Everyone has a different story about how they got into Civil Engineering. While some people had a love for the problem-solving process of mathematics and physics from an early age, others discovered their passions for one specific area or discipline of the field a little bit later in life. Today, we go through the story of how someone who was pretty familiar with the military went up to an officer of the USPHS Commissioned Corps, got himself a summer job, and has been with the Indian Health Service for 18 years.
Today’s special guest is Charles Thompson, the Indian Health Service Sr. Field Engineer, who studied Engineering at the University of Maine and graduated in 2005. His work involves providing federally recognized tribes with water, wastewater, and solid-waste infrastructure projects, as well as providing tribal utilities with utility consultation, and helping them out with the operation and maintenance of their systems
Charles, a “late bloomer” as he calls himself, talks about his experience with the PE exam, as well as how hard it can be, especially for those who haven’t dealt with school material and concepts for a long time. Therefore, he took the Ultimate Civil PE Review Course in order to take the exam — which he did in October — and, today, he explains how it helped him prepare for it.
This is a must-listen episode for literally anyone. Charles really brings the civil engineering field to its core essence, which is using the technical knowledge and problem-solving skills we have to positively impact communities and society as a whole.
Charles Thompson’s Email – [email protected]
Ultimate Civil PE Review Course – https://civilpereviewcourse.com
University of Maine – https://umaine.edu
United States Environmental Protection Agency – https://www.epa.gov
Indian Health Service – https://www.ihs.gov
Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service – https://www.usphs.gov
Wastewater Treatment and Reuse: Theory and Design Examples –https://amzn.to/2IJRYf9
The Civil Engineering Handbook – https://amzn.to/36Jt1sf
If you need exams, solved problems or courses, make sure to check out our home base – https://civilengineeringacademy.com
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Reach out to Isaac – [email protected]
Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: Charles, it's good to have you on the show. I'm excited that you've joined us. I did a quick introduction already with you, but just wanted to say hi and wondered if we could jump into maybe how you got into this awesome career and how you got started.
Charles Thompson: About 18 years ago, I went to a job, a university job -- I can't remember what they're called now, because I haven't been to them in so long. But it was held on the campus at the University of Maine, and I met this commissioned Corps officer. I recognize the uniform as a Naval uniform. I grew up in an air force family. So I've been an air force brat. I knew a lot about the air force. I've lived on air force installations. And I have a really -- You know, I think I'm pretty knowledgeable about the military. Anyway, I saw this fellow standing at this college job thing, and I walked up to him and said, "Hey. I mean, the uniform looks Naval, from the Navy, but I'm not sure. You know, your epilepsy is different. You have a conducive anchor, as opposed to just an anchor". Anyway, he began to tell me about what the Commissioned Corps was. So, I listened to him. I gave him some background about myself. Somehow we get on the idea that my mom is a member of a Blackfeet nation in Montana. So, he immediately jumped on that and said, "Look, I can get your job this summer". And that's where I started. So, I've been with Union Health service for 18 years. I've been in Maine. I've been in Reno, Nevada, Sparks, Nevada, Shiprock, New Mexico, Ukiah, California, and currently I'm stationed in New England, out on Cape Cod, working for the tribes in new England. So, basically, what I do is I do water, wastewater and solid-waste projects, try to find funding. I provide the tribes with the tribal utility consultation, help them out with their, you know, operation and maintenance of their systems, as much as I can with the resources that I have. And I also introduce them to other resources, like Atlantic States Rural Water or Atlantic States Water and Wastewater Association, or Maine Rural Water Associatino, or the Rural Water Associations within the area so that they can help them out with training. RCAP is another agency that I work with. As well as the USEPA, help them to stay, you know, with the regulations on the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. That's so interesting. So did you have -- I mean, how did you choose to go into that field of engineering, dealing with wastewater, clean water act, dealing with water, the EPA, things of that nature? Is that just the nature of where you're at?
Charles Thompson: Well, that's the nature of where I'm at. There are other avenues. I mean, there's Facilities Engineering. You know, I've often thought I would like to maybe give that a try, but something about being stuck in a building, you know, every day, all day. I spend a lot of time out in the open, looking at plants, visiting with tribal operators and helping them out. And I enjoy that. So, I enjoy working with the tribal folks. I think they're great people. They do the best that they can with what they have. So, I try to help them maximize their resources. The biggest thing I think what you learn is you try to really think outside of the box.
Isaac Oakeson: What are some of their challenges? What do you see on your end? What some of the challenges they face?
Charles Thompson: I think with a lot of the places that I've been to, the biggest challenge is that these tribal nations don't have a regular source of revenue, whether it be -- You know, they don't have a tax base, so to speak. They have it set up that's kind of likea small city, but they're not having taxes charged. Typically they don't provide for a water fee, although I think a lot of them are starting to understand that that's what they need to do in order to support their infrastructure.
Isaac Oakeson: So how do they fund it?
Charles Thompson: Well, a lot of the funding -- That's one of the things that I do is, because of the treaties and all that's been provided between the government - the federal government - and the tribes, and along with public law 86-141, we use resources to provide capital cost improvements, to provide safe drinking water, and thesafe removal of wastewater through wastewater treatment.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. This is an area that I am totally unfamiliar with. So, this is actually informative to me. So, that's great. Is there -- I mean, through this whole journey, one of the things I like to ask is, is there some lessons that you've learned going through this or mistakes that you've seen dealing with what you're dealing with?
Charles Thompson: Yeah. I mean, yeah. You know, I've made mistakes. One of the things that I've really expressed to my supervisors is that [inaudible]. You know, I realize we're in civil engineering. I understand that we're supposed to think of everything that could go wrong and might go wrong, and protect human life and things of that nature. I've never had anything that anybody's gotten hurt, but I have made some mistakes that I've owned up to. And one thing that I know is, you know, if you don't have a PE, even though you may think it's better on the field and somebody else's stamp those drawings, don't change the drawing,. Run it through the guy that stamped the drawings first. So that was a lesson that I learnedNot very quickly. I mean --
Isaac Oakeson: What did you do? You changed the plan? Is that right?
Charles Thompson: Yeah. What I did is I did a change order to change some piping and moved a manhole. I think I moved a manhole 10 feet and then changed some piping. But along with that, there was a ridgeway that should've done and didn't understand that. Because based on the information that I found out, didn't realize that that was a ridgeway. So. we put some pipe in and we got the project completed, andcome to find out it was a ridgeway and that probably shouldn't have constructed there on that dirt road. Probably shouldn't have moved the manhole. There was consensus with the client, which happened to be the tribe, but there wasn't consensus between my superiors and me. So, anyway.
Isaac Oakeson: Hey. Well, that's a good lesson, you know? Run things through the engineer that stamped it. That's good. Yeah.
Charles Thompson: I mean, I still have my arms and legs, so I feel, you know, feeling good about that. You know, communication is important.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh yeah. It's huge. Most mistakes, I mean, but at least from what I've seen, have been made when engineers aren't communicating either with the field or, you know, up the ladder. But somehow they kind of get in a black hole and they don't communicate with people. So that's a big deal. I wanted to touch upon your experience with the PE. You mentioned that a little bit beforehand, and now,where are you at with your journey? What's some, maybe, tips that maybe you have that you could share, especially if someone did start later, or things like that?
Charles Thompson: Well, I'm sure anybody tuning into this knows that, if you can get your PE closer to when you graduated, that's probably pretty helpful. Unfortunately, that's not the way that I did. My journey with teh PE has beenon the ungraded road, if we keep it in the civil engineering realm. It's been pretty bumpy. I was never very good at taking exams or tests. I'm one of those guys that believes that tests are not a fair measure of somebody's knowledge. And I still bucket today. It's just really -- I go to sit for an exam and it seems like I forget everything that I learned, or I forget how to do something. AndI don't know if it's test anxiety, or maybe I don't study enough. Recently, it's been more difficult because, you know, now I'm married, I have four children. They keep me very busy. And they're getting into that age group eight to 19, where they have their things that they want to do too. And you try to provide for them as best you can. And it seems like there's not enough hours in the day to do everything that you need to do. ButI just recently took the exam. As we were mentioning earlier, it was interesting that when I left the exam this past October -- I usually feel really wiped out, like I had just been in a boxing match, and when I was ready to just go home and lie down and take a nap. This time I didn't feel that way. I felt like I did when I got there in the morning, and I didn't really approach it with a different attitude. I just approached that, "Hey, it's something I gotta do. I gotta get this. You know, this is going to benefit me". And I think the other thing is, as I mentioned to you earlier, I didn't take in so many books. I think I had one notebook that I took in. It had the civil engineeringfor lack of a better termI'm going to call them reference sheets, that give you all the formulas. In that notebook, I'd also put in all of the problems that I had solved correctly. And I referenced them. I made a table of contents with each problem and what it was called, so I had a quick reference to see what problem was. I took my, I took my CERM with me. And as I recall, I think I had the -- I still have it here on my desk, that's why I'm looking over this way. I had the 15th edition. So I brought with me.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, based on your background, you had a lot of books to choose from, looking at that bookshelf.
Charles Thompson: Yeah. I don't think any of those are engineering books.
Isaac Oakeson: Just so people know, Charles was actually a member of our course, the Ultimate Civil PE Review Course. And so you went through that program as well. It sounds like just talking that, that was able to help you a little bit.
Charles Thompson: It was I mean I think that -- What I've heard over the years is that, the more problems you solve, the more prepared you'll be. And the Civil Engineering Academy course did that. Did just that. We solved a lot of problems. You guys gave good examples of a lot of problems and how to solve them. And some of them, you even had a couple of different ways to solve. And I think that was helpful for me because I can actually see how the solution was how you got through to the solution. And I think the other thing to remember too is, if you're a late bloomer and you graduated college, like myself, 15 years ago 20 years ago, even forget how long ago you graduated, if you didn't sit down and take the exam right away and get it under your belt, and you're now at a disadvantage, because all of the questions that are on the morning exam are things that you're not familiar with, especially when you're specializing in water and wastewater, those types of designs, you know? And I think too, you have to make a decision. What am I going to study and what am I not going to study? You're going to break it out. You know, I took to heart the whole idea of crushing the AM exam. My part of that AM exam, that I wasn't really sure about was the structural part. Structural was not something that I -- I never thought I would build bridges, so I never worried about it.
Isaac Oakeson: We kind of all go into one specific area, right? And so the whole body of knowledge of engineering is just kind of hard to get a hold of. So you know, getting a review course will get you more exposure to those things. And I'm glad that could help you a little bit.
Charles Thompson: That was great. Yeah. So, the course was great and it really did -- It was a benefit to me.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Well, thanks for sharing some things about that. I'm curious. If you wanted to talk to somebody that wanted to pursue a career similar to yours, what advice would you give to them?
Charles Thompson: Patience. I would give a, you know, "be patient". You know, you could go to usphs.gov, and see what the United States Public Health Service has to offer. I found it to be a very rewarding career. I was just telling my area director the other day that it is just amazing to see the looks on the family's faces when you've provided them with safe drinking water and a safe way to dispose of their wastewater. I don't know if many people know this, but out in the Southwest, the Navajo nation is quite a large reservation. And when I was stationed out there, there was an estimated 12,000 families that didn't have water to the tap. They didn't have a well and water coming to their home. They still used outhouses or [inaudible]. So, it's an amazing thing to think that here we live in the United States and most everybody, the majority of people in the United States, have water running to their faucet, but there are still people in this country that, you know, either by choice or by circumstance they don't have water coming to their house.
Isaac Oakeson: That's very interesting. And there's huge organizations, like Engineers Without Borders, that are helping places in other countries. It's interesting to think that here in the US we have that very same problem. How can people get involved? How can they help? Is there a way they can help?
Charles Thompson: That's a good question, Isaac. You know, what I see is what I'm doingas help. I think -- I'll be honest with you. I don't know. I don't have an answer for that.
Isaac Oakeson: I guess I'm curious if these other organizations like these Engineers Without Borders or people that want to just help in general, or if there's other ways or avenues that they can, I guess, without going to the IHS or a government agency. I don't know the answer to that, but you know, if you know, that would be nice.
Charles Thompson: Well, what I do know is that, a lot of these places, it will take considerable capital costs. One of the things that we do as an agency and our fiduciary responsibilities is we've set unit costs to serve homes. And if we can't meet the threshold of the unit cost and stay below that, we find that an infeasible project. It's no different than what we do in our regular engineering lives. We put feasibility studies together to find out if a project's feasible. Sothere's that. And the number of families that are out. On the Navajo, for instanceproviding them with water is just so costly in dropping the pipe in the ground, providing the booster stations to get the water where it needs to go
Isaac Oakeson: Are they the largest reservation? Are there other reservations that have those kind of totals?
Charles Thompson: You know, I'm not really sure. I only know that because that's where I'm stationed. I think maybe up in Alaska, where they have Alaska natives, is another place. But, as I said before, if you decide to get into this, it's very rewarding. It's just an amazing thing to see how people are so appreciative of what we can do to provide them with this, what the rest of us take for granted.
Isaac Oakeson: That's fantastic. Well, I want to ask you some just kind of quick answer questions. You can answer them quickly, whatever you want to do. These are just kind of fun questions to ask you. What's one common myth about your profession or field you maybe want to debunk?
Charles Thompson: That we know it all. Sometimes we don't. You know, we are solution-oriented, butthere are just some things that we just can't do right now. Eventually someday, maybe. But, you know, engineers are pretty smart people. But that doesn't mean they're smart in everything. Like, we've talked about the exam presents a myriad of different categories in engineering, and sometimes we can solve those problems and sometimes we can'tBut, we do the best that we can to help people and put safe things out there.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. That's great. What's the best advice you've ever received or just good advice in general?
Charles Thompson: I think good advice that I received as an engineer is to -- I think it's pretty simple. It's just, you know, try to do the right thing, you know? Use your talents to be helpful, and use your talents to be there for people that aren't there, that aren't able to understand or are able to do it.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect. Another one, what's a personal habit that contributes to your success as an engineer?
Charles Thompson: I think a personal habit is you treat people as you'd want to be treated. I know on some instances, there's been people that I've worked with that are -- Well, let me back this up a bit. I'm sure you're familiar, Isaac, with some engineers kind of have -- You get the feeling they have a chip on their shoulder, and then, you know, they don't really want to listen to what you have to say. You have to take that with a grain of salt, and think to yourself, "That's not the person that I want to be". You know, I want to be an engineer that thinks outside the box, but I also want to be open to other opinions and listen to what other people have. Especially if they're somebody that you're supervising.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, I've learned a lot. But the difference between, like, engineering and the crews that actually build the stuff, and when I can connect with them on design ideas or issues they see on the field versus what I see on a screen, you know, that is a huge leg up, and can help resolve a lot of issues before something gets out in the field.
Charles Thompson: Absolutely. You know, I think an important aspect, and that brings up a good point. I hadn't even thought of it until just now you mentioned that, Isaac, is that, involve those people, those end users, that are going to use what you're going to design. Because the more you're involved, the better the design is to them. And, you know, it's nice to have, a lot of times, to have all these bells and whistles, but sometimes they don't want. Keep it simple and do work within our budgets or work within our operation and maintenance program, and that's -- I mean, you can't do any better than getting it straight from the guys that are going to be using what you're going to be designing.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. Well, let's go to this one. Who's someone that you look up to and why? You mentioned a certain general before.
Charles Thompson: Yeah. So, it's interesting. I wish I had this person around to mentor me. It was general Patton. I always thought that he was somebody that was a go-getter. I mean, he had a horrible way of motivating people, but he knew how to get things done. I mean, if you read a little bit about general Patton and what he accomplishedit was just amazing. And something else that really caught me about him was that he -- Which is not mentioned because I think of the way of some of his language - but he seemed to be religious and had an affinity forour heavenly father, and it was interesting to know that about him and that he had thought he had been in other Wars in other times. And he's justto me, somebody that I wish I could meet and maybe someday I will.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. I agree. I've seen the documentaries with him in it. I've always been in awe of what he's been able to do. I think you bring up a good reminder. It's good to read up on those great leaders. Soyou know, if I can find a biography or if you know of one that would be fun to share with people. That's great. How about this one? What's a resource -- You kind of touched upon that. Maybe it's this biography to go read, and we can leave it at that. But is there any other resources that you would recommend to anyone in the audience? It could be a software they need too -- If they're looking into going into wastewater, maybe they should polish up on. It could be a book, like you mentioned, with general Patton. Anything that that would help our audience, either get to know the field you're in a little better or general Patton or anything else. Is there any resources you'd recommend our audience?
Charles Thompson: Well. One of the books that --- I didn't take it with me this time and I wished I had. It's actually two books. The Civil Engineering Handbook is a book that I purchased a long time ago. I think I have the fifth edition.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. Probably in that bookshelf behind you.
Charles Thompson: Well, I have books behind me, and books to the right of me, and books to the left of me. So I have to look around and see where they're at. But The Civil Engineering Handbook was one that I thought was really handy. It has a number of different topics in it. It's much like the CERM. It's it'sa "Jack of all master of none". But I think it explains it in a different way. I think the other book that I like in the wastewater industry is the Wastewater Treatment and Reuse. The latest edition of that I have is I think it's edition 15, 14. Maybe something later. It has a white cover. I'm sure anybody in the wastewater industry will recognize it. That's a good book. But I also think the older additions are good, because they touch on different things in a different way. And there was a book that you have on your reference list too that I like, and I don't think I mentioned it with the information that I sent to you. And that was the -- I don't see it right handy.
Isaac Oakeson: That's okay. If anybody's interested in references that Charles is talking about you can go to civilengineeringacademy.com, and we have resources on one of the tabs on the top, and you can go find resources for every depth exam. We list some books there. So, that's probably where you found a reference for the wastewater book that you're referencing. And, you know, we try to list books in there that other people have mentioned to us. So, if others have others books that they like, let know and I'll put them on there as a resource for the next person that's probably studying for wastewater treatment.
Charles Thompson: I think I see it on your shelf behind you.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah.
Charles Thompson: Right under -- I think you have the CERM sitting there, and it's right underneath that.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh yeah. Sorry.
Charles Thompson: It's the green one.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, yeah. Dr. Goswami's. You like Goswami's book? That's a good one.
Charles Thompson: Yeah. That's the one I took to the exam.
Isaac Oakeson: There you go. Yes. Go get that one. We'll link that one for people. If they're interested, if you're preparing for the PE, Dr. Goswami's got some good stuff too. That's great. Charles, if you had all the knowledge in the world, what's something you'd like to be part of in the world of engineering, or you're already part of it?
Charles Thompson: Yeah. I think I'm already part of it. Yeah. I'm part of it. I really, really do enjoy what I'm doing here. I enjoy meeting with the people and the operators that I work with and work for. And I continuously say that I work for more than I work with because I'm here for them. And I just enjoy it. And I would recommend it to anybody. I guess if you should decide to come into this businessyou could certainly find me relatively easily in any global address book that the IHS has.
Isaac Oakeson: Wellit's interesting because we connected -- I had sent out an email and we were talking about kind of leadership or engineers going into managers and becoming leaders. Did you have any thoughts surrounding that? Engineers becoming managers or the difference between leadership and management?
Charles Thompson: I do. I mean, I think the first thing that engineers -- I think engineers make great managers, in general. You know, like with any field, there are some folks that are just not cut out for it. But I think the biggest thing that one could remember when you get into a leadership position is remember where you came from. Remember the people that helped you get there and be those people and provide the mentorship. You know, one thing that I've often thought about is, if I were to get into one of those positions, I would be the person that people could come to and and talk about things, whether it be personal or jobs, and help them and guide them to fill my shoes someday. Don't be afraid that somebody is going to, you knowtake your position. Don't be afraid to help somebody along because -- You know, we all want to advance our careers, but we all, I think we want to advance them through the knowledge of somebody else or other people, and be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. So, that's what I would say. Remember where you come from, be a mentor to those as often as you can. It helps you hone your skills and, you know, be willing to talk to people and try to put yourself in their shoes. And be humble. I mean, be humble about it.
Isaac Oakeson: I've noticed that, as people advance in their careers, they usually are too busy, you know? They're working on their own stuff, and they don't want to take on the role of a mentor with someone that's just learning the ropes again. But I think you're right. It does hone your skills. If you're humble about it and know where you started, and the resources you wish you had, be that person. So, I love that advice. That's great.
Charles Thompson: Well, I think if you do that, it brings you back to where you were at, where that person is at. And it helps you to be, you know -- It doesn't only hone your skills, but I think it makes you a better person. Because now you start thinking about, "Oh, I used to be that", you know? "That's Where I used to be at". And, I think it's helpful.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, good. Thanks for sharing that. Well, this has been fun, Chuck. Thanks for jumping on with me. Is there any last piece of guidance that you want to share, or the best way that the audience could connect with you? Maybe they had questions or wanted to join up and just ask your, "how you're doing". Maybe they have questions about the PE and want your experience.
Charles Thompson: Sure. If somebody want to send me an email. I'll give you my personal email. My personal email is [email protected] If somebody wanted to shoot an email over to me and ask me questions I'd be happy to answer them as best I can. If I don't know the answer, I will find it, or give you the resource to find that answer. I think the other thing issomething that is very important isI don't know how many people have seen thestork in the water with the frog hanging out of its mouth, and the frog has scrubbed the stork's neck while he's in the stork's mouth and said, "Don't give up". So, that's what I'm saying. Don't give upContinue to strive forward and do the best that you can. And, if you're having troubles -- I'll be the first to admit, the PE test has not been something that I've enjoyed. I've taken a number of different courses to try to pass that thing, but I'm not giving up. I will continue to strive to get the PE I'll continue to have to take the exams. So, that's it. You just keep doing it.
Isaac Oakeson: Keep doing it. Well, you know what, you're going to pass because you took the Ultimate Civil PE Review Course, and we're going to help you get there, right?
Charles Thompson: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Isaac Oakeson: It's going to be good. Well, thank you for joining me, Chuck. This has been really fun. It's been very informative. I had no idea about Indian reservations and that they were lacking even good water. And just your tips and tools and resources, everything that you've shared today, I think will help aspire people that are coming on to get the PE later in life, but also just, you know, you have general wisdom that was great advice for everybody. So, thank you for doing that.
Charles Thompson: Isaac, thank you. I enjoyed this interview and I'm thankful that I'm able to pass on the information that I have.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. Thank you. We'll see you later.
Charles Thompson: Yep. Thank you.
Isaac Oakeson: Bye.
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