Building an Industry
May 28, 2019 05:28PM
By Scott Stewart
Omaha may not have the towering skylines of Chicago or New York City, but this humble Midwestern city’s geography and values have forged an engineering legacy it can trace back to the days of steamboats and covered wagons.
Omaha is a cornerstone for the engineering, architectural, design, and construction industries, providing a market where competition and mutual interests have created harmonious working relationships. HDR, LEO A DALY, and DLR Group call Omaha home, alongside Fortune 500 behemoth Kiewit Construction and a constellation of specialized regional firms.
“We punch way above our weight,” says Lance C. Pérez, dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Engineering. “It’s because of those great synergies and the amount of cooperation and collaboration that the university, the government sector, and the private sector have.”
The history of engineering in Omaha is dotted with the names of those companies’ executives —many of which can be found on the edifices of the city’s great buildings—but it’s also linked with the westward expansion of the United States in the late 19th century and the suitable geography that makes Omaha a key junction for travelers and merchants.
Government policies that followed, such as rural electrification and Nebraska’s unique model of sanitary and improvement districts, helped create the growth that fed those companies’ bottom lines.
Looking forward, Omaha’s legacy as an engineering town remains on a solid foundation. Educators and businesses are investing in the area, and the focus on attracting and retaining top talent will benefit the community’s legacy companies and entrepreneurs alike.
Thompson, Dreessen & Dorner Inc., commonly known as TD2, is one of those storied businesses that expects to continue enjoying the benefits of Omaha—including the presence of other strong firms.
“The interesting thing about the engineering industry is that it’s pretty complicated and, in Omaha, despite having a lot of firms, we’re still friendly competitors,” says TD2 president Douglas Dreessen. “We don’t make things difficult on each other because the job is difficult enough as it is.”
Omaha has offered myriad engineering projects since settlers first crossed over from Council Bluffs. The Missouri River and wagon trails were among the original draws, but they were soon followed by Union Pacific’s transcontinental railroad. Later came U.S. Route 6, at one point the nation’s longest highway, and interstates 29 and 80 continue to funnel traffic through the metropolitan area.
Business thrived at those historical crossroads, from merchants supporting western expansion in Jobbers Canyon to the famed stockyards, and eventually Fortune 500 companies came like Berkshire Hathaway and Mutual of Omaha. Those businesses and their employees, in turn, built the city.
“Omaha being at this key intersection of the river, the transcontinental railroad, and the transportation associated with building the stockyards in the 1800s made it a natural place for certain types of engineering to grow,” Pérez says.
Another reason for Nebraska’s vibrant engineering community can be found in black-and-white columns in the back of newspapers. Public advertisement for bids helped create a robust market for professional services, where fledgling firms could compete against established engineering firms.
“It avoids the good old boy network that you might find,” says Robert Dreessen, chairman of TD2’s board and one of its founding partners.
Omaha’s competition created successful firms that looked outward to other opportunities, he says.
“That has happened over and over again to Omaha firms. Firms like LEO A DALY and HDR are national firms that started small and systematically grew, and the same thing is occurring to intermediate firms that, early in my career, I remember as being small, such as Dana Larson Roubal and similar organizations that also now have a national exposure,” Robert Dreessen says.
Those firms have plenty of opportunities thanks to Nebraska’s system of sanitary and improvement districts, which began in 1949. SIDs are statutory taxing authorities unique to Nebraska used by developers to create residential areas on the fringes of cities that can later be annexed. SIDs allows Omaha to annex properties in an orderly fashion while avoiding unsuccessful projects, and it creates projects suitable for smaller developers and engineering firms.
“People go where there’s opportunity, so when there’s the opportunity for all these quasi-government agencies to be developed, an engineer gets a lot better perspective on how the whole system works rather than being pigeonholed into one aspect of a city,” says Dreessen. “There’s a lot of opportunities here, and that creates competition.”
Many large cities are actually hemmed in by small municipalities that it cannot annex, as outside of Nebraska, infrastructure has to be extended to an area before annexation can occur. With the notable exceptions of Boys Town and Ralston, Omaha has expanded its city limits freely as built-up areas and neighborhoods reach a mature level of development.
“The limitation in our particular urban area so far is the county line,” Robert Dreessen says. “Omaha is probably going to be one of the biggest cities in the whole country.”
The opportunity for growth in Omaha fueled innovation in the building industries, too. LEO A DALY, for example, was among the first firms to include architecture and engineering departments—pioneering a model that has become an industry standard.
“Their key innovation was the integration of architecture and engineering,” Pérez says. “LEO A DALY brought them together under the same roof.”
Omaha has seen a flurry of development, as the city stretched westward through Elkhorn and today is encroaching on communities like Waterloo.
One of those major projects was HDR moving its global headquarters to a state-of-the-art building in Aksarben Village. The move puts HDR a few blocks from the Peter Kiewit Institute, which hosts the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s construction management and civil, computer, electrical, architectural, and construction engineering programs.
“In this Aksarben area, with HDR moving their headquarters, one could argue this square mile has the largest architectural engineering presence in the country,” Pérez says. “There is great synergy between the university and the industry with respect to architectural engineering and construction.”
Growth in a community ultimately depends on the people living in it, and Omaha excels there, too.
“There’s just a lot of talent in Nebraska,” Pérez says. “When you take the Nebraska sense of integrity, hard work, and commitment to people–those are things that are extremely important to successful firms.”
Education is also a linchpin, and the University of Nebraska committed to Omaha’s engineering industry when it formed the Peter Kiewit Institute in 1996. The institute brings together various UNL engineering and construction programs with the UNO’s College of Information Science & Technology.
“If you look at some of the large companies in Omaha, they are increasingly technology companies, so they need a different kind of engineering,” Pérez says. “As these companies grow, we have to continue to grow to provide that workforce.”
Engineering is an increasingly global and multidisciplinary career, Pérez says. UNL has built curriculum with the goal of incorporating communication skills, cultural competency, leadership, and teamwork into its academic program. Pérez says the college is expanding its new software engineering program, too.
“Whether you’re a construction management student, a chemical engineer, or a software engineer, you leave with a strong foundation in computing and how it’s used in engineering and construction,” Pérez says.
Training and retaining a highly skilled workforce is critical to many professions in Omaha, including engineering, where nearly two-thirds of the department’s students come from Nebraska. It is the only engineering program in the state, so any student who wants this degree while taking advantage of in-state rates goes to UNL. Attracting talented professionals to Omaha is also crucial.
Like Omaha’s storied engineering firms, those workers also should come to understand, if they don’t already, that Omaha has its own special quality—one that matters more than the city’s many practical and strategic advantages. Omaha is a place to call home.
This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.