In 2011, Bob Paulsen—a 1974 civil engineering alumnus—retired from his position as CEO of Post, Buckley, Schuh and Jernigan (PBSJ), after many years of transportation research, design and management. But it was actually by accident that Paulsen enrolled in civil engineering all those years ago.
When he began his first year at Iowa State, Paulsen thought he was going to be a mechanical engineer, but he was put in civil by mistake. Since most of the classes were general for all engineering programs, Paulsen decided to stay with it and see what happened.
“I’m glad I did, because civil engineering has a little more exposure to the public, and that was a good fit for me,” he says.
Paulsen’s favorite classes in college were those that centered on transportation design and planning because he was able to be creative. He spent a majority of his career working in transportation, starting out in the engineering training program at the Iowa Department of Transportation following his graduation.
He calls that time a great opportunity, but after a year Paulsen and his wife chose to move to Kansas City, where he worked for Midwest Research Institute. His clients included different Departments of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but he decided after a few years that research wasn’t his main interest.
After that, Paulsen worked for HNTB, a highly regarded engineering firm headquartered in Kansas City. Paulsen enjoyed his time there, and as the company expanded he was moved to Texas, where he worked for six years on highway, railway, toll road and other projects.
From Dallas, he was recruited by PBSJ (now Atkins) to work in Orlando, Fla. The move came at the perfect time for Paulsen because his two young daughters had not yet started school and his wife was a teacher and had flexibility in her career.
“I was very fortunate that PBSJ wanted to grow, so I ended up leading their transportation business for a number of years,” says Paulsen. His management involvement progressed from COO to president of the company and finally CEO and chairman of the board.
When Atkins—a large engineering consultant headquartered in London—bought PBSJ in 2010, Paulsen became the head of its North American business. “I would go to London monthly to have strategy meetings with the leadership of the company, so it was a pretty fascinating couple of days once a month,” he says.
Paulsen was in his late 50s by that time, and travelling overseas every month—and to many of the company’s 100 other locations in the United States—was taking its toll on him. He stepped down from his role as head of the North American division but stayed on with the company for a brief period in “semi-retirement.”
Currently living in North Carolina, he works about a third of the time with several people in a small consulting business and as an adviser to the boards of a couple engineering companies. He is also a member of Terry Wipf’s external advisory council for the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at Iowa State.
The council is made up of about 20 professionals who recommend curriculum tips that will help students in the workplace. “They have great instructors at Iowa State and a great curriculum,” says Paulsen.
“I see the curriculum is a lot more focused on project teams, and that’s important because when students get into the workplace, they are going to be working with a number of people.” Along with that, Paulsen adds that the number one skill engineers need is the ability to communicate.
Paulsen says he was always proud of his Iowa State education and that Iowa State students have good work ethics and common sense, which is so important in engineering.
“I always felt I could compete with any engineer from any school in the country—and I did.”