James Mercier describes himself as “a master electrician by trade, a civil engineer by diploma, and both an electrical and a civil engineer by practice.”
But in the 2,800-member Central Texas Section (CTS), this IEEE Life Senior Member is known for his tireless and passionate efforts to make others — whether industry professionals, academics or students — better educated and connected.
“I’ve known a lot of volunteers, and many devote a significant part of their lives to making IEEE better,” says Steve Pearson, who nominated Mercier for the 2019 George F. McClure Citation of Honor. “But no other volunteer has put in more effort and had more outstanding professional achievements than James Mercier. His impact has gone far beyond his societies, his section — and more recently, internationally.”
Now this year’s recipient of the prestigious award is receiving IEEE-wide recognition for his “dedicated leadership promoting vibrant professional activities facilitating cross-organizational relationships within IEEE, and with industry partners.”
A Guiding Force
Since this native Texan returned to his Austin roots in the early 1990s, Mercier has been a guiding force within so many CTS programs and activities that it is “overpowering,” says Pearson (also an IEEE Senior Member). “He’s received multiple awards from our IEEE (PI)2 Austin, as well as the 2018 CTS Exceptional Service Award, but James has never sought out attention,” Pearson continues.
“James seems to fly under the radar, as he always tries to make other around him the recipients of any acknowledgement, never seeking it out for himself.”
One of Mercier’s most visible accomplishments is his long-term role as workshop coordinator. Since 2014, he has almost single-handedly arranged two yearly events — obtaining speakers on various subjects, soliciting and organizing corporate sponsorships, securing venues, arranging for food and beverages, and completing and submitting the necessary forms to the section.
But perhaps more importantly, at least 50 to 70 members attend every workshop. Each member receives Continuing Education credits (CEUs) — vital because of the many Professional Engineer attendees. Another reason for the well-attended events is that Mercier prices them attractively; if a member’s company can’t or won’t pay the fee, the member can afford to do so.
At the same time, the workshops have become an important and appreciated source of revenue. Over the past three, COVID-free years, profits totaled more than $18,000; all together, the workshops he has organized have realized in excess of $40,000.
This year, one on Energy Storage Systems was postponed from March to June. “COVID-19 had us feeling a little gut punched,” recalls Mercier, but the all-online event drew 102 attendees. “As with any disaster, we couldn’t do anything about it,” he says. “But we engineers figure out solutions to problems.”
Another of his signature accomplishments is the development of IEEE (PI)2. It’s the Central Texas combined chapter for four IEEE societies – the IEEE Power & Energy (PES) Society, the IEEE Power & Electronics Society (PELS), the IEEE Industry Applications Society (IAS) and the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society (IES). Collectively, the group is referred to as (PI)2; it’s pronounced “pie-squared.” It recognizes the two societies whose names start with the letter “P” and the two whose names begin with “I.” Mercier helped to found the Austin chapter of PES in 2002; in 2011, he began promoting the idea of expanding it to include the other three.
“I thought we should offer local members of these societies a way to connect, have more professional programs available to them and become better educated,” he explains.
Over the years, the Austin joint chapter of IEEE (PI)2 has become highly successful, regularly receiving major awards. In 2018, PES presented its international award for best large chapter to (PI)2, and IES recognized it with its international award for best chapter.
Leading Senior Member Upgrades
Yet another example of James Mercier’s contributions to CTS is his nearly 25 years as coordinator for Senior Member Upgrades. “I do this volunteer job to promote IEEE,” he explains. “I’m convinced that a society exalts itself by promoting its members — not the luminaries who will be recognized anyway — but the common members who are the backbone of the organization.”
Mercier believes that encouraging qualified Members to become Senior Members motivates them to be more active. “Some of our most dynamic members have become more involved after being elevated to Senior Members,” he says. Mercier says that many CTS members have jobs requiring they be professionally licensed — and if they’ve met those strict prerequisites, they almost certainly will also qualify to become IEEE Senior Members.
“They simply need to be guided through the application process,” he says.
According to IEEE Senior Member Andrew Bluiett, IEEE (PI)2 Immediate Past Chair, Mercier is “a natural” to push and promote IEEE, CTS and the organization.
“His outgoing personality is kind of rare for an engineer,” says Bluiett, “James never meets a stranger, and he enjoys socializing with people who have similar engineering backgrounds. Because he’s so involved, he’s able to reach into many companies and other networks.”
Mercier readily admits that his exceptional record for attending meetings is simply because he enjoys them. “It’s not just the technical presentations, but also the camaraderie,” he says.
Giving & Receiving Help
At the same time, Mercier acknowledges that his many professional contacts have been very helpful when he’s needed them. Retired since 2015 from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), he still recalls the valuable ideas and knowledge he received from others about a particularly challenging assignment: designing a detection and motorist warning system after the disastrous 2001 Queen Isabella Causeway Memorial Bridge collapse. That bridge connects South Padre Island to the mainland.
In the spirit of reciprocity, his willingness to help others crossed international borders in 2019. While attending recent IAS annual meetings in Cincinnati and Portland, he befriended several IEEE Student Members from the National University of Colombia. Late last year, he was an invited speaker at a conference there, and presented almost $500 worth of books to the Student Branch on behalf of IEEE (PI)2. Despite pandemic concerns, in a few months he is hoping to return to Colombia for one of the students’ wedding.
About Mercier’s distinctive technical background: While living in Cincinnati after military service, he became a journeyman wireman, but also earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He worked as an environmental engineer before moving home to Austin and joining TxDOT. He specialized in areas including reviewing electrical plans, specifying grounding practices and lightning protection.
Not to mention, he also became very active in a grateful IEEE Section. As Andrew Blueitt says, “We recruit new members, but we also retain them. A lot of that recruitment and retention is because of James Mercier.”
Seeking Nominations for 2020 IEEE-USA Awards
IEEE-USA is now accepting nominations for 2020 awards — recognizing excellence, outstanding service and contributions in furtherance of its objectives. The deadline to nominate is 15 September. For a full list of awards and for more information on how to nominate, visit: https://ieeeusa.org/volunteers/awards-recognition/
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.