With the infrastructure bill and autonomous vehicles, transportation will be a hot industry for the years to come! So today, I interviewed Case Fulcher detailing what the work of a transportation engineer looks like, the software tools they use, the certifications that can help your career (and the ones that don’t), and a lot more! It’s a gold mine for those interested in going into the field, so you’ll want to give it a listen if you’re one of them. 😉
Tune in to Learn:
- His unusual story of switching from a career as a chef to a Transportation Engineering
- What the daily work of a Transportation Engineer looks like if you're considering it
- What software do Transportation Engineers use — and what you should learn?
- The biggest challenge in road safety today
- How autonomous vehicles will impact the industry — and create a need for engineers?
- Does a Master's or PhD really matter for a career in Transportation?
- 2 aspects of Transportation Engineering that other engineering disciplines lack
- A key piece of advice for civil engineers who want to pass the PE Transportation exam
- A non-engineering topic that you should consider learning to supercharge your career
The Ultimate Civil PE Exam Startup Guide
Connect With Case Fulcher:
Transcript of Show
You can get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: What's up, everybody? Isaac here with Civil Engineering Academy. Thanks for joining me today on another podcast episode. Today I bring on a special guest, Case Fulcher. He is a transportation engineer and works on a huge variety of projects, including safety, transportation planning, and others. I wanted to bring him on to talk about transportation to give those that are interested in that world a glimpse into what they do, programs that they use, and just what life is like for a Transportation Engineer.
Isaac Oakeson: So, Case jumps on with me and we talk about all those details. I really enjoyed our conversation. Hopefully you will learn a thing or two about that if you're interested in this field. Or if you're interested in switching fields, this is kind of the steps or the things you need to learn about if you're going into transportation. So, anyway, I wanted to share that with you. Our interview is gonna be coming up right after this. See you in a minute!
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, I wanted to jump on real quick and let you know about a FREE resource we developed for you. You can find it at civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide, and this will help you to jumpstart your studies for your PE exam. So, if you're in the hunt and you're just thinking about the PE exam, this guide will help you get through the process of figuring out everything you need to do, from the PE exam's prerequisites that you gotta figure out, the must have materials that you're gonna need for the exam, any approved calculators, what groups you should join, exam secrets, and much more. It's all in this guide that we've got developed for you. It's completely free. You can go check it out at civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide. Just put in your email, we'll get you that information as soon as the email comes to your inbox. So go check it out: civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide.
Isaac Oakeson: Alright, we are live and running. Case, thank you for joining me on The Civil Engineering Academy Podcast.
Case Fulcher: Of course. Thanks for the invite.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, it's gonna be fun. I wanted to bring you on, talk a lot about Transportation, and hopefully inspire engineers that are considering that, or even looking into maybe even a career change, to talk a little bit about that and get a feel for it.
Isaac Oakeson: But I guess before we dive into that, I always love to ask, how you found yourself in the world of civil engineering, and specifically how did you find yourself into Transportation?
Case Fulcher: That's an interesting question. There's a kind of odd answer to it. So, starting in high school, I actually wanted to be a chef. So, that was kind of my passion, what I wanted to do through high school. And then about junior year of high school, I looked at the lifestyle of the chef and said, "That's probably not gonna fit the lifestyle that I want for myself," right? So my dad suggested looking into civil. He does dirt work and equipment work, so he builds ponds and things like that. So I'd help him with that kind of instance.
Case Fulcher: And Mississippi State University, which is 30 minutes from my hometown, had a summer two- to three-week course called Quest. And this course, it was engineering-based. You went and stayed at the university and the days were split where half the day you would go and you would review what each field was, and then the other half the day, you would be assigned to a graduate student to help them with a research project they were working all over the summer.
Case Fulcher: So, doing that kind of stuck civil in my head. And when I started at Mississippi State, I went to civil and then I took my first Transportation course, and when things click, they click. So that's just kind of the way it ended up working. So, I fell in with transportation, and then through work I kind of evolved into more specifically traffic and safety.
Isaac Oakeson: And then why don't you give us a heads-up about where you are today and what are you doing today?
Case Fulcher: So, when I started, I started in 2017 with Neel-Schafferin Baton Rouge. I was there through 2020 and then I ended up moving home back to Louisville, Mississippi, and working for Neel-Schaffer out at their Starkville office. On a daily basis, I am a traffic/traffic operations, traffic safety transportation planner. Just kind of job to job, project to project depending on what we're doing at the time. So that's kind of my background.
Case Fulcher: Project-wise example, larger projects that, you know, I've worked on has been anywhere from doing the transportation plan to determine if a roadway is needed for a new construction all the way up to, you know, 120 locations with 10,000 crashes to review safety crash analysis.
Isaac Oakeson: Case, could you give us a taste about what you're doing on the daily? So, if an engineer was considering going into Transportation, what software, what do you do on the daily?
Case Fulcher: Sure. So, depending on what I'm actually working in, it's gonna depend on what kind of software I'm using at the time. So, if I'm in transportation planning, most of that's gonna be just kind of a thought process and thinking through different options, looking at the traffic operations and all the safety impacts of that to determine, you know, what the best scenario is and make recommendations to whoever our client is at that time.
Case Fulcher: And as far as, like, whenever you get into traffic operations, we'll be using something like Synchro. We'll use Vistro, Visum. So those are examples. So Synchro and Vitro and HCS are all macro simulations, and then Visum is a micro simulation. So if we need to get more detail, we get into the micro simulation aspects.
Case Fulcher: And then if you're in safety -- So, the safety tools, there's a few Federal Highway tools. There's ISAT, and then there's IHSDM. I think that's the right abbreviation.
Isaac Oakeson: You got a lot in transportation.
Case Fulcher: I might've missed that abbreviation. And then, there's the Highway Safety Software that's developed by the same people that develop Highway Capacity Software. But primarily what I use on a daily basis in safety is I use Google Earth to plot all the lat launches of the crashes so I can see them. Most of the safety that I work on right now is through the state of Louisiana, and they have an Excel tool that does their safety analysis. So it develops level of safety service and it develops the predicted and expected crashes based on statewide crash SPFs, or Safety Performance Functions.
Case Fulcher: And then after that, I developed my own Excel macro tool to do a -- It's called the Set Tool is what I called it, but it's used to do the benefit-cost analysis for countermeasure evaluations.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow! So a lot of these software tools, were they software tools that you had to learn on the job, or are some of these tools that you actually experienced while going through your college program?
Case Fulcher: Introduced to a couple in college. We were introduced to CORSIM in college. That's pretty much what we were using. You can use CORSIM, and some places still use CORSIM, but I haven't used CORSIM very much in my actual job. But CORSIM and Synchro, they do the same thing, but they have -- You just kind of have to learn the differences. It's kind of like AutoCAD and MicroStation, right? There's just different buttons for very different things.
Isaac Oakeson: Got It. Well, I'm interested because you've gravitated to transportation, but would you have any advice for engineers that are, I guess, still in school or hunting down kind of the niche that they like, how they might entertain doing that?
Case Fulcher: Yeah. I mean, if you're still in school, you know, know what you like, but I think my biggest advice there is don't lock yourself into whatever you think you wanna do while you're in school. Let your kind of workforce and workflow lead you in the right direction. The reason I say that is, when I was in school, there's very few that wanted to do Transportation, and I would say probably 40% of my class now is working in the transportation industry in some means or form. So, that's not to say that if you really wanna do that niche, don't do that niche. It's just be open to it if something falls that you also enjoy that you can move into that aspect as well.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great advice. I really like hearing that. And so, yeah. If anybody's struggling with those decisions, I think that it's great stuff.
Isaac Oakeson: You know, with you being in transportation and you focused on safety, as a maybe a big picture, what are some of the challenges in road safety are you seeing commonly that professionals are facing or that you're facing as an engineer?
Case Fulcher: You know, road safety, at least the challenges in road safety, that comes down to human behavior, right? So, I mean, it's all an aspect of the human action. So there's been a big push over the last few years to start designing recoverable systems rather than permanently safe systems, right? So it's systems that accept that accidents happen or accept that humans make mistakes and you design the system so that the mistake isn't fatal. Essentially, it's kind of the way safety design has transitioned over the last few years. But I think that's probably the biggest challenge. It's just trying to guess and determine what, you know, humans are gonna do before they actually do it.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. I know there's this huge push for automation and autopilot for cars to just be autonomous and drive on their own. Do you see that as being a safer thing in the long run? Or do you feel like humans behind a wheel would still be a safer option? Or what's your thoughts around all that?
Case Fulcher: My actual opinion on that, I think you're going to see a little of both. You know, if we ever get, and I don't know that we ever will, but if we ever do get to an aspect of a hundred percent automation, a hundred percent automation will definitely be safer. It will be faster, it will be more efficient. The issue and where we're going to run into problems is whenever we get to 50/50, where you have 50% automation and 50% humans. That interaction is going to be something that's going to be a challenge in the future. And figuring that out and keeping the roads safe while we move through that period is going to be, you know, probably the next phase of Transportation Engineering, or at least safety engineering.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, that's interesting. And I see that a lot tied to like, you know, cost. It costs a lot of money to buy a car that has that capability, and I just don't think people have those funds either to buy a vehicle.
Case Fulcher: You have that too, but you also have to look at the cost of the infrastructure that it's gonna take to, you know, make those capabilities possible. Because, for those capabilities to work, you know, you're gonna have to have good striping on every road. You're gonna have to good shoulders on every road. So there's a lot of cost in actually getting that implementation to a hundred percent.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, I see that as a big challenge. Good things to think about, and definitely the direction I see things going. But interesting to hear your thoughts on that.
Case Fulcher: Could you talk a little bit about, your journey to get your PhD? And then you switched from that, I think, to getting professional certifications?
Case Fulcher: I did. Sure. So, I graduated with my bachelor's in 2012. I directly entered into the PhD program at Mississippi State University and started taking classes. At the time I knew I wanted to teach, I enjoyed teaching. But through your PhD you do research, and over time I just realized that research wasn't for me. Especially the aspect of looking for funding for research and doing all of that searching out and trying to find where you're going to get your next source of research. That wasn't something that I really enjoyed, and that was kind of a requirement of being a professor at the time. I decided that I didn't really want to go down that route anymore.
Case Fulcher: At this time, it was 2017, I had been asked to teach a class and given the opportunity to get my master's along the way. So I ended up getting my master's along the way, so that the entire period wasn't just a waste. And then I started work in 2017, and about six months in to a year in, I decided that I was just going to give up the PhD. And being a lifelong learner, I couldn't stop learning. So I decided that I would move into, you know, what was the next stage and that would also help me in my career and help our clients as well would be, you know, getting certifications in the fields that applied to what I worked in.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow, that's fascinating. I guess for anybody considering it, a Transportation Engineer, where do you see them if they're getting their PhD? What would they be doing? What benefit is there to not getting it or getting it?
Case Fulcher: So, I would say that I had a controversial take on this, but my opinion on a PhD is, if you are 100% focused and you are for sure that you want one and you know why you want it, then there's no reason not to get a PhD. Master's, I would highly recommend getting a master's to anyone. PhD, if you're not a hundred percent sure why you want the PhD, I don't think it's something that you should pursue. I think you should pursue your career first, and then, if you wanted to go back and look at a PhD later in life, you always could.
Isaac Oakeson: Makes sense. No, that's great advice. I like to ask that because I've interviewed people that do have their PhD and some that don't, and I just like to get their take on where they sit with that. So, that's good to know, especially as it relates to transportation.
Isaac Oakeson: I know you've worked on a ton of projects. Have there been a favorite project or two that is memorable to you?
Case Fulcher: So, I'll start with that by saying why I really like transportation and traffic, right? So I kind of told you how I clicked with it, but the reason that it's really become a passion, there's really twofold to that. So, one reason why I like transportation is because you have the aspect of changing things at a very quick or faster pace than most other engineering, especially in traffic and safety, right?
Case Fulcher: So most engineering projects are, you know, eight, ten-year projects. You design them four at the minimum, right? They design and go in construction and then get built. So, traffic projects, I can come up with a low-term solution this week and it's implemented next week. And especially for safety projects, you know, you're already affecting the lives of the people in the vicinity of where you work and live, right? Immediately. And that's part one of why I enjoy or why I'm passionate about transportation and traffic.
Case Fulcher: Part two is the technology, which we've kind of touched on, aspect. So, Transportation seems to take and accept technology at a faster rate. So, when new technologies come out, transportation seems to be one of the first engineering to kind of pick it up and try and run with it and see where we go with it. So you get new challenges every day with new technologies that come out. And that's phase two.
Case Fulcher: And as far as how that applies to a favorite project, my favorite projects are the ones where I find a problem. I can either show some type of new innovation for it or just come up with some solution that can be implemented quickly and improve the lives of the people in the community that I live and work in a relatively fast fashion, right?
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. I mean, I personally wasn't aware that you could turn around a project or a safety issue and turn around and make it very quick to all of a sudden implemented.
Case Fulcher: Well, a lot of it just depends on what it is. You know, some things -- When I say turn a project around, some things could be as simple as installing back plates at a signalized intersection. You know, back plates have a crash reduction factor of 80% for crashes at a signalized intersection. So, if you don't have retroreflective back plates, you can implement those and studies show you get a 20% reduction in crashes, right?
Isaac Oakeson: Wow! That's awesome. Well, it sounds like, yeah, you're in a field that can work on projects, implement them quickly, and I'm sure that's fun to see when you can do that very quickly. Yeah, the rest of the civil engineering world, oftentimes a project can last a long time before it's definitely implemented.
Case Fulcher: I mean, transportation projects can too, but, you know, there's some aspects where you can turn projects around. You know, most of the time it's about a year, but there are some aspects where you can turn around quicker.
Isaac Oakeson: It's true. Well, I know everybody every summer always sees orange cones and they're always wondering what's taking so long. But yes, I'm sure there's a variety of projects. Some can take a long time, others can be implemented quickly, and the field you're in right now, you can do that.
Case Fulcher: I know of one location where they installed an RCUT, or a J-turn if you wanna call it that, it was a full access intersection. They installed the J-turn in three days.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow! Well, there you go. Turn around those projects quickly.
Case Fulcher: Well, I know we maybe touched a little bit on this, but what excites you about the future of transportation engineering and what challenges do you foresee?
Case Fulcher: Yeah, like I said earlier, I think the challenge is, one, the always changing technology that we have, and then the big challenge for the future is the integration of automation and human interaction. You know, if we ever get to a hundred percent, great. There are people I graduated high school with, I don't think you'll ever be able to take their vehicle away from them. So, you know, those good old boys --
Isaac Oakeson: They wanna drive their vehicle. Well, good advice.
Isaac Oakeson: Let's maybe switch gears a little bit. I know that, you know, a big achievement for civil engineers is to earn their PE license. Would you have any advice for aspiring engineers trying to earn that, specifically for the transportation arena?
Case Fulcher: So, for transportation, yeah. The big aspect about transportation is there's so many manuals. I took it as a paper exam, but now, you know, with it being online, it's even more important to know where you're looking. So not just what manual it is, but kind of what chapter it is to minimize that time that it takes you to actually find the information you're looking for. Because for me, you know, 80% of the transportation exam it wasn't working the problem. It was knowing where to pull the proper data from that you needed to work the problem. So if you're spending all your time scrolling through the online system, you know, you're just wasting valuable assets.
Isaac Oakeson: Definitely makes sense. We're big on helping people with their PE license. You know, helping them on their journey. So any advice to help them on that journey is always good advice. So, that's great. Thank you for sharing that.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, Case, this has been really fun. Is there any other advice that you would give to our audience about transportation engineering?
Case Fulcher: This is really engineering in general, and it's my take on a lot of things. If you don't have a background in it already, I would highly suggest looking into an intro to a computer programming class, especially if you're still in school. Even looking into like an Excel macro class, how to develop macros for yourself, how to do some basic coding. Linear algebra is always a good aspect to kind of get for a background. So, if you don't already have that in your resume or in your coursework, that's something that I would highly recommend to, especially students still in school.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. And, you know, I think engineers will quickly discover what they like and don't like. Programming definitely wasn't one of my favorites, but it is a tool that is useful for a lot of things, especially when you're building your own tools like you have done, Case, doing it with Excel and Macros. So, great advice.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, if anyone had any questions about Transportation Engineering or any questions in general, could they reach out to you, and what's the best way to do that?
Case Fulcher: Sure. The easiest way to get a hold of me is probably through my LinkedIn. So William Case Fulcher, LinkedIn, and I generally will reply within a day or two.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, we'll go ahead and link that in our show notes. Case, thanks for jumping on and giving us a taste of what you do as a planner and inspiring the world of Transportation Engineering. So thank you for joining me.
Case Fulcher: Thanks for having me.
Isaac Oakeson: Alright, see you.
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