Larry Belken, left, and Chris Claggett are part of the seven-year, $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal. The UW-Stout construction majors and their families expect to live in Panama for five years while on the job.
Larry Belken calls it “a great honor to work here.” Chris Claggett says it’s “probably one of the most significant things I’ll be part of in my life.”
It would be hard to argue with them. Belken and Claggett, both with construction degrees from UW-Stout, are working on one of the world’s biggest projects — the expansion of the Panama Canal.
Nearly a century since it opened in 1914, the canal still is considered one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements. However, with container ship traffic increasing and ships growing in size, Panama needs to add a third set of locks, excavate a new access channel on the Pacific and dredge existing navigation channels along the nearly 50-mile route to meet current and future demands.
Ground was broken in 2007. During peak construction periods, about 8,000 people a day will be working six days a week just to build the locks, Belken said, before the $5.25 billion program wraps up in 2014.
That means Belken and Claggett will be living in Panama for the forseeable future, which suits Belken just fine.
“To be stable in one location for five years is a big deal,” said Belken, a 1982 UW-Stout graduate who has worked all over the world.
Claggett earned a bachelor’s degree in construction in 2000 and a master’s in risk control in 2001, both from UW-Stout.
Both are living — not far apart — in the suburbs of Panama City. They work for CH2M Hill, an international engineering and construction firm based in Englewood, Colo. They met one day at work years ago, on a highway design and building project in Colorado Springs, Colo., when they saw each other’s UW-Stout construction stickers on their hard hats.

Belken and Claggett arrived in Panama in 2009 with their wives. Claggett’s wife, Tracy LaRock-Claggett, also is a UW-Stout graduate. The couple met in college while working at South Hall. The Claggetts have a three-year-old daughter.
Belken specializes in training. He is a site construction manager for the new locks on the Pacific Ocean side of the canal, where he manages a crew of 12 to 14 people. “CH2M Hill works with the Panama Canal Authority to ensure that expansion contractors have the appropriate training necessary to complete the tasks at hand. We’re here to mentor and teach and work ourselves out of a job,” Belken said.
He has worked on other major international projects, including a $3 billion coal mine-rail line-port facility in Colombia, a $2 billion power line in Zaire and the 5.5-mile-long Sunshine Skyway bridge in Tampa, Fla. He also has worked in war zones in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Mideast and lived in Egypt for eight years.
Claggett is a CH2M Hill senior safety professional working directly with the expansion program safety manager and staff to also provide training and mentoring. Contractor interface is focused on the largest of the program projects, the third set of locks.
“A large part of my work is interfacing with contractors and making sure they are running a safe site. The hazards are prevalent and there are several local and cultural issues that add to the challenge,” said Claggett, who has worked on several U.S. major civil construction projects, such as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River in Washington D.C.
The two UW-Stout alumni returned to campus together several years ago on behalf of CH2M Hill as recruiters at a student job fair. UW-Stout, Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, offers the only construction degree in the UW System.
Belken and Claggett are proud to be helping Panama take a major step forward and are enjoying their time in the tropical climate, where the temperature is in the high 80s to low 90s year-round. “The last time I was in Menomonie it was 32 below, so I wasn’t really unhappy to see it in my rearview mirror on the way home,” Belken said.
Panamanians approved the canal expansion in a 2006 national referendum. About two ships an hour — or 15,000 a year — pass through the canal via the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.
“The canal is Panama’s most valuable asset, and the expansion program has become a driving force that is furthering the economic boom that the country is experiencing,” the Panama Canal Authority said in a report.
Of the 8,000 jobs directly created by the locks project, 90 percent must be filled by Panamanians. Indirectly, the expansion is expected to create more than 40,000 jobs.
“It’s such an honor; it’s hard to picture, when I was at Stout, working at the Panama Canal. The Panamanians have a great appreciation for what’s happening here as well,” Claggett said.

Summer Outlook 2012