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ChE alum navigates three decades of industry

Portrait of Tom Guenther.

Tom Guenther is approaching the 30th anniversary of his graduation from Mizzou Engineering’s Chemical Engineering Department. He has spent nearly all of those 30 years with Kansas City-based firm Black and Veatch.

Recognizing his talent for working with numbers, Tom Guenther’s high school guidance counselor encouraged him to pursue a career in engineering. Instead, Guenther chose accounting when he enrolled at the University of Missouri.

Once on campus, he met a few engineering students and quickly switched his major to chemical engineering.

“I liked the challenge,” he said, “but it wasn’t until my third year that I started to get the idea what a chemical engineer actually does.”

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Guenther’s graduation from MU with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and it also will be his 30th anniversary of employment with Kansas City-based Black & Veatch, an international company that specializes in energy, water, telecommunications and security and risk management. Guenther has just been promoted to an operations leadership position in the Power Generation Services business unit.

He said a lot has changed in his line of work since he started at Black & Veatch.

“Because of climate change, new EPA rules, and relatively cheap natural gas, there is a big trend in this country toward more natural gas for power generation,” he said, adding that Black & Veatch has no new coal plant projects in this country, though the company is building a very large coal-fired facility in South Africa.

Black & Veatch also is looking to renewables, but the associated technologies haven’t reached a point where biomass, solar and wind power are efficient enough to make them cost effective on their own.

And as a member of the college’s Chemical Engineering Advisory Board (ChemE IAB) for the past 11 years, Guenther said a lot also has changed for students since he graduated in 1985. As a ChemE IAB member, he has the opportunity to interact with the department’s faculty and students in his role of advising the department on current issues that will positively impact the department and students’ futures.

“One thing I notice is that the students give a lot of presentations, which is a great thing. I think I only gave one presentation in four years — in a tech writing class,” Guenther said.

One major difference in engineering education today, Guenther noted, is the rise in technology and the impact it has made on teaching and learning.

“They have much better tools and programs,” Guenther said. “I missed the slide rule days but when I was a student, all I had was a programmable calculator. I would program a formula and walk away from it, fix and eat a meal and hope that when I returned, it would have found the solution. I spent so much time on things like that.

“The lab apparatuses back then were huge and a lot of time was spent just collecting data. Today’s lab experiments are more compact and the students can download data right to their laptops,” he added.

From left to right, Kyle Habeberger, Tyson Miller, Rachel Attebery and Laura Musick stand on a stairwell.

Four of five Black & Veatch professionals chosen from among several hundred applicants to become members of the Gastech Young Engineer Foundation are MU Engineering alums. From left to right are Kyle Habeberger, Tyson Miller, Rachel Attebery (an MS&T grad) and Laura Musick.

Black & Veatch recruits heavily from Missouri’s and surrounding states’ engineering programs. Recently, Guenther came across a photo and accompanying a story on Black & Veatch’s internal website about four young engineers who had been chosen from among several hundred applicants to become members of the new Gastech Young Engineer Foundation (GYEF), three of whom are recent MU chemical engineering alumni: Laura Musick, Tyson Miller and Kyle Haberberger.

Musick additionally won a GYEF essay completion with a piece about the growing global demand for energy, newly discovered natural gas resources and the benefits natural gas provides compared to other conventional power generation technologies.

The young engineers were awarded free delegate passes to attend Gastech 2014 in Seoul, Korea, in March where Musick presented her paper. The conference is the largest gas technology conference in the world.

Musick and Miller are both are past presidents of the college’s student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers

“I am really proud that three of the four honorees are ChemEs from Mizzou,” Guenther emailed to his fellow IAB members.

“The department is really doing something right, and I would like to think the IAB helped in some small way,” he said.