Each year, the Nebraska Alumni Association invites graduates who’ve excelled in their careers to return to campus and engage with current UNL students, faculty and staff. In November 2011, Dennis Hirschbrunner brought his perspective to the College of Engineering and interacted with the Nebraska Engineering community.
Hirschbrunner is a retired executive vice president and director of marketing for HDR, an Omaha-based engineering and architecture consulting firm with more than 185 offices globally. Born in Columbus, he earned his B.S. in Civil Engineering from UNL in 1970, and is a registered Professional Engineer in Nebraska, Iowa and Arizona with 35 years of engineering consulting experience. He is a member of Chi Epsilon, the civil engineering honorary fraternity, and the National Society of Professional Engineers, which named him National Young Engineer of the Year in 1980. He has served on the boards of the American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation, and has been the professional engineer representative on the Nebraska Board of Health. Hirschbrunner and his wife, Terri, have six daughters and nine grandchildren.
During this year’s Alumni Masters events, Hirschbrunner’s schedule at the college included speaking to an introductory civil engineering class, meeting with the Engineers Without Borders – NU Student Chapter, and visiting a CIVE senior design class. Here are some thoughts he shared:
Advice to students: UNL prepared me well and, just as importantly, I’ve learned that graduation from college is only the beginning of your education. I encourage you to get your professional engineer’s license. Take the initial exam as soon as you can, while the academic subjects are fresh in your mind. Then go for your P.E., which is important because it gives you the most options—to set up a company that does consulting, for example. My proudest moments include getting my degree and my P.E.
Public or private work? I’ve done both. With government, there’s a lot of satisfaction in problem solving and policy development. In the private sector, the upside is compensation and opportunities for promotion, though the expectations are higher and achieving work/life balance can be more difficult. Take time to know yourself: you can do anything you want, it’s just a matter of how much energy it takes from you.
I worked at the Nebraska Department of Roads after I graduated, then helped create a new agency--developed from the state’s health department--which became the Department of Environmental Quality. It was the early 1970s, when the environment was starting to be a big focus. My work included figuring out better large-scale waste procedures and building new waste water treatment plants across Nebraska.
After I left state employment, I did 14 years of consulting throughout Nebraska with a company that served many towns, so I got to know local concerns and I enjoyed being a generalist with a variety of projects.
I joined HDR in 1986 and was part of amazing growth for the company: in 14 years, we went from 1,500 employees and $165 million in revenue to 8,000 employees and $1.5 billion in revenue when I retired.
Early in my time with HDR, as the company became more competitive in regional projects, I was responsible for many proposals. I remember one great day when we got word on being selected for three different jobs, with $8-10 million in projects.
I became a vice president with HDR in 1989 and was one of 40 employees who bought the company in 1996. I had switched my focus to management and really enjoyed engineering the big picture, serving as executive vice president and head of HDR’s Marketing and Strategic Planning until I retired.
Where the college is headed: I’m on the college’s Executive Advisory Board, and with Dean Wei we’re trying to build a Big Ten engineering school. We’re trying to educate the whole person, specifically the engineer who can communicate.
About the need for engineers: Engineers must make their voices known and bring forth technical knowledge. Engineers and scientists often have the best knowledge of issues affecting society, but the average politician may not take time to seek technical expertise on an issue, though he or she may hear from a lobbyist. So, you need to be engaged, and first you must be informed. Try to read a lot, including areas outside engineering such as business, law and ethics.
Why it's a great time to be an engineer: In the 21st century, engineering and science are key to society’s continued growth. The economy will stabilize and, according to ASCE estimates, in the future we will need to replace $2 trillion of infrastructure—though the U.S. must deal with its current debt first.