I got to do that all because I went to school. How about that?”
Thomas says for those considering a career in engineering, one must be adaptable and learn how to pivot and solve problems.
"When you’re an engineer, everyone is looking to you to solve problems," he says.
“Good days are days when I’m out in the field, watching the construction and looking at things being built, but then I also do a lot of paperwork. It’s all about solving problems. I don’t care how great of a designer you are, there are always holes in them. Design is in 2D, construction is in 3D. So, I look at the designs and solve problems,” Thomas explains.
Thomas said those going into engineering should know it won’t be an easy path but encourages students to find a network of peers who support and help them beyond the classroom.
“When I left Tech, I never felt unprepared,” he remarks.
“Know going into it, it’s going to be hard. There will be hard days. A degree in civil engineering truly prepares you for life, and touches every part of our lives, from our roads to water, everything. Architects make it pretty, but engineers make it work. If you come to a school like Tech you are going to be prepared. I made friends at Tech I keep up with to this day. I just went to one of my roommate’s 40th birthday and surprised him. I won’t say you can't have that experience anywhere else, but I can guarantee you’ll have that experience if you are at Tech,” he says.
“There were days I wanted to quit, but my parents said, ‘We know it’s hard, but it will pay off’. Now that I’m here, I see it. It took me five years to graduate, but if you put that little sacrifice in, it’s worth it. It is all because of the foundation I had at Tech. That’s what you can’t put a price tag on. The future of civil engineering is bright. That’s what makes the world happen. It’s going to be led by engineers,” he says.
Thomas, his wife and three children live in Bonaire, Georgia.