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Transcript- Episode 105: The Power of Passion: How to Identify & Pursue Your Calling in the Future of Work with Dennis Rodriguez Director of Business Development – Western US & Design Build – Governments & Environment at Black & Veatch Corporation

Oct 24, 2023


00:00:00 Dennis

A lot of folks kind of go through the educational process and they think, "By the time I'm done with this, or by the time I get my degree, or by the time I take that next step after graduation, I will have it all figured out." And the truth is, that's generally not the path, that generally the path is, you've got to kind of touch different things and to have different exposure to different concepts and professional aspects to really understand what your passion is.

00:00:27 Christina

The workforce landscape is rapidly changing and educators and their institutions need to keep up. Preparing students before they enter the workforce to make our communities and businesses stronger is at the core of getting an education. But we need to understand how to change and adjust so that we can begin to project where things are headed before we even get there. So, how do we begin to predict the future?

00:00:52 Salvatrice

Hi, I'm Salvatrice Cummo, Vice President of Economic and Workforce Development at Pasadena City College and host of this podcast.

00:01:01 Christina

And I'm Christina Barsi, producer and co-host of this podcast.

00:01:04 Salvatrice

And we are starting the conversation about the future of work. We'll explore topics like how education can partner with industry, how to be more equitable, and how to attain one of our highest goals, more internship and PCC students in the workforce.

00:01:19 Salvatrice

We at Pasadena City College want to lead the charge in closing the gap between what our students are learning and what the demands of the workforce will be once they enter. This is a conversation that impacts all of us, you the employers, the policy makers, the educational institutions, and the community as a whole.

00:01:37 Christina

We believe change happens when we work together and it all starts with having a conversation, I'm Christina Barsi.

00:01:45 Salvatrice

And I'm Salvatrice Cummo, and this is the Future of Work.

00:01:51 Salvatrice

Hi everyone and welcome back to the Future of Work Podcast, I am your host, Dr. Salvatrice Cummo. Today, we'll be discussing and defining sustainable infrastructure and the major role it plays in all industry sectors. With that being said, we are excited to welcome Dennis Rodriguez, Director of Business Development, Western U.S. Design-Build, Governments and Environment for the Black & Veatch Corporation.

00:02:17 Salvatrice

Dennis has a deep background in economic development, public affairs, and business development. He is passionate about driving thought leadership and innovation into the state and local public sector market spaces with a focus on problem solving and relationship development. Thank you for joining us, Dennis. That's a big charge.

00:02:43 Dennis

Exactly. It's a mouthful.

00:02:45 Salvatrice

It sure is.

00:02:46 Dennis

Happy to be here and thank you for the invitation. This is exciting and interested to kind of have this chat and just go through the conversation about workforce development. We're doing exciting things at Black & Veatch and just happy to chat deeper.

00:03:00 Salvatrice

Excellent. There's a lot to unpack here but I wanted to really start with, and just so you know, it's an opening question that I pose to all of my guests because it's important to me. And I'm just curious, and I know that our listeners are curious, but if you could tell us a little bit about your career journey and really what led you to Black & Veatch Corporation?

00:03:21 Dennis

It's a great question. I think I don't have a typical kind of career journey. I think when you think about careers and especially with an engineering company, you kind of think that most folks are kind of on a path direct to some future kind of engineering opportunity. And I think with me, I've just jumped and kind of zigged and zagged throughout my career and it's been interesting to kind of look back and reflect on it.

00:03:45 Dennis

But essentially, I grew up in Los Angeles and ended up at Cal State Northridge University where I got a degree in creative writing, which has nothing to do with engineering but is always a good fundamental kind of background. I think communicating and writing things effectively is a key piece of being a professional in a future sense. And so, I think for me that's important to just ensure that was my foundation.

00:04:09 Dennis

From there, I went on to law school at the University of Notre Dame, which also has not much to do with engineering in terms of traditional paths and that sort of thing. So, I ended up in law school, graduated, and my first position outside of law school was basically working for the Los Angeles City Council.

00:04:26 Dennis

So, I worked for an elected official, a gentleman named Bernard Parks, and I spent the better part of a decade with his office and started at an entry position, ended up as an economic development deputy for him, which is kind of his right-hand person for major projects and major policies.

00:04:43 Dennis

From there, I left his office and jumped into the private sector, which is kind of the leap into the path that I kind of took into this current position. Ended up with a company called Siemens, which is a global powerhouse in terms of product engineering. I think at one point they had close to 400,000 employees on the roster, so just a massive company multinational.

00:05:05 Dennis

And so, what I did with that company is I did business development and I basically learned the company and then developed business back with major cities throughout the west coast. So, that was my charge with them. And essentially, I did that for about 10 years.

00:05:20 Dennis

Following that position, I kind of found my way to Black & Veatch and currently doing business development for them in relation to their design-build group, which is a different way that government kind of goes to procure opportunities in the marketplace.

00:05:35 Dennis

And so, I've been with this company for about two years and just having a great time or looking at a bunch of interesting projects with just important infrastructure implications and that sort of thing. So, not a traditional path, not a straightforward path of zig and zag throughout the process. And it's been a journey, but it isn't anything I would replace, I've thoroughly enjoyed the process.

00:05:57 Salvatrice

For sure. I think the majority of us experience that. Like we go in with one mindset and then we grow and we have experiences and opportunities are brought forth to us and we understand that our skills and our talents can be leveraged in other sectors and other corporations and companies and things like that.

00:06:16 Salvatrice

And so, I mean, that's my favorite question to ask by the way because for me, it helps understand who you are, but it also helps me understand even some of the approaches that we take in problem-solving, in developing new programs and building partnerships, it tells me a lot about the approach. Thank you so much for sharing that with me.

00:06:40 Salvatrice

And today's topic is really about sustainable infrastructure, so we'll live there for a minute in this conversation. And you mentioned it in your intro about sustainable infrastructure and that kind of is a universal theme or thread I think throughout your entire career.

00:06:56 Salvatrice

You kind of touched on it here and there, but now with the emphasis here with Black & Veatch, just really kind of tell me a little bit about sustainable infrastructure and why you personally think it's so important for our future needs.

00:07:12 Dennis

When you think about infrastructure, we have it in different, various parts of our communities and our cities and our states and all these different components. It used to be built in a traditional fashion, so if you built a bridge, it was a bridge. If you built a pipeline, it's a pipeline.

00:07:27 Dennis

I think the way we're looking at things these days is how do we make these static, traditional pieces of infrastructure smarter, more capable of transmitting data and information, more capable of understanding what kind of status they're in.

00:07:43 Dennis

So, if it's something that's deteriorating, if it's something that's got a long shelf life that's all used for information for people who are looking at maintaining this and operating these pieces of infrastructure. So, I think infrastructure really has grown into that kind of capacity over time and it's exciting.

00:08:00 Dennis

If you think about a pipeline, like I mentioned, you can build a pipeline, you can kind of dig parts of the earth and kind of put the pipeline in place. But these days we're attaching sensors and we're attaching data transmission and we're attaching things that would feed back to some kind of central location to, like I said, identify what issues might be taking place if there's some kind of leak detection that needs to be understood.

00:08:25 Dennis

And so, that's all just critical parts of the process to make sure that our infrastructure stays in place for long-term. Infrastructure, also, in today's concept when you solve for it or you plan for something, you've got to look at future challenges. And it's impossible to future-proof, but I think in as much as we can plan to future-proof, I think that's the way we should be looking at infrastructure. To me, that goes into making something sustainable for a long-term.

00:08:55 Salvatrice

So, tell me a little bit more about that. What exactly are we looking for when you say we're looking at it to be more future-proof? If you could give me an example, that'd be great.

00:09:06 Dennis

The amount of investment and the amount of initial inertia that needs to take place to develop a piece of infrastructure. You look at the California high-speed train, for example, the amount of inertia in political momentum that kind of goes into making that come to fruition, it's massive.

00:09:25 Dennis

And so, in as much as we can think about what that system looks like in 20 years, in 50 years, in 100 years, and it's still delivering what it needs to deliver to the folks that are using it in that time span, that's kind of future-proofing. So, we want to make sure the infrastructure is in place, it's useful and it's serving your purpose long-term. That's at the top of the list in terms of infrastructure, making sure it's a long-term commitment.

00:09:52 Salvatrice

It's important that you mentioned our traditional mindset about what infrastructure is or what it was and what it actually really is now. And we really appreciate you saying that, that it's so much more than what we traditionally think infrastructure to look like. But infrastructure now, and what I'm hearing is that it's not exactly like a tangible thing where you can see it live. It's around everything that you mentioned, the technology behind infrastructure design, specifically sustainable infrastructure design.

00:10:26 Salvatrice

And so, what led me to think is, first of all, I didn't realize that Black & Veatch was 100-year-old company. When we were starting to do a little bit of research about the company, I genuinely didn't know that. And so, I was hugely surprised in a good way because we don't see companies last that long anymore and there's a reason why they are, and it's because what you just said.

00:10:47 Salvatrice

Like thinking about future, thinking about innovation, thinking about how is this going to sustain us in the long run? So, I'm wondering if you can share how the company is investing in cutting-edge innovation that's essential. Could you share how really Black & Veatch has been able to become 100-year-old company, and what is the secret sauce to that you think?

00:11:18 Dennis

To take the roof off of the company and kind of dig into it, I think is very interesting. One of the things that fascinated me about joining this company a few years back is the fact that it's a hundred percent employee-owned company.

00:11:30 Salvatrice


00:11:30 Dennis

I've been a part of different career paths and I worked for a municipal government, which was massive. I worked for Siemens, which was massive, but this is the first time working for a company that I had an ownership stake in.

00:11:43 Dennis

And so, I think that essentially does drive a lot of our innovation and kind of approach to the marketplace because at the end of the day, we want to turn this company over to the next generation of professionals, that's a huge thing that we focus on within the company. We want to be good stewards and make sure this continues forward.

00:12:00 Dennis

So, not just making this 100-year-old company but making this 150-year-old company and a 200-year-old company in the future. But if you think about that from a marketer approach, we're on the forefront of looking at sustainable infrastructure, infrastructure in general. We focus on power infrastructure, water infrastructure, telecommunication infrastructure. Those are our kind of three main buckets.

00:12:21 Dennis

And so, as we dig into the marketplace, it's just critical that we're at the forefront of the leading innovations that clients are looking for. We're digging into training components and workforce development, which I think we'll talk about here momentarily, to really identify what the trends in the market are looking at, what kind of things are helping us to future-proof our design and construction of these components of infrastructure. I mean, all that is critical.

00:12:50 Dennis

And we do a lot of self-evaluation as I think any successful company should do. So, the self-evaluation is a key piece of it. We're always kind of going through a review process to make sure if we're taking a leading edge into something into the marketplace, is that the right leading edge? Or is that something that we think was an asset to the market and to our clients.

00:13:11 Dennis

And so, I think those are all kind of critical approaches to making sure we're at the forefront of that stuff. And I say all that and it's also important to mention that as an owner in the company, these are the things that I think through at night to kind of make sure that I'm taking the right steps around decisions to go through the process to make sure the company's in good shape.

00:13:31 Salvatrice

I think there's a lot to be said about companies that are owned and operated by the employees. Just hearing you now explain that, explain how this 100-year-old company still continues to be on the cutting edge and is wanting and has a desire to live longer, I should say, or be in business longer, there's a lot to be said. Because you have a vested interest in the success and the vitality of the company.

00:13:59 Dennis


00:14:00 Salvatrice

That's really, really telling. Well, along that same thread of the company being on the cutting edge of innovation as it relates to sustainable infrastructure, we've already underscored that it's evolving. We've underscored that there's many variables to sustainable infrastructure, and there's also other ways of design thinking around it.

00:14:20 Salvatrice

Could you share a little bit about how the company is keeping ahead on training the existing workforce for this evolving infrastructure design as we think about it for the future, how is the company investing in training and the future needs of our workforce?

00:14:44 Dennis

So, there's a few different components to this. I think you can look at stuff that we do in-house. You can also look at external kind of training mechanisms. In-house, we have a program called our EDGE Program, which is basically a rotational program for young professionals. And I think a lot of good top-level companies kind of employ things of this nature.

00:15:04 Dennis

So, you take a young professional, maybe a year or two out of college, they can jump into a program like this and really touch base with different parts of the company. So, they're kind of doing a 9 to 18-month stints in different sections of the company, different departments. They're looking at a whole variety of different concepts.

00:15:22 Dennis

They could look at our power plant construction and design. At some point they could look at an advanced water treatment plant, at some point they could look at some telecommunications or electric vehicle charging infrastructure project. So, the goal is to kind of give them exposure to different parts, and at the end of the day, just identify if they have a passion for one particular focus.

00:15:42 Dennis

I think for any young person kind of coming out of college, that's a key ingredient to this whole thing, that's part of the secret sauce. Because what you want to do in your career is find something that is of keen interest to you. And if it is and you're passionate about it, you're going to you stay up after work thinking about it and doing research.

00:16:01 Dennis

You're going to network with professionals who kind of share a similar passion. You're going to educate yourself on the things that you would get exposure to in terms of that kind of focus point. So, that's a key piece of all this is just to make sure you've got that passionate thing you're digging into.

00:16:17 Dennis

We also do a lot of in-house training. We have a bunch of great programs with Black & Veatch that keep us on the path in terms of keeping up with professional credits and that sort of thing. We also look at external kind of training impacts and those are professional organizations that dig into things that we're passionate about in our particular field.

00:16:37 Dennis

For myself, on the water design built side, there's a Design-Build Institute of America that's one organization we dig into. You go to these meetings and you can kind of talk to the professionals, you talk to the experts in the field and create that network and expand your knowledge base and expand your network.

00:16:53 Dennis

So, I think when you kind of wrap that all into a package, that's how you make sure the workforce is moving in the right direction and keeping up with what's shaping up.

00:17:04 Dennis

And also, quite frankly, a lot of that is thought leadership. So, as a part of all these aspects, we want to introduce and be thinking through how we're bringing thought leadership to these conversations. And so, that's kind of key thing we are focused on.

00:17:18 Salvatrice

The EDGE Program is an internal program. Is it in partnership with any other organization or is it-

00:17:26 Dennis

It's a hundred percent internal and it's basically an internal rotational program. We do partner with other organizations and we can talk about that also. We partner with educational locations as well but just for the EDGE purposes, some people have a very direct path that wasn't my career, and that's fine.

00:17:44 Dennis

I think if you've always focused on electrical engineering and that's the path you want to head down, I mean, that's one aspect to kind of get to your passion. If you're not quite sure when you get out of college and you join a company like Black & Veatch, you can sign up for it and just kind of make sure you get exposure to different things to see what might be a passion point, and that's the exciting part of it.

00:18:04 Salvatrice

When I think about just our partnerships that we have with industry professionals or industry partners, companies, organizations, et cetera, one of the elements that we lean on industry for is what exactly do you need from us in order to prepare the next engineer, the next architect, the next fill in the blank.

00:18:28 Salvatrice

And so, I'm wondering if there's an example that you can share or maybe you haven't explored it just yet, of what might a program look like where we're preparing the next generation or the next workforce, the next talent cohort, I'm going to call them that, is there a way or has there been a thought around how do we build stronger partnerships with academia so that the dollars that are being invested are equally distributed.

00:18:56 Dennis

So, I mean, to run an in-house program cost a ton of money, we know that. We also know that there's incredible return on that investment, there really is. But I'm wondering if there's a way for academia to kind of supplement that so that we are properly training that next generation, that next workforce. And it supports the passion that Black & Veatch has on upskilling, on training, on helping the workforce find their passions in this space.

00:19:32 Dennis

I think there's a natural nexus between academia and a company like Black & Veatch. And in fact, our company's headquartered in Kansas City. There's two Kansas cities which I discovered when I joined the company, but at the end of the day, we've partnered with the University of Kansas. That's obviously a very close contact point for us within the company.

00:19:51 Dennis

We've put together programs and they kind of focus on project management, they focus on construction management. They focus on different aspects of things we would need to keep our workforce trained at a high level and kind of supplementing what we're seeing from a real-life world example with academic support and kind of credential support and that sort of thing.

00:20:13 Dennis

So, that's just one example I think to me, I think academia has to have these conversations with companies like ours to identify what things are these companies focused on what are the core competencies of your company? For Black & Veatch, it's design, engineering, construction. We also have a ton of administrative needs in terms of throughout the company.

00:20:35 Dennis

I was talking to my boss last night and we were talking about the construction management aspect. Once we design a project and then we start to construct the project, you've got a huge workforce that comes out to kind of manage that construction process.

00:20:51 Dennis

And you're talking about early work packages to secure supplies and materials. You're talking about supply chain issues. You're talking about all these things that we look at from a global trending perspective that we need to have focused professionals in-house to make sure we're managing it correctly so that the project stays on track and stays on budget.

00:21:10 Dennis

So, just making sure we're talking and making sure you guys are focused in on what companies do. So, if there is that investment from your perspective, you can make sure it's something that you'll think there'll be a benefit for long-term.

00:21:26 Salvatrice

I think for us, the most effective programs that we've seen for both industry and ourselves is ones that are formalized in some capacity. And there's an agreement, everyone knows their roles and responsibilities. Everyone knows the investment of dollars that are being made.

00:21:40 Salvatrice

Those are the ones that are successful, but they're also the ones that require a ton of attention, not just in resources but in human capital that sometimes we find ourselves spread super thin. Our teams are starting to spread super thin.

00:22:00 Salvatrice

Because I'm just thinking about even our conversation to be held at the conference, at the Future of Work Conference coming up on October 26th is the need for, and the state's direction on more apprenticeships and focusing the resources and the dollars around apprenticeship programming.

00:22:18 Salvatrice

I'm just going to of plant that seed because I think at a later time, I'd really would want to explore that with you on how could an institution like ourselves or any institution formalize that with the company like Black & Veatch. And it sounds like it's project-based. So, maybe that's the approach, maybe that's the pilot, that's the model, but I'd love to explore that with you at some point.

00:22:41 Dennis

Salvatrice, I think having grown up in politics or worked at City Hall for a long time, I think one of the things I always think through is you need to have a political champion to kind of get this uplifted and off the ground.

00:22:52 Dennis

I don't think that's any different here. I think on the academic side, you need a champion, on the business side, you need a champion, and those folks need to come together and talk about what the needs are, what the support looks like, and how to formalize that process.

00:23:07 Dennis

I mean, I think, to me that's kind of the basic mechanisms to putting something like this in place and it's not easy. I think that takes time, and it takes a lot of conversation and I think that's a heavy lift. And so, it doesn't always have to be obvious and apparent on the outset, but at some point in that conversation, that nexus and that connection and that cross benefit for each group has to kind of get flushed out.

00:23:32 Dennis

And it starts with this, it starts with these conversation, it starts with us getting to know each other and kind of making sure that we're a part of ... you guys are looking at from our perspective to identify if there's something of benefit for us to kind of dig into with you all. So, I think this is the starting point.

00:23:55 Salvatrice

Great. Thank you. I'm going to shift gears just a little bit. I want to ask the question about aspiring professionals in this space of sustainable infrastructure. Our listener, our professional students, faculty, so we have a real nice diverse group of listeners. And I always like to ask the question about what advice would you give to our student who's an aspiring professional in this space? Just any nuggets of information that you can provide.

00:24:26 Dennis

There's so much advice to kind of think through it and-

00:24:30 Salvatrice

How do we narrow it down?

00:24:33 Dennis

I like to think of myself as a young man, but the truth is I've been doing this for close to 25 years and I think I touched on it earlier, finding your passion. I think that's a key piece of it. And to find your passion, you've got to touch different things. You've got to touch different groups, you've got to network, you've got to push things to failure sometimes. You've got to fail in your professional career.

00:24:54 Dennis

But when you fail, it's a learning process and you're kind of falling forward as you go through that process. But a lot of folks struggle with just connecting with folks. I think finding professional organizations and people that you can connect with to go through this process and stay curious. I think being curious is a key part of all this.

00:25:13 Dennis

You've got to go into it with a mindset of, "I'm trying to learn something. I don't have to learn it in this exact moment, but if I keep at it and it's something I'm interested in, over time, I'm going to really be able to master this part of what I'm focused on."

00:25:27 Dennis

And I think, for me, I joined the City Council when I was 23, 24-years-old. And immediately I fell in love with the infrastructure work that the city of Los Angeles was developing. If it was a train set, if it was a traffic sign, if it was a variety of different components. I thought working on stuff that improved people's quality of life was something that gave me satisfaction.

00:25:54 Dennis

I think finding that as a young professional, it may not be obviously apparent from the jump, but if you can find that over time, I think you're going to have a long and fruitful career. Because once you dig into that, I think you can base your whole career based on that passion. And that's what I've done with infrastructure.

00:26:13 Dennis

Every career point I've had has touched infrastructure in some way, shape or form, I continue to be fascinated by it. I put my learning cap on, on a daily basis. I never want to think there's something I can't pick up or something I can't learn today. And so, I kind of go through the day with that mindset, so.

00:26:31 Salvatrice

Well, speaking of curiosity, because curiosity does lead to new discoveries and we do have the Future of Work Conference coming up on October 26th. What could we look forward to be curious about in your conversations and your thoughts? And just some highlights, like what can we look forward to hearing from you at the conference?

00:26:54 Dennis

Salvatrice, I think it's a little bit of a combination of what I've mentioned so far. I think staying curious, I think finding your passion is really something I'd like to leave behind. I think a lot of folks kind of go through the educational process and they think, "By the time I'm done with this, or by the time I get my degree, or by the time I take that next step after graduation, I will have it all figured out."

00:27:15 Dennis

And the truth is, that's generally not the path, generally the path is, you've got to kind of touch different things and to have different exposure to different concepts and professional aspects to really understand what your passion is.

00:27:29 Dennis

And so, I think the takeaway I'd like to leave folks, is to try to go find that passion. There's a host of different things you can kind of do to dig into that but at the end of the day, you're going to know what it is when you find it.

00:27:39 Dennis

And finding it, I think is a critical concept because if you can't find it, don't mean to sound cliche, but if you find your passion, your career is not going to be work, it's going to be fun. I think that's what we're all trying to obtain, is having fun at work.

00:27:51 Salvatrice

I think that is certainly exactly what we're all trying to get. We're all trying to get there on a daily basis for sure.

00:27:56 Salvatrice

Well, I'm going to plant a seed with you to kind of conclude this conversation, Dennis. For the conference, I'm going to be curious about asking you questions around system design. Specifically our system and how it integrates with the private sector. How are we building stronger, formalized programming? And really kind of digging deep to the barriers around that too. Like, we have to be real, we can't have these ... I mean, you mentioned it earlier, like the champions that you need.

00:28:30 Salvatrice

But let's also talk about real barriers to this work and why it takes us so long to do it. And then what's needed? What's needed to solve the barrier issue? Is it policy? Is it people, is it money? What is it? So, I'm going to plant that seed with you, if that's alright.

00:28:53 Dennis

It's been planted and I'll be sure to make sure I'm ready to kind of talk through that. But just to piggyback on that, I think it's all the things you mentioned. It's people, it's policy and politics and it also is financial. I mean, that's always the challenge with any kind of partnership. So, we will dig into it deeper at the conference. I'm very much looking forward to the conversation and hopefully, I think this was a productive conversation.

00:29:16 Salvatrice


00:29:17 Dennis

The takeaway for today is find your passion. The takeaway for the panel will be find your passion.

00:29:24 Salvatrice

I love that. And with that, we conclude this conversation. Dennis, this is really great. It's been a lovely conversation. If a listener wants to connect with you, what's the best way to do it? And then we'll plop it into the show notes.

00:29:36 Dennis

So, LinkedIn is always an excellent way. Hopefully, you guys can show that link on the notes. Email is also a preferred method of communication. Email is my last name, which is

00:29:54 Salvatrice

Very good, thanks. We'll put that in the show notes. Look forward to seeing you again live in person on the 26th October here at Pasadena City College. We'll see you soon.

00:30:02 Dennis

Looking forward to it. Thank you.

00:30:06 Salvatrice

Thank you for listening to The Future of Work Podcast. Make sure you're subscribed on your favorite listening platform so you can easily get new episodes every Tuesday. You can reach out to us by clicking on the website link below in the show notes to collaborate, partner, or just chat about all things future of work. We'd love to connect with you. All of us here at the future of work and Pasadena City College, wish you safety and wellness.