Ron Gilkerson retired on Oct. 1 after 42 years — 25 years as president — with GRW, the engineering, architectural, and geospatial consulting firm based in Lexington. He will continue as the firm’s board chairman. In a conversation with Tom Martin, Ron shares perspectives gained from decades of focusing on how best to build things, big things in particular; not just buildings, but also public infrastructure.
Q: What are some GRW projects around the Lexington area that might be familiar?
A: Most of the projects that GRW does are things you usually wouldn’t see, but there are things that you do see. A lot of people go to Keeneland. Keeneland is GRW’s oldest client. We continue to do a lot of work with them. We designed the new track there. The entrance road going into Keeneland is a GRW design. Lexington Legends Baseball Park was a project that we designed and did the engineering work on that. If you’re familiar, I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with the fire at stockyards. Right next to it is a huge tank. It’s a wet weather storage tank done for the (EPA sewage and stormwater) Consent Decree. It’s a very large project. It’s visible from New Circle Road. Those are the kinds of projects locally that we would do. Not many people see water treatment plants or pump stations, or sewer lands.
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Q: Would you say that in recent years construction in Kentucky has been on the rebound?
A: It definitely has. `08, `09, maybe `10 was a really difficult time for construction projects. Projects were just going for maybe 75 percent of what we thought they should have gone for. Since then, a lot of people got out of the construction business. Some of the trades got out. And so, I would imagine the construction industry is facing a lot of shortages of qualified skilled laborers right now. That’s an area of quality work that we’re a little concerned about.
Q: So now would be a good time to train to become a skilled laborer?
A: Right now is a great time to have training. I’ve been hearing about a couple of organizations that are trying to hire people to do the actual training of carpenters, of electricians, of plumbers.
Q: A few years ago, engineers were in pretty heavy demand. Is that still the case?
A: Very much so. The demand for engineers is continuous. A lot of people like myself or the baby boomers are beginning to retire. And so, we’re having a real shortage of qualified engineers apply. Sometimes we will do a search and hardly have any engineers apply for jobs within our organization.
Q: Looking across the spectrum of fields of engineering, where would you say the demand is most acute?
A: I would think probably the biggest one would be the energy market and I think that will continue.
Q: As a public works engineer, when you look around Kentucky and the country at the condition of our infrastructure, what do you see and how would you characterize it?
A: I’ll best answer that by quoting the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE. They do a report about every four years or so about the infrastructure in Kentucky, and they give it grades. The committee that analyzes and does this report is made up of engineers in private practice, engineers in public, department of transportation, water company engineers. In highways, we scored a D. In bridges; we scored a D. Water, a C. And waste water, a C-minus. In the previous four years, we had an F in some of those areas. I believe we score a little bit better than the nation. I think the nation is in really difficult shape.
Q: Am I romanticizing or weren’t we once great at this?
A: We were great at this.
Q: What happened?
A: You know, when you think about the United States, we’re about 300 years old. Europe is centuries older than that. We’ve done a lot of traveling throughout, and it seems to me their roads, their highways, their airports are a lot better than ours. Their bridges are better than ours. They’re certainly very attractive structures. They take a lot of pride in how they build things in that part of the world. We think about 50 years as being a long time. Europe has been doing these for hundreds of years. You go to Rome, and you see buildings that the walls are 2,000 years old. You walk across a bridge that was built in the time of Christ. You know, it’s that type of mindset.
Q: Is there something to be said about our will to make the investment?
A: I think so. I think we have a tremendous investment gap. A part of this ASCE report card is a calculation of the difference in the investment gap that’s needed to catch up with infrastructure. For instance, for roads, bridges and rail throughout the United States it’s estimated that we are about a trillion dollars below what we need to be doing and spending in the next 10 years. An enormous amount. Obviously, we’re a bigger country. We have a lot more area. You know, it’s hard to run rail traffic between New York and, say, Dallas. In Europe, you can get on a rail and travel all through Europe. I think that it is difficult for politicians to want to spend the money because then you have to raise revenue in some manner and that’s the big rub — how do you pay for all these things that need to be paid for?
Q: What are the most exciting areas innovation in infrastructure engineering or engineering in general?
A: The biggest innovations that I have seen are the changes in the tools that we have at our disposal to do the work. I happened to get out of school in the early ’70s when the handheld calculator came out. And previously, that was a slide rule. That was a quantum leap from how to do the calculations, etc. Well, today, we’re able to do things like 3D modeling of a building; we can show a client how that building is going to look. They can do virtual reality, really showing that client how his product is going to look. You can do how a road is going to impact the countryside. So, those are pretty exciting things.
Q: 40 plus years with the same company is a pretty amazing run for anybody. Do you have any immediate plans for your future, what you’re going to do now?
A: We’ve got a trip to Greece planned. I’m going to go back to Italy. There’s a lot of that part of the world and a lot of the United States that I haven’t seen. You know, as an engineer in college, you took engineering classes. You didn’t take history or the arts. I’d like to spend some time studying history especially during the time of the Roman Empire and the biblical times. I’d like to be able to have that time to do that.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.