An engineer by trade, Perry Schram is familiar with the concept of inertia. He just doesn’t apply it to his own life.
When he was a freshman on the Penn State Wrestling team in 1986, Schram and his teammates would run up Mount Nittany or scale the steps of Beaver Stadium “Rocky” style. For the analytical student-athlete, “fun” was a more esoteric concept. “Fun” was pushing his mental and physical limits, whether on the mat or in the classroom.
“It sounds terrible,” he said, laughing, “but some of my favorite memories were the exercise.”
Skip ahead 30 years or so and not much has changed. He wears nicer clothes, maybe, and dons ties instead of a singlet to work, but Schram still thirsts for a challenge.
“Engineers — we’re problem-solvers,” he said.
Schram, 49, recently was promoted to office director of the State College branch of Pennoni, a multidiscipline engineering firm based in Philadelphia. He joined the company in 2004 after a merger between Powers & Schram, the firm he co-founded, and Pennoni.
While his wrestling days are behind him, he still manages to get in his adrenaline fix. The father of two picked up mountain biking later in life and now competes in local races. He’s scheduled to race in a trek called “Wilderness 101,” an 101-mile journey through Bald Eagle and Rothrock state forests, pavement not required.
A healthy pain tolerance, meanwhile, is de rigueur. Just the way Schram likes it.
“Sometimes my greatest challenge is shutting it off at night,” he said. “I still have a problem in my head that I want to solve.”
Q: How would you describe your new role with Pennoni?
A: There’s a lot that goes on within the office to make things run smoothly. I look at my job as helping support my employees so they can be successful. One of the big things I look for is retention of our top talent and attracting top talent.
Q: How do you accomplish that goal?
A: Pennoni itself has an excellent reputation. We’re employee-owned. One of the reasons I came to Pennoni was because of their resources and the ability to get support and share ideas. We have a lot of expertise in our company, so we’re able to share ideas, we’re able to get support when we need it. So when somebody is coming in or looking at the company, they know they can get additional support, and if they’re younger, they know they can be mentored. I’ve been fortunate to mentor quite a few through my days, and they’ve all been excellent technicians and engineers.
Q: You mentioned you’ve gotten the opportunity to mentor up-and-coming employees. What’s that experience like for you?
A: It’s very rewarding. Right now I have an intern with me who is learning a significant amount, I think, concerning structural engineering, and then I have another employee who was an intern with me since 1999. He was an intern and then became an employee and then passed his (licensure exam) and now he’s one of my senior engineers. You see both sides. You see when they’re first starting out, and then you see the end product.
Q: Mentoring employees and seeing their growth is somewhat analogous, it sounds like, to seeing a project from inception to completion.
A: Yeah, it’s a process, so that’s what I always say to our clients. Our engineering is not a commodity. You really want to have someone who has experience and expertise and it’s a process. So I sit down with the client and understand their needs and wants and the best way to get them through that process. So maybe Pennoni helps them, or we partner with different entities or maybe I just help them find the right people. It’s just like our projects — we sit down with them from beginning to end.
Q: What are some of your more rewarding projects that you’ve worked on?
A: It’s hard for me to pick (laughs). I could pick some local projects that are interesting. For instance, we helped Penn State with Pattee Library. That project has a lot of history. It was built back in 1937, and it has different additions that go all the way to 1980. So the library isn’t the traditional stacks of books anymore, so we have to go through various sections of the library that had different construction methods and materials and help evaluate or retrofit or just even verify that they can take the new proposed loads for the various uses they want to switch over to. ... We’ve helped with the Nittany Parking Deck. The expansion years ago was one of my early projects. Parking garages are typically pre-cast concrete. You’ll typically see a lot of facades that are pre-cast concrete.
I started my business in 1996 — I still have those core clients that I had (back then). So I’m proud I’ve been able to retain my clients for so long and still serve them. Just as an example, we’re helping Penn State with facade assessments. They obviously have a lot of buildings that need to have plans, not just for this year, but in five years, 10 years, 20 years and so on. We can help you evaluate what your needs and wants are, and we can help provide you with the right people and plan to get that done.
Q: What got you into engineering? Were your parents engineers?
A: In high school, math and science were always something I was good at. I’ve always liked to build things. It’s just something that’s come naturally to me, and I enjoy it. My dad was a salesman for Schwan’s. He was promoted a few times and that’s why we moved here. My dad was in sales and part of what I do is not only engineering but finding good opportunities through sales, so I kind of followed in his footsteps.
When I was growing up I wanted to be a pilot. So it kind of took me into looking into aeronautical and aerospace engineering. But as I learned more about the different disciplines, I kind of realized (I wanted to do something different). I always tell my kids that you head in a direction and you find what’s a good fit for you and you find what you enjoy.
Q: How is Pennoni modernizing?
A: We invest in continuing education, but we also have a lot of investment in technology. We have a large investment in 3-D modeling software, so as we design the project, we can take that like a fabrication, shortening the project. With our high-definition laser scanners, we can go out and scan instead of doing a traditional survey. We can go out and get a lot of information quickly and can bring that back to the office and do 3-D models. We wouldn’t have to go back out to the site because we have all the information. With a traditional survey, you might have forgotten to pick up something, but with a scan we have everything. We are always trying to match our client’s schedule, but also find ways to shorten that schedule for them, too.
Q: Favorite Creamery flavor?
A: (laughs) Death by Chocolate. I’ve got to make sure I don’t get Meyer Dairy and Creamery flavors confused — they’re both favorites. We live close, so we’ll bike up during the summer and go to the Creamery. It’s beautiful country around here.
Q: It seems like you’ve really grown to love this area.
A: Yeah, it’s a great place to work. I’m excited about the opportunity to continue what we’re doing and build our services here and our clientele. I have a lot of friends and co-workers, including one in Pittsburgh who says I’m living the dream: I get to work in State College.
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy