By Brooklyn Brown
GroundBreak Carolinas announced its winners for the 2023 GroundBreaker Awards. Among the three awardees from a pool of nominees in North and South Carolina was John Hildreth, the Kimmel Distinguished Professor of Construction Management in the College of Engineering and Technology at Western Carolina University.
GroundBreak Carolinas, a resource organization for the architecture, engineering and construction industry in North and South Carolina, presents an annual GroundBreaker award for exceptional individuals who make a difference in the Carolinas through the construction industry. Hildreth worked in the construction industry with contractors, engineering design firms and as an owner’s representative. He is now an educator in one of few construction management programs within a College of Engineering. For nearly two decades, Hildreth has worked in construction education, teaching four years now at WCU, a dozen years at UNC Charlotte, and a few years at Virginia Tech.
He is the Region 2 director for the Associated Schools of Construction, an international organization of construction education programs and professionals, and has conducted research valued at more than $3.5 million.
“My research focuses largely on what I call transportation asset management—the assets that we use to build and maintain our transportation system,” Hildreth said. “I'm just finishing up a project with the ferry system of North Carolina on a feasibility study for the electrification of ferries.”
Hildreth received his bachelor’s and master’s degree in civil engineering from West Virginia University and a doctorate in civil engineering from Virginia Tech. He approaches his classes with an engineering lens.
“I am firmly of the opinion that the principles of engineering help construction,” he said. “There are engineering fundamentals that help us understand and perform better in the construction world. That's what I've spent my career doing.”
Hildreth also approaches his classroom with as much real world application as possible. “There's only so much you can do in the classroom, but the more authentic we can make that experience, the more relevant the students see it to their career. That develops curiosity on their part,” he said. “I try to set up my courses in a way that if you do the work, you will learn. I got a comment from a student long ago that said, ‘We can't help but to learn in his class. We can't help it; it just happens.’ That's what you want. That's the goal.”
Hildreth enjoys the construction industry because of the problem solving.
“The most important thing I learned in engineering school was how to solve problems. That's what I really enjoyed the most working in the industry—when you got a new project and you had to solve the problem.”
In educating, Hildreth appreciates the opportunity to help students achieve their goals. “It’s incredible watching all of these students over the years go off and start businesses or make their way and have success,” he said. “It is their success. I didn't do that; they did that. But to think that you might have had some piece in their success is really cool.”
Hildreth credits his wife Christina with providing support throughout his career. “We just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. She's awesome, and I'm grateful to have had any time, let alone 15 years and two kids with her. She's always right there and that's super cool.”
He also highlights Bruce Gehrig, Distinguished Professor and director of the Kimmel School of Construction Management, and Michael Vorster, Virginia Tech’s David Burrows Professor Emeritus. “Bruce and I have worked together for 14 years. I greatly appreciate all of the guidance and friendship he has provided,” Hildreth said. “Mike Vorster is my PhD mentor and continues to be a good friend and a good resource.”
Hildreth is humbled to receive the 2023 GroundBreaker Award, especially as an educator. “It's just great to be recognized by the industry that you serve, and it's great they would recognize someone in academics,” he said. “It's an honor because there's so many people out there that do so much good work for our industry. The construction industry is huge. It's humbling to think that folks have singled you out for some reason.”