William A. Verkest

The True Strength of APWA

William A. Verkest, P.E.
APWA President

Editor's Note: As has been the custom in the past, each new APWA President is interviewed by the APWA Reporter at the beginning of each presidential term. In this manner, presidential plans are laid out, hopes revealed, and observations noted. The following are the answers contributed by new APWA President William A. Verkest, P.E.

First, some background on Verkest, who is a Municipal Program Manager with HDR Engineering, Inc., Fort Worth, Texas, and has been an APWA member for nearly 40 years. His career began with the United States Air Force, where he rose from the entry-level leadership position of Second Lieutenant to Colonel. In a 25-year career in the USAF, Verkest commanded a 500-person civil engineering squadron, a 570-person design/build combat engineering squadron, and provided public works policy guidance to 15 USAF bases from the Headquarters of the Military Airlift Command.

Following the completion of his military service Verkest was selected to lead the Denver office of the HWS Consulting Group, where in less than two years the office became the highest producing profit center in the company. This was followed by serving as the Director of Design and Construction Management with the City and County of Denver Public Works Department; Director of Engineering Services with the City of Arlington, Texas; and Executive Director of Public Works with the City of McKinney, Texas. In his current position with HDR Engineering, Verkest represents corporate capability to public works leaders in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

Verkest has been very active in APWA at both the national and chapter levels. At the national level, he has been a member of the Board of Directors since 1999 (Region VII Director 1999-2005; APWA President-Elect 2005-06); Finance Committee (2002-05; Chair, 2004-05); Membership Committee (Chair, 2001-02); and Congress Planning Committee (1995). His involvement with the Texas Chapter includes President, North Central Texas Branch (1999); Chair, Municipal Engineering Committee (1996-7); and Texas Chapter Delegate (1997-99).

How did you get involved in public works? Initially, quite by accident. When I was in high school I got a phone call from a friend of mine, who asked me if I would be interested in working for a land surveyor. I said sure, I would like to do that, and that got me interested in the civil engineering business. So, based on that experience I went to Marquette University to study civil engineering.

After graduation I joined the United States Air Force, was commissioned, and then entered the civil engineering career field, which is the Air Force equivalent of public works. It was work I enjoyed. As a result I made the Air Force a career, and I would have to say this is where my real interest in public works matured. After I completed military service, I continued in public works.

What are some of the changes that you have seen in public works? I've been around this business for over forty years, so I've seen a lot of changes. Not so much in what we do, but the way we do it. Certainly, technology has changed the way we do business; from the type of pipe we use to convey stormwater, from hand-drawn plats to computer-aided design, from handbooks to design software, from transits to total station surveying instruments, from log tables to handheld computers, from watchful eyes to SCADA systems, and from handwritten notes to any number of management information systems.

Just the word "infrastructure" is a change. Quite frankly I was happy with "public works," but the term "infrastructure" came about within the last twenty years, just as many other positive changes have come our way.

Notwithstanding all of this, the constant is our people. The several changes have given us better tools to make our people more productive, and more responsive to the citizens we serve.

Tell us about your work with HDR. I joined HDR Engineering on January 1, 2005 as a Municipal Program Manager in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas region. In this capacity I develop and coordinate business and marketing strategies to enhance the growth and stability of municipal programs in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. What's great about the job is that I get to visit and work with public works directors and city engineers, and talk about the public works profession. Having been in both of those positions, it keeps me very close to the direction our profession is heading. What I like to tell public works directors and city engineers is that there is nothing that they do that HDR cannot help them with. We're a firm of more than 5,200 people and 130 offices nationwide.

I also get the opportunity to manage a few design projects, and certainly there are some very unique and different challenges to each of those projects.

What are some of your major accomplishments? Looking back, I suppose I could point to several major accomplishments; within the United States Air Force, as a consulting firm profit center manager, in creating and recreating several complex organizations, and in some civic endeavors. But the truth is, I have been blessed to work with some magnificent public works professionals from whom I sought counsel and who supported me in the direction I thought we should be going at a given point in time. Without these people there would be no major accomplishments. Oh, I'm sure we would have gotten things done, they just wouldn't be termed major accomplishments. I silently thank every one of these people more often than they will ever know.

Who have been your mentors and who inspires you? Clearly, my greatest inspiration comes from my family. My wife Judy and I have been married for forty-three years, and quite frankly she is every bit as much a public works professional as I am. As we travel about town she often comments on public works projects and issues. Of course, I'm equally inspired by our three children. None of them are in the public works profession, but they are all successful at what they do and I'm very proud of them.

As to other personal heroes, I would point to Vince Lombardi, Walt Disney and Lee Iacocca. Each of these gentlemen had a vision as well as the courage, determination and talent to make their vision a reality.

Closer to home, in alphabetical order, I would cite Bob Albee, Jerry Fay, Jim Matteson and Richard Ridings as mentors. Each of these gentlemen in their own very special way gave me the guidance that I needed, at the time I needed it. Without that guidance I would surely not be visiting with you today as President of the American Public Works Association.

What do you see as critical issues today for public works professionals? In my mind the most critical issue facing the public works profession today is what I call sustaining infrastructure performance. We in public works have an awesome task between being an emergency first responder and being the last float in the parade. Sustaining infrastructure performance requires us to maintain what we have in place, yet focus on how we plan for renewal, replacement and expansion of our critical facilities, plants and systems. Our national infrastructure tragedy is played out every day in every community of every size. I'm thoroughly convinced that our advocacy activities within APWA must be fully linked to sustaining infrastructure performance.

Tied to this is a second critical issue I would call rising expectations. Our political leaders as well as citizens at large expect public works professionals to work miracles, regardless of their resource constraints. The good news is we're pretty good at it; but then, we've been at it for quite awhile.

The third critical issue is simply people. At the engineering level we have two challenges. One is that engineering schools are not turning out the number of engineers that are needed across the board; and those engineers that are being turned out, early in their careers would prefer to be design engineers rather than tackle public works challenges. The second problem is competition. There are many opportunities for engineers, but public works agencies typically cannot match the private sector in recruiting younger professionals. At the operations level we need people who are willing to work hard, and often in unpleasant situations. Clearly, those who do achieve a sense of unparalleled satisfaction. But we need greater incentives to attract new members to our profession.

How will you juggle your responsibilities as APWA President with your position at HDR? Admittedly, it is going to be difficult being APWA President and being a Municipal Program Manager with HDR at the same time. However, I have the full support of HDR and I work with great people who I know will help fill the gap when I'm on the road for the association. Over the past few years I've watched APWA Presidents juggle their respective tasks successfully, so I know it can be done. I'll just follow their lead and make the decisions on priorities as I have to. Certainly I do not intend to let my clients down. By the same token, I have no intention of letting our membership down.

What is the greatest benefit you see in being a member of APWA? The greatest benefit I see in being a member of APWA is the opportunity to associate with people who give of themselves every day in ways the general public cannot imagine, cannot comprehend, or cannot appreciate. These are people who take advantage of the educational offerings available from APWA at both the national and chapter levels, not only to enhance their career, but also to create plans, programs and strategies for the betterment of their communities. Now if that sounds stilted, so be it. But, I do honestly believe public works people are unsung everyday heroes. And our chapters and the people in them are the true strength of APWA. That benefit cannot be denied.

Kevin, thank you very much. It was my pleasure to visit with you today.