The importance of internships and fieldwork is heavily stressed at Iowa State. Some students use them as a means of networking to get their name out in the industry while others simply find one to fill a requirement. Matt Ralston, a 2000 construction engineering alumnus, turned his internship into a successful career.
A native of the Kansas City, Missouri, area, Ralston had his first internship in 1997 within the Construction/Design-Build division of Burns & McDonnell—one of Kansas City’s “Big 3” engineering consulting firms and a Fortune 100 Best Company to Work For.
After taking a year off to go to Nashville with his band, Ralston came back to Iowa State and received a second internship with Burns & McDonnell, where he received and accepted a full-time position before the start of his senior year.
Starting out in civil engineering, Ralston switched programs his sophomore year. “The opportunity to focus more on the physical applications that the construction side of the business offered piqued my interest and was solidified after I got my first internship,” he says.
In January of this year and only 13 years into his career, Ralston was named vice president at Burns & McDonnell. He is also the director of the company’s procurement group.
The first seven years of his employment were spent working on construction sites for projects like multiple combined cycle power plants in Michigan and Indiana, the F35 Joint Strike Fighter Program for Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Sinclair oil refinery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Ralston was then promoted to assistant manager of construction field operations. He retained this position for six years, during which time he oversaw the company’s site construction staff.
Ralston uses the lessons he learned at Iowa State every day at work. “The engineering program solidified working in a group, working in a team, and seeing the whole construction process all the way through,” he says.
While he misses working directly with projects onsite, Ralston enjoys observing different aspects of the company as the vice president. “There’s a lot to be said for the rewarding fulfillment that you get with the project cycle,” he says, “but it’s also been rewarding to get people in the right places to succeed and to help the company grow.”
Working for Burns & McDonnell has been a satisfying career choice for Ralston, as he has been able to see his own hard work pay off and build relationships with other people in industry.
“The better the company is, the better the people they have across the board,” he says. “So just the opportunity to work for a design and construction firm where we have integrated design and build capabilities has kept it fresh and fun to come to work every day.”
The transition from the engineering to the managerial side of business has taken some getting used to, but Ralston says his education from Iowa State prepared him for both aspects.
The university offered him a diverse set of skills ranging from time management to public speaking, which Ralston believes are very important in his line of work, even though most people think of engineering as a trade with strictly technical skills.
He also believes the reputation and high standard of Iowa State benefitted him. “Without a doubt, I think the curriculum and having top notch professors, challenging work, and a well-rounded program gives you a better skill set,” he says.
To keep up the high standard set by the College of Engineering and to stay involved with Iowa State, Ralston is on the Curriculum Committee of the Construction Engineering Advisory Council that meets twice a year.
With excellent classes, memorable professors, and lasting friendships, Ralston says he wouldn’t trade his time at Iowa State for anything.
His love for the university has even carried over to his two kids, Elizabeth, 8, and Trey, 4. While they may not be thinking of college yet, he makes sure they are loyal fans by giving them enough Iowa State gear that they definitely know who the Cyclones are.
Ralston wouldn’t mind seeing them follow his path to engineering—especially if it led them to Iowa State.
“Engineering is a degree and a career path that will be forever in demand, because the world will always need engineers to solve the technical problems in every industry.”
But no matter what his kids decide to do, he’s excited to see what the future has in store for them, even if it’s not engineering. “Whatever they do I’ll definitely support them.”