FORT WAYNE – When Wendy Reust started working as an engineer for the city of Fort Wayne in the late 1990s, she was the only woman holding the position.
Of course the staff was small then: City Utilities did $10 million worth of capital projects in 2000 and had an engineering staff of 14. Most of the engineering work was done by hiring private companies, and city staff acted largely as project managers.
By 2008, though, the city was gearing up for its Long Term Control Plan – the 18-year, $240 million effort to prevent sewage overflows into the rivers. The City Utilities engineering staff had grown to 22 engineers overseeing $60 million in projects. Three of the engineers were women.
Today, officials say, everything is different: The engineering staff is not only larger, but its also younger and more diverse – a change that has not only altered the look of the department, but its vigor and focus.
Their energy and creativity and focus on the environment is breathing fresh vitality into the rest of my engineers and the whole staff, said City Utilities Director Kumar Menon. There was a time when young people were shooshed and pushed away. We now have young engineers leading the way and veteran engineers saying, Thats genius.
City Utilities now has 33 engineering positions overseeing nearly $80 million in capital projects. Fifteen percent of them are women; one-third have less than 10 years experience.
The younger and older engineers are learning from each other, officials said: 30 percent of the City Utilities staff has more than 20 years experience.
The institutional knowledge here is tremendous, Menon said. These guys know where every pipe is buried. (The younger engineers) suck up that information daily, because without our senior staff, our young people would have a tough time navigating.
Though Menon is proud of the diversity in the staff, ask him about the numbers and his first answer is not enough. Still, with 15 percent of the staff being female, City Utilities is ahead of the curve: Nationally, 13.7 percent of civil engineers are women.
There are growing numbers of female engineers available – the National Society of Professional Engineers recently reported that 19 percent of the engineering degrees awarded in 2012 went to women – but there is also a lot of competition for them, Menon said.
When they do graduate, theres so much demand its hard to get them into the Fort Wayne market, he said. We usually have to rely on some type of family connection.
Thats why its so important to begin building a pipeline of talent not from colleges, but starting at elementary schools, Menon said. City Utilities needs almost 40 different skilled professions, from chemists and biologists to IT specialists to attorneys. Building partnerships that encourage students at all ages to go into science, technology, engineering and math creates the talent needed tomorrow regardless of race, gender and background.
When we have that diversity between ages, genders and races, it makes us a better utility and we can better serve the city, Menon said.
And the young engineers the city is hiring say their work here is more rewarding.
Its a lot better than my last job – its a much better learning experience, said Jeana Eviston, who started June 24. I actually get to see my work under construction.
How young is the staff? Just ask Anne Marie Smrcheck, who began working for the city in 2008 after working for 10 years in Indianapolis.
At my previous job, I was always one of the youngest, Smrcheck said. Now, we have a really young staff and I keep asking, How did under 40 become sort of old?
The work is also rewarding in other ways: Engineers say theres nothing like being able to solve a problem for someone, whether its improving drainage, stopping sewer back ups or improving water service.
I like to talk to the customers and get their perspective – it makes you more excited to come to work every day, said Kathleen Berry. Youre working for the people you live next to and for the community you live in.