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Planning for the Future:

Joel Oppenheimer aims to craft great projects and engineers

Posted March 9, 2018


Wandering through corn fields in Delaware, civil engineer Joel Oppenheimer discovered one of the biggest passions of his professional life.

Oppenheimer, who had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania six years earlier, had worked on shipyard structures, pumping facility structures, commuter train stations and other engineering design projects. But then in 1985, he was assigned to help with a planning study for the US 13 Relief Route in Delaware. The project involved wide-ranging studies, public consultations and hours of site work.

“I was standing in corn fields trying to figure out how to weave this 40-mile, north-south freeway through Delaware and make sure we minimized the environmental and socio-economic impacts and get the public behind us,” Oppenheimer said. “That’s when I fell in love with planning … It changed my whole career to focus on transportation planning and design.”

In addition to the intellectual challenge of devising successful plans for large and complex projects, planning also enabled Oppenheimer to use his sheer love of talking with people. Public consultations weren’t always easy.

“Every now and again, you get a farmer who stands three inches from your face and yells at you,” he said. 

But Oppenheimer listened intently and tried to understand all views.

“You show people respect, let them know you are trying to incorporate their views and come up not with compromises but with win-win solutions that fit their needs and the needs of the transportation system,” he said. 

That process converted some individuals who were dead set against a project, into project advocates.

While planning a project on US 301, “we had people who were pure environmentalists and said, ‘Over my dead body,’” Oppenheimer recalled. “Three years later, they were sitting in front of a room of people, explaining why the project was necessary.”

Not surprisingly, connecting with people is core to Oppenheimer’s other passions in engineering.

Although he is the Senior Vice President of STV and head of STV’s Transportation and Infrastructure Practice in Maryland, Oppenheimer has spent the last 21 years running the statewide MATHCOUNTS program – an NSPE-sponsored mathematics coaching program and annual competition for middle school students. Maryland MATHCOUNTS currently involves more than 900 students from 110 schools. In addition to coordinating with the state’s six MATHCOUNTS chapters, Oppenheimer vigorously promotes the program, handles logistics for state competition, organizes appreciation dinners, and delivers speeches about engineering to MATHCOUNTS kids.

“My job is to create excitement for engineering and this is the best way to do it,” Oppenheimer said. His speeches often include videos of cool engineering activities, such as the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge or the Chesapeake Bay Bridge- Tunnel.

Oppenheimer’s efforts to create excitement and fuel accomplishments within engineering don’t stop with MATHCOUNTS. At STV, he founded EDGE – Enriched Development for Growth and Excellence, a mentorship program for young engineers. He is a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland’s senior civil engineering Capstone program. And over the past 14 years, Oppenheimer has developed a second career as a motivational speaker.

He fell into that career by accident. In 2004, Oppenheimer was on a committee developing the agenda for a two-day managers’ retreat for his then-employer, Jacobs Engineering. After the company president reviewed the proposed agenda, Oppenheimer was delighted to see that his suggestion to include a session on time management had been approved.

“Unfortunately, the president had written my name next to that session to teach it,” he said.

After plunging into extensive research, Oppenheimer delivered the hour-long session and received enthusiastic feedback, including suggestions that he teach the topic to staff, clients and elsewhere. Since then, he has delivered more than 200 motivational speeches on multiple topics, including goal setting, communication skills, financial management and “Building a Better Life: Concrete Steps to Success.”

Oppenheimer has mastered his topics and absorbed the wisdom of other motivational speakers through what he calls “University on Wheels.”

“Whenever I am in my car, I am listening to an audio book,” he said. “One of my strongest recommendations to anybody is wherever you go, you should be listening to something. You can get a masters level degree in any subject. I joke that I’m so positive about this that when I get in a traffic jam, I wave my hand in the air and say, ‘Yes, now I can get smarter!’ I don’t always feel that way, but it sounds good.”




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