Lofty Heights for the Underground

Celebrating its 75th Anniversary, The Moles Continues to Promote Excellence in Heavy Construction

By Jim Rush

From Robert Moses and the construction of highways and parks that shaped the landscape of New York, through to today’s wave of mega construction projects in the city that are laying the groundwork for the next generations of New Yorkers, there has been one constant — The Moles.

Like their namesake, The Moles are not often in the spotlight. Instead, this organization of construction professionals was developed as a fraternal organization whose goal was to foster fellowship and information exchange, and ultimately improve construction engineering standards and business ethics.

Membership is limited to a maximum of 550 active members (no fewer than 450), with additional emeritus, honorary and lifetime membership designations. To become a member, an individual must be nominated by a member and supported by additional recommendations. By doing so, The Moles are able to maintain high standards, according to executive director Gerry Carty.

“It is a very rigorous membership process,” he said. “We have a membership committee that reviews the candidates and only people who meet the highest standards become members. Word gets around quickly if somebody is not a person of high character, so it really is an accomplishment to become a member. It means that you have excelled professionally and have good standing and character.”

Started initially of a group of tunneling contractors – hence the name – the group now comprises professionals engaged in heavy civil construction including foundations, major excavations, and marine work in addition to tunnels. Additionally, membership has expanded to include engineers, sales representatives and associate occupations, although the largest segment continues to be contractors.

“One of the important things about The Moles is that it is so diversified,” said George Tamaro, the 2003 Member Award winner and past president of the organization. “It is a membership group for individuals, not companies, and as a result the membership tends to include a lot of the ‘makers’ and ‘doers’ in the industry.”

This year marks the 75th anniversary for The Moles, which was founded in 1937 while the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. And while there have been wholesale changes in transportation, communication, population and virtually every other aspect of our lives, The Moles have remained steadfast in upholding their values of ethics and professionalism.

Looking Back

The roots of The Moles date back to October 1936 when a group of men who had worked together on New York and New Jersey construction jobs from 1914 to 1919 gathered for a reunion. Their newfound camaraderie and mutual concerns prompted them to form an organization that would perpetuate that fraternal spirit. Guidelines were established in 1937, and in 1938 the 32 original members and their guests held the first Moles Dinner.

In 1941, The Moles introduced their awards for Outstanding Achievement, which are awarded annually to one member and one non-member. This tradition of holding The Moles dinners and awards on the last Wednesday of January has persisted to the present day. The first winners of the prestigious awards were Robert Moses (non-member) and John S. Macdonald (member).

Names on the awards list represent a Who’s Who among firms operating in the tunnel sector today – Kiewit, Kenny, Shea, Traylor, Bechtel, Parsons, Perini, Slattery, Jacobs, Herrenknecht. Other award recipients have included former President Herbert Hoover, and luminaries such as Karl Terzaghi, Ralph Peck and Arthur Casagrande. Notable keynote speakers have included future presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, New York Governors Mario Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo, and New York Mayors Ed Koch and Michael Bloomberg.
In 1938, another traditional event was established — the annual Clambake. This event has taken place for more than 50 years on the first Tuesday of August at the New York Athletic Club summer facility located at Travers Island, Pelham Manor, N.Y.

In 1962, The Moles inaugurated still another event, the annual Student’s Day. Each April, approximately 400 civil engineering students and faculty members from 20 colleges and universities within a distance of approximately 150 miles of New York City come together and meet at a construction site. After breakfast, and a briefing of the work to be seen, the students are provided with a hard hat and then embark on a site tour escorted by members of The Moles. All then return to the briefing point to enjoy lunch.

“For the students a lot of times it’s their first time on a construction site, and it is something that they will always remember,” Carty said. “We couldn’t do it without the support of the members. We have about 50 of our members as helpers who guide the students around the site and talk to them about what is going on. It takes a lot of organization from very committed members to make it happen.”

Moles past president Al Brand, who participated in a Student’s Day at the World Trade Center site while attending The Cooper Union in 1967, says The Moles’ outreach program has become an important function of the organization. “The Student’s Day has grown from about 200 students many years ago to 400 now,” he said. “It has gotten to the point where it is almost hard to find sites that are big enough to handle the crowd. The success of the program has been that civil engineering students are exposed to big projects, which are really exciting to see. It is very informative and rewarding for the students, and hopefully it reinforces their decision to pursue civil engineering as a career.”

In 1992, recognizing the rising prominence of women in the heavy construction industry, The Moles initiated its first female member, former executive director Arline Gallagher. “That was a major change in the organization,” Tamaro recalled. “Arline was resistant to change, so we changed the bylaws and conspired to have her nominated as the first woman member. I think she was stunned when she found out, but she was honored by it.”

A scholarship fund was created in 1997 that provides financial assistance to engineering students in the 20 affiliated colleges and universities. The fund has a value of more than $4 million. Each school selects the scholarship recipient, and with the approval of The Moles, the check for the scholarship grant is sent to the school to be credited to the student’s tuition account.

Impact on the Industry

Unlike other construction associations, The Moles are strictly a fraternal organization — with women members, of course. “There are associations like AGC and others that are focused on talking to agencies and legislators about funding mechanisms and policy; The Moles doesn’t do that,” said Steve Barlow, current president of The Moles. “Our impact is through active participation in the scholarship program, which encourages young people to come into our industry.”

The fraternal nature of The Moles has had other effects on the market, according to Tamaro. “One of the things about being a Moles member is that you see the softer side of your competitors, and I think that has helped facilitate some of the joint ventures we are seeing on construction projects,” he said. “When you are in a social setting you are able to size up people, understand them better, and determine if they are people that you want to work with.”

The networking and information sharing are also helpful, Barlow said. “By being a member of The Moles you are interacting with a number of high-quality senior executives from other heavy contracting companies from around the country. You get to share experiences, and it seems like everybody has similar problems around the country. We all learn from each other and try to take the best of what we see from other companies and build on that for your own company.”

Perhaps because of the individual membership structure of The Moles, the group is able to maintain its traditions and pass along values to the next generation of construction professionals. “Because membership is based on individuals, not companies, there is less change from one year to the next,” Tamaro said. “In my case, since I’m retired my company’s representative would have changed, but with The Moles, it’s something that you stay with for a lifetime.”

Jim Rush is editor of TBM: Tunnel Business Magazine.

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