Transportation: a long road of challenge and opportunity
The U.S. transportation infrastructure is in dire need of upgrading, which spells opportunity for diverse industry pros
From rail and air to harbor and street, industry leaders are looking for diverse tech stars
By Arthur Schurr
The U.S. transportation industry, like many other sectors, has made great strides in areas from technology to diversity. But transportation experts and drivers across America agree that the U.S. transportation infrastructure is in increasing need of repair.
On the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, aviation, roads, and transit all received D grades. ASCE’s 2013 report, Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future, provides context as to why investing in transportation infrastructure is imperative.
“In 2010, it was estimated that deficiencies in America’s surface transportation systems cost households and businesses nearly $130 billion. This included approximately $97 billion in vehicle operating costs, $32 billion in travel time delays, $1.2 billion in safety costs, and $590 million in environmental costs. If present trends continue, by 2020 the annual costs imposed on the U.S. economy from deteriorating surface transportation infrastructure will increase to $210 billion, and by 2040 to $520 billion, with cumulative costs mounting to $912 billion and $2.9 trillion by 2020 and 2040, respectively,” the report states.
That’s the bad news. The good news: with a need so great comes an equally promising outlook for technical jobs in transportation. Though funding and political hurdles remain, many experts expect transportation infrastructure work to increase considerably in the coming months and years. And a strong job market offers an opportunity to increase diversity in the transportation industry.
Industry innovators needed
“Our transportation infrastructure is in desperate shape. We’re also facing enormous new challenges from climate change. But only firms that position themselves as innovative and take charge of the trends will find excellent opportunities. If you’re just doing the same thing you’ve always done, that’s going to get old very soon,” explains Liz Levin, president of Liz Levin & Company (Boston, MA), a transportation management firm. Levin also chairs the international advisory board for WTS, a professional organization dedicated to the advancement of women in transportation.
“With that in mind, I think women and minorities really need to claim more territory. We’re working hard and making substantive contributions. Those of us who have been in transportation a long time remember when there was only one woman or person of color on the board or in the executive management of an engineering company. That’s gotten better, but isn’t yet where it should be.
“For institutional change to occur, we need to talk about changing culture and process. Companies understand that the world needs diversity, that it’s good business, but they also struggle to know what to do to get there.”
Several reports confirm her assessment. According to Forbes magazine’s 2012 “Forbes Insights: Diversity & Inclusion: Unlocking Global Potential,” the U.S. transportation industry ranked ninth in terms of diversity, just ahead of public administration, manufacturing, construction, utilities and mining. More to Levin’s point, the study also revealed that “C-level and senior management positions are woefully bereft of diversity. Out of 1.5 million chief executives in the U.S., just one quarter are women and only one in ten are ethnic minorities.”
Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) national chair and AECOM vice president Robert H. Prince, Jr observes, “The big-ticket item in transportation for the short and long term will be infrastructure reinvestment; we must ensure the viability of our existing infrastructure. As demand increases and our nation’s roads, bridges, ports and subway systems age, the need to be on top of good repair is crucial. And that means transportation jobs. More specifically, I see the need for structural, electrical, signal and mechanical engineers to address the growing decay of our systems.
“In looking at the transportation industry overall, I see diversity improving in the technical workforce. More focus has been put on diversifying contracts, and workforce agencies are being held to a higher standard to level the playing field. The key elements are education and opportunity. And COMTO helps with both.
“Our intern program provides real-life work experience in the transportation industry. And with the support of the FTA and our industry partners, we are able to mentor the next generation of transportation leaders. With organizations like COMTO and WTS, I see a bright future for diversity in transportation.”
The work of people like Prince and Levin and their organizations is showing results across the board in transportation. Diversity and inclusion are fast becoming an integral part of transportation sectors that were traditionally less diverse.
Consider the rail industry. BNSF Railway, CSX Corp, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific were recognized as “2013 Best Diversity Companies” by the readers of Diversity/Careers. So were other companies in the transportation and infrastructure sector: AECOM, Bechtel, Chrysler Group, Cummins, HNTB, Honda and Toyota.
The future of transportation will require the creative brainpower of a diverse workforce to ensure the best outcome. Fortunately, there are a growing number of diverse tech stars contributing to the industry’s success. Here are some of their stories.
American Eurocopter’s Michelle Burris supports Army aircraft engineering
Michelle Burris began her transportation career working as an engineer on the Apache attack helicopter, specializing in the Apache’s sighting system. Today, she serves as chief engineer for the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program of American Eurocopter (AE, Grand Prairie, TX).
“I work with a small team of engineers in support of the technical development of the AAS. We work with engineers at the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company North America and Eurocopter to build the best possible candidate aircraft for the U.S. Army.”
Burris received a BS in electrical engineering in 1994 from Arizona State University (Tempe). To balance her technical classes, Burris studied foreign languages including German, Russian, Macedonian, Swedish and Arabic. She received certification in hazardous materials handling, and education in IR sensors, radar systems, cryptography, cost accounting and systems engineering while working at Boeing and Raytheon.
“I enjoy my job at American Eurocopter because I am helping to support the American warfighter. But I also have the opportunity to meet and work with so many foreign nationals here and abroad. I love learning languages and exploring other cultures. I especially enjoy working with my German counterparts and visiting Eurocopter Deutschland in Bavaria.”
She also makes time to help her own community. “With knowledge and strength comes responsibility. We should strive to contribute even if it is through small acts of kindness. I have contributed in my own way by working with the animal rescue community for the last sixteen years,” she says.
Diverse hiring efforts at AE
Burris exemplifies the type of highly qualified engineer AE looks to hire. “Traditionally, there has been a shortage of women in technical fields,” Rob Boman, a senior AE human resources manager in Columbus, MS noted in a recent Inside American Eurocopter newsletter. “But there’s good news. We’re seeing more highly qualified women than ever.”
Caltrans CIO Gigi Smith oversees transportation IT for California
Gigi Smith is the chief information officer for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans, Sacramento, CA). Smith serves as principal advisor to the Caltrans director on all information technology matters.
“I have oversight responsibility over the Caltrans IT portfolio and have operational responsibilities for its local area networks, wide area networks, desktops, and back-end services. I promote innovation, investment and partnerships to address transportation issues by creating technology solutions and implementing a broad cybersecurity plan to strengthen Caltrans’s security framework,” she reports.
Smith earned a 1988 BA in computer information systems and a 2004 MBA from National University (La Jolla, CA). In 2009, she received a doctorate in management from Colorado Technical University’s Institute of Advanced Studies (Colorado Springs). She also got certification as a project management professional from the Project Management Institute (Newtown Square, PA) in 2004. Smith has collected numerous honors in her more than two decades of public service. But honors are not what attracted her to the transportation industry.
“I joined transportation by way of IT. And I’ve worked in IT since 1988. I love how technology can be applied to any industry as a way to support efficiencies and effectiveness. But I have been so impressed by the dedication and talent of staff working at Caltrans. It makes what I do so much more enjoyable and rewarding. I like working with our staff and figuring out how we can make the organization run better, faster and cheaper.”
Smith sees IT as integral to Caltrans and to the transportation industry’s growth. Caltrans equal employment opportunity program office chief Silvia Russell agrees. But she cautions that budget issues loom.
Planning for the future, tightening belts
“IT is not expanding due to budgetary reductions. So we’re focused on working as efficiently and effectively as we can. Overall, Caltrans will see a slight reduction in staff levels that will be initially handled through attrition. Caltrans will continue to implement an internal program review that examines operations to find new ways to work with our partners and streamline how we do business,” Russell explains.
“The engineering and information technology jobs in demand for the future will be staffed with a diverse work force committed to providing mobility options for people and goods in California. Caltrans is preparing for the future by focusing on an interconnected transportation system that provides Californians with mobility options while being mindful of the impact our transportation network has on our state’s economy.”
Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty summarizes, “The demand for a skilled and educated workforce is greater now than ever before. New and emerging technology, and our diverse workforce, empowers us to meet California’s transportation needs.”
VDOT’s Renée Hamilton keeps things moving in Northern Virginia
Renée N. Hamilton is the deputy district administrator for the Northern Virginia District of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT, Richmond). She focuses primarily on managing the business operations for the district by addressing daily critical internal issues and needs of VDOT from her office in Fairfax.
“I began my career with VDOT in 1988 as an engineer trainee in VDOT’s central office, and have since served in several district leadership roles for preliminary engineering, construction, operations and maintenance in the Richmond, Northern Virginia, and Culpepper districts.”
Hamilton attended South Carolina State University (Orangeburg), earning a 1988 BSCE. She earned her MS in CE management in 1992 from Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA).
The rewards of public service
Her transportation career began with a summer internship at the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT). “I came from a family where teaching was the dominant profession, but I was encouraged by my brother to pursue civil engineering because of my strong love for math and science. At SCDOT, I gained experience and a love for the highway transportation industry. Today I enjoy being a public servant,” she notes. “It’s rewarding to be part of an organization where you work each day to provide a safe and efficient transportation system that will enhance the quality of life for citizens as well as contribute to the economic vitality of the region.”
Hamilton shares her passion for public service, math and science with young people whenever she can. She hopes they’ll be the next generation of transportation professionals. She volunteers in math clubs and career fairs to “expose our youth to the wide variety of possibilities and opportunities associated with a career in engineering.”
Virginia: a bright road ahead
VDOT human resources and training division administrator Emily Elliott reports that there are many opportunities at VDOT right now, because the state has recently increased its funding for infrastructure improvements. “Demand is across job groups, including ongoing needs in engineering. VDOT is utilizing multiple approaches for staffing future needs. We’re offering paid internships, scholarships for summer employment, and entry-level development programs, plus some on-the-job training programs. Cross training and career development opportunities are also a significant focus of our business plan.”
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell underscores Elliott’s outlook. In a June press release, he said, “For the first time in a generation, the commonwealth has new, sustainable funding that will be used to rebuild roads and bridges, ease congestion, and provide more transportation options through rail, transit and other improvements.”
Diversity is a key element of VDOT’s plan. VDOT chief of administration Grindly Johnson explains, “A diverse workplace thrives because each person, at every level of the organization, is allowed and encouraged to contribute to the fullest extent of his or her abilities. Our more than seven thousand employees work together to build, maintain and operate the country’s third-largest highway system. We couldn’t do this without trusting, respecting, supporting and encouraging each other. Our unique perspectives strengthen us and enable us to provide a safe and efficient transportation system for all who travel throughout the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Judith Ibarra-Bianchetta: transportation and hydrology at CH2M Hill
CH2M Hill (Englewood, CO) vice president and south Texas area manager Judith Ibarra-Bianchetta joined the global architecture and engineering firm in 2007. Based in San Antonio, TX, Ibarra-Bianchetta manages projects, supports business development, and manages offices in the south Texas area. She also serves on the board of the CH2M Hill Foundation and chairs Enlace, the firm’s Latino/ Hispanic employee network group.
“As a civil engineer, I was exposed early in my career to infrastructure projects. As I worked on them, part of my interest began to focus on drainage, so I started supporting transportation projects specifically in the drainage discipline.”
Ibarra-Bianchetta got her BS in civil engineering in 1988 from the University of Texas-Austin. She’s a licensed professional engineer and a certified flood plain manager. Ibarra-Bianchetta sees cross-discipline skills as essential for the future.
“I see a bigger focus on sustainability that requires cross-technical specialties from planning and design to the construction phases of projects. Cross-discipline knowledge will become more critical in the future for all infrastructure projects as our natural resources reach their limits. Awareness of our environment becomes increasingly critical,” she believes.
Diversity and growth
Englewood, CO-based CH2M Hill human resources director Kathy Pileggi predicts that transportation is poised for significant growth.
“The infrastructure needs in the U.S and internationally are vast across all sectors, including aviation, bridges, highways, ports, transit and rail. The reason is simple: modern, efficient transportation helps drive the world’s economy. The growth trends we’re seeing are tied to aging infrastructure, the need for clean, low-carbon-emitting transportation solutions, and urbanization. The latter is probably the most impactful as the global urbanization rate is projected to be seventy percent by 2050.” she says.
“At CH2M Hill, we are busy and continue to get busier each week. Hot areas for hiring include geotechnical engineers in the Northeast, bridge design engineers in IL, FL and CO, and transit and rail, which remain very strong. But we’re also looking within. One of the major focus areas is building a pipeline of talent for today’s needs and the future of our company. And we continue to see the value of diversity and inclusion as strategic contributors to the success of CH2M Hill.”
CH2M Hill vice president and global director of aviation Dwight Pullen, Jr echoes Pileggi’s view on diversity. “Our involvement in minority transportation organizations such as COMTO and WTS and in our local communities shows that CH2M Hill believes in the importance of diversity and inclusion. For us, diversity is much more than ethnicity, gender or background. It’s thoughts, experiences, culture, lifestyle, it’s being inclusive. We know it matters, and we’ll continue to create key strategies to make cultural change enterprise-wide.”
HNTB’s Karen Wang helps California commuters cross the bay
Oakland, CA-based Karen Y. Wang is a project manager for HNTB (Kansas City, MO) on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge New East Spans project. She’s been with HNTB for twelve years, and is currently assigned to the Toll Bridge Program Management contract as a design/construction coordinator. She chose HNTB because she wanted a firm that worked on “high-profile transportation projects.”
“I was interested in being part of an engineering firm working on the Bay Area’s infrastructure. I started to see transportation as an important link among many communities, connecting each other via bridges, roads, highways and trains. I find it fulfilling to know that I have a role, whether large or small, in a project that can positively impact a community.”
Wang attended the California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, graduating in 1998 with a BS in environmental engineering. She’s a licensed professional civil engineer in California. But she views her work as a continuous education.
“I enjoy working with a wide cross section of transportation professionals. I find myself constantly learning from others, especially focusing on the creative and problem-solving skills necessary to overcome varied challenges on complex projects. There are so many different ways to solve an issue and I’m always open to learning better and more effective approaches.”
HNTB vice president and human resources officer Jeffery D. Welter believes Wang and her compatriots will see more opportunities in the transportation industry.
“Expansion is occurring in both existing and new market segments with projects based in large urban areas across the country. We project continued acquisition of professional engineering positions in all market segments. In addition to the traditional engineering roles, we’re investing in the development of internal project managers and acquisition of external project managers to support large complex design-build projects in collaboration with our partners.”
HNTB: hiring is active, diversity is important
“In 2013, HNTB is hiring at an unprecedented rate,” notes Welter. “This places additional demand on us to differentiate ourselves from competitors by creating a work environment attractive to all generations of workers. Diversity and inclusion are business imperatives that offer HNTB a competitive advantage by promoting a work environment where employees are respected, have opportunities to grow professionally and contribute fully to our common goals.
“At HNTB, the business case for diversity and inclusion is driven by globalization and market expansion, the changing composition of available talent and the need for continual innovation. We are continually evaluating our outreach programs to ensure we’re sourcing our talent from all available talent pools.”
Nissan’s Susan Brennan: a passionfor automobiles and giving back
Susan Brennan is VP of the Smyrna, TN vehicle assembly plant for Nissan North America (Franklin, TN). She oversees safety, quality, operations, productivity, environmental compliance and new-model introduction of Smyrna-built products. She’s been with Nissan for nearly five years, and has a long history in the auto industry. But she began in a very different arena.
“I was an accidental transportation person,” she reports. “I have a degree in microbiology and my first jobs were in research, but I took a risk and moved to a job in manufacturing for an automotive supplier.
“The fit was immediate. I was motivated and energized by the energy, the speed, the pace and the product. And I’ve been in transportation for twenty-four years.”
Brennan earned her BS in microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1985. She followed that with an MBA from the University of Nebraska (Omaha) in 1989.
She has collected a number of awards during her tenure in the auto industry, including two appearances, in 2005 and 2010, on Automotive News’s “100 leading women in the North American auto industry.” Brennan is also a past president and a founding member of the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum, a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to promoting the personal and professional advancement of women in the automotive industry in the southern U.S. Brennan believes strongly in giving back to an industry she loves.
“There are so many aspects of my job with Nissan that I enjoy. But if you ask the team here, they would probably tell you that I am very passionate about getting more of our youth, girls in particular, interested in STEM careers. We see a lot of student groups come through our doors for plant tours, and after seeing the scale, technology and dynamic process of building a Nissan Altima or maybe a Nissan Leaf, they are pretty open to engineering and other STEM fields.”
Supporting diversity, recruiting talent at Nissan
Brennan has support from her employer. According to Rob Wilson, Nissan North America’s director of diversity and inclusion, “Nissan America’s commitment to diversity is part of an overall strategy to support the company’s long-term growth. By leveraging diversity across all aspects of our business, we create a culture of inclusiveness that is reflected in our workforce, supplier base, dealer body, consumer outreach and philanthropic presence.”
Nissan HR senior manager Dave Oberstaedt adds, “With the automotive industry on the rebound in the U.S., sales are up year over year for most manufacturers, and the total industry volume continues to push over the 15M unit mark. As a result, auto companies are actively recruiting talent to increase product quality and introduce new technologies.
“In the near future, we will most likely see demand for engineers continue. The growth in manufacturing means that automotive companies will be looking to add staff in vehicle assembly as well as in maintenance. With the increase in manufacturing jobs, we’ll also see a growing demand for individuals in supply chain management.”
Angel Samalot-Quiles invents the future for Honda
In Raymond, OH, Angel D. Samalot-Quiles pursues his passion for everything automotive as a chassis/controls design engineer for future Honda/Acura models for Honda R&D Americas (HRA, Torrance, CA). He joined HRA in 2008, but his enthusiasm for automobiles dates back to his childhood.
“Transportation and cars have been a passion since I was a little kid. When I was little I had radio-controlled cars, Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels. In college, I stepped it up a bit and joined the Formula SAE worldwide research project where I designed, built and raced scale-model race cars.”
Samalot-Quiles earned a BS in mechanical engineering in 2007 from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. In 2008, he earned a masters of science in motorsports engineering from Oxford Brookes University (Oxford, U.K.), a school renowned throughout the automotive world for its program and its close ties to Formula 1 racing.
His background has served him well. But when it concerns work, Samalot-Quiles likes looking to the future. “That is where my work at Honda allows me to go. What we do is five, seven, ten years ahead of what’s on the street right now. So every day I get to spend time in the future and see what most people won’t see for quite some time.”
Bringing passions to Honda
HRA vice president and general manager Bill Konstantacos believes that allowing people to follow their passions is a strength for Honda. “A core belief at Honda is respect for the individual, which recognizes the value and importance of each associate’s unique perspective. To better understand our increasingly diverse customer base here in the U.S. and the world, we rely on these different associate viewpoints.”
According to HRA talent management senior manager Marc Dinopoulos, different viewpoints are helping Honda compete in a demanding marketplace. “Since 2009, overall sales have increased consistently, but the competition has become even more fierce. Traditional companies as well as new startups are recovering from the economic downturn. Though there are limitations within the traditional transportation sector, opportunity exists in two areas: increasing our appeal and output in emerging markets, and considering the future mobility needs of society and finding innovative ways to fulfill them.
“At Honda R&D Americas, we continue to have open positions to fill. Advanced control systems with a focus on electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, IT and the melding of all three fields will continue to be in strong demand going into the future,” Dinopoulos says.
DIVERSITY-MINDED ORGANIZATIONS IN TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Check website for current listings.
|Company and location
|AECOM (Los Angeles, CA)
|Global professional services
|American Eurocopter (Grand Prairie, TX)
|Civil and military helicopters
|Amtrak (Washington, DC)
|Intercity passenger rail service
|California Department of Transportation
|Highway, bridge, and rail transportation
planning, construction and maintenance
|CH2M Hill (Englewood, CO)
|Engineering, construction and operations
|Chrysler Group LLC (Auburn, MI)
|Cars and light trucks
|General Motors (Detroit, MI)
|HNTB (Kansas City, MO)
|Architecture, engineering, planning and
|Honda R&D Americas (Torrance, CA)
|Automobiles, motorcycles, all-terrain
vehicles and jet airplanes
|Nissan North America (Franklin, TN)
|Passenger cars, buses, trucks and related parts and accessories
|Virginia Department of Transportation
|Builds, maintains and operates Virginia roads, bridges and tunnels
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