USACE Civil Engineer Earns Black Engineer of the Year Award

An Interview with Richard Thomas, BEYA Modern-Day Technology Leader

Growing up in a household where both parents were educators, Richard Thomas initially aspired to follow in their footsteps. However, his parents steered him towards exploring alternative paths. Consequently, Thomas pursued a degree in Civil Engineering, leading to a fulfilling career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has taken him on a global journey.

Today, acknowledged as a BEYA Modern Day Technology Leader—an accolade from the Black Engineer of the Year Awards—Thomas not only excels in his current role as the USACE Savannah District Area Engineer for Robins Air Force Base, Warner Robins, Georgia, but also actively inspires and guides the next generation of engineers. Modern-Day Technology Leaders are men and women who are demonstrating outstanding performance in science, technology, engineering, and math. In his current position, Thomas blends teaching and engineering, combining his expertise with a natural desire to educate and empower others, especially through mentoring young engineers.

To shed light on his recent accolade, the Corps’ Savannah District Corporate Communications Office sat down with Thomas to delve deeper into his work, career goals, passions, and the significance of the BEYA Awards.

Recognition: 2024 Black Engineer of the Year Modern Day Technology Leader

Current Position: USACE Area Engineer for Robins Air Force Base Area Office, Warner Robins, Georgia,

Education: West Virginia University Institute of Technology

Hometown: Huntington, West Virginia

Career Background: Thomas has spent his entire career with the Corps, starting as a Cooperative Education Student with the Huntington District in Huntington, West Virginia, to his current position as the Area Engineer at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia. In his current role, he oversees all construction activities at Robins and Moody Air Force bases, as well as in the Atlanta metro area.  Additionally, Thomas has completed two, one-year deployments to Afghanistan and Bulgaria, overseeing more than $400 million in construction projects.

What does receiving the BEYA Modern Day Technology Leader Award mean to you personally and professionally?

I won the Emerging Leaders [Award] in 2006 so someone in Huntington District saw something in me then and now here I am almost 18 years later, and this award is kind of like the culmination of that. It also shows that there is talent out here in these organizations, but you have to look for it in different places. We can’t keep trying to recruit minorities only by going to HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]. That’s not where we all are anymore. We have to look at people that might have different experiences than what we previously had, so that’s where organizations like BEYA and these Modern-Day Technology Leader awards come in. It shows everyone’s path is different. We have to have a diverse workforce and mindset of people who are going to bring things to the table that we don’t [already] have, which will make us stronger as a whole. That’s where BEYA diversity initiatives are important. The more representative our industry is of the society we are in, the better prepared the industry will be to lead us into the future.

What were your initial experiences in the construction industry, and how did they contribute to your professional growth?

I was fortunate and got picked up in the student program with the Corps after my freshman year of college in the Civil Design Section. When I was doing design work, occasionally I’d get to go out and see construction sites, and that’s really where I got the bug. I knew, long term, I wanted to get into construction.

For me, there’s nothing better than standing on a job site where I have all the equipment going around me.  It’s organized chaos. I can smell the wet soil, and I’m getting splashed. There are concrete trucks moving around and they’re dumping concrete. It’s like the symphony of construction. If it bites you, you’re done. I mean, you’re hooked. There’s nothing better than that for me.

Even though right now I have a job where I’m in the office, my folks know if there’s something going on I’m going to be out there in the field, just soaking it all in. I just love it. Controlled chaos when everything is working the way it needs to.

How do you leverage your experiences to inspire others in the construction industry?

I try to be an open book. I let people know it’s going to be hard and there are going to be challenges, but they can do it. I did it. I let them know whatever they go through on this journey, they are not going through it alone. I am here with them. I also let them know they are going to make mistakes. I made mistakes. I tell them to learn from their mistakes and don’t make the same mistakes twice. Be a professional, be accountable, learn how to communicate, and don’t make assumptions about people because of how they look and who they are. That’s how I lead and how I try to leverage and inspire others.

Based on your journey, what advice do you have for aspiring engineers facing challenges in their careers? 

If an opportunity comes up, always say yes. That’s one thing I tell everyone to do. If you say no you’ll be in the same place you were, but if you say yes, you are going to either learn something you like or you didn’t know you liked or you’re going to learn something you don’t like and you don’t ever have to do that again. If you’re comfortable, you’re not growing. Embrace being uncomfortable. That’s the biggest advice I can give anyone.

What are your goals and aspirations for the next phase of your career? 

I have no idea what I want to do next. I want to make sure whatever my next step is, I’m able to still interact with the next generation to set us up for long term success as an organization. The fresh ideas are going to come from them. They are not going to come from me. Being around the young people is what’s going to keep us young.

Thomas will receive his award in February during the 2024 BEYA STEM DTX Conference in Baltimore, Maryland.