April 8, 2008
Katherine Claeys, civil engineer at the Seattle Department of Transportation
The job: "When those trains actually start running, it's going to be very rewarding to know that I had even a small piece in it," says Katherine Claeys, who's been a civil engineer with the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) for 24 years, a third of which she's spent working on Sound Transit's Central Link light rail project. In 2001 she became the city's lead engineer for light rail construction within the Seattle city limits, a project spearheaded by Sound Transit, the 15-year-old mass transportation agency serving the Central Puget Sound. As Seattle's main point of contact for the light rail project, she's worked with Sound Transit, multiple City of Seattle departments and the general public to help shepherd the product from the environmental impact phase through construction. Come May, she'll have a new role with SDOT, as a project engineer for improvements to the south end of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and State Route 519.
Q. What got you interested in engineering?
A. I thought I was going to go into nursing. I tried the nursing program at Washington State University, but it wasn't for me. So after a year I transferred to the University of Washington, where I kept taking more math classes, more science. And then I finally took this statics class -- statics is how you can apply math to real-life problems, like stresses on beams -- and I loved it. It was like, "Oh, this is what I want to do." So I got a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering.
Q. How did you get your first engineering job?
A. I was a student intern with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and then I got a permanent job there when I graduated from the University of Washington.
Two years later, in 1984, I got my big job with the City of Seattle. I was doing neighborhood traffic control, which was totally not what I thought I would be doing [in my career]. I love structural engineering. I thought I was going to design bridges my whole life. So I quickly transferred into structural design, and I've since done all kinds of stuff with the city -- bridge design, shoring, signal design. I've worked on the Metro Bus Tunnel, the construction of the First Avenue South Bridge, the Seattle Commons project, the Ave, the Seattle Streetcar. And now I'm going to another little project called the Viaduct. That's why I like working for the city: You can work on a lot of different projects.
Q. Did you choose to work on the light rail job site, or were you assigned to it?
A. It was what I wanted to do, to follow the project from beginning to end. Engineers can either spend their whole career in the office, designing and doing project management, or they can go out into the field and work in construction.
You always hear that construction can be rough -- construction guys yelling at you, a lot of pressure to make decisions. It was really a big step for me to go out into the field, get the hard hat, work out of the trailer. But I love it. You see the plans come alive, you see something get built. You look at the finished product and think, "Wow, I had a say in that."
People person by design:
"Besides understanding how things need to be designed, you need the people skills -- public speaking, being able to talk to community groups, giving presentations to City Council. You have to be able to sell these projects. You can't just go out and start tearing up streets. You've got citizens, business owners, council members, agencies -- all these stakeholders -- and you as the engineer are expected to participate. You have to have the skills to move things forward and come up with solutions. It's not just the person that gets A's anymore."
- University of Washington College of Engineering Open House (April 25 26)
- Washington Women in Trades job fair (May 2)
- Bellevue Community College Engineering Transfer Program
- American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
- American Public Works Association (APWA)
- Society of Women Engineers (SWE)
- Associated General Contractors of America (AGC)
- MentorNet: The E-Mentoring Network for Diversity in Engineering and Science
- Engineering jobs at NWjobs
Q. What exactly does being a project engineer entail?
A. I'm the lead person for the City of Seattle on all the light rail contracts within the Seattle city limits. My role is to represent Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, SDOT, the fire department, the police department. I'm the go-to person. I answer questions, do inspections, make sure things get constructed to the city's standards.
You're basically troubleshooting all day long. The minute one person leaves your office, somebody else comes in or you get a phone call. People need decisions quickly: "Okay, Katherine, this isn't going to fit -- can we move this here?" You've got equipment running. They've got to get a pipe in the ground. You've got a bunch of laborers there. Time is money in construction. Being on-site, I'm able to take a look at something, go back to my office and do some research or just make a decision on the spot, or call somebody at the city [office] and say, "Can we move this?"
It's not all engineering, either. The citizens might call and say, "Wait a minute! I don't want my driveway here," or, "I don't want that tree taken down." A lot of it is explaining to them, "This is where the sidewalk's going, this is what's going to happen," because it's just completely torn up out there. Also, the street closures were a huge thing because they affected the school district and King County Metro, and we had to keep the fire department informed about them. And we had to get help from the police department on traffic control.
Q. What's your office on the construction site like?
A. My office is a trailer [in Rainier Valley]. But it's a nice trailer. We call it the Plywood Palace. There's no Honey Bucket. It's a mobile home.
Q. How many direct reports do you have on the light rail project?
A. I had four people that reported to me: a lead person from the city on the downtown tunnel, a lead person for south downtown where the light rail goes past Qwest Field, a lead for the Beacon Hill Tunnel and another lead for Rainier Valley. And they all had city inspectors under them.
Q. How much interaction do you have with the Sound Transit light rail engineers?
A. I've worked with them constantly. It is really a partnership between Sound Transit and the City of Seattle. Sound Transit and the city and the contractor are all co-located in one spot. So I can just run next door and ask the contractor questions if I need to.
Q. What's the environmental process for a project of this magnitude?
A. You look at how the project would impact the environment in every way. We had a couple wetlands out there. We had to do traffic studies. We looked at the impacts to storm water. We had public meetings with the community and gave presentations to City Council.
We probably had 5,000 plan sheets that had to be passed around the city for people to review -- all those interests from Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle Parks and Recreation. People are looking at these plans for three years before we go out to construction. And it's up to me and my team to make sure all their comments get addressed. It's a huge effort to get to a point where you can stamp a plan and say, "Go ahead and build it."
Q. What hours do you work?
A. The light rail project -- especially the portion in Rainier Valley where we were disrupting 300 businesses or homes -- was the most demanding and the longest hours I've ever worked. My BlackBerry could start ringing by 7 in the morning and maybe not stop till 7 at night.
During the peak of construction, which lasted more than three years, I worked at least 10 hour days and up to 12. Sometimes I'd have a problem come up every hour and I'd never get to my desk. My days went by really fast, which I like.
Q. How do you deal with the stress of such a high-profile, deadline-driven project?
A. I try not to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of it and try to keep a positive attitude and just take one day at a time. It's not easy. I feel like I'm always out of balance with respect to work and family. My kids are older -- I have a son in college and another who just graduated from high school. My family is very understanding and supportive. They know when I'm stressed out and they stay away. They tell me to turn my BlackBerry off.
Q. What advice can you give aspiring engineers?
A. The most important thing is to get a degree in engineering. There's not just civil engineering. There's mechanical, electrical, metallurgical, chemical, ceramic, computer, industrial, bioengineering. You also need to pass two state exams to get licensed.
The best thing a civil engineering student can do is to get an internship. It gives you an idea of what the day-to-day job is like. Also, a lot of professional organizations -- the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), American Public Works Association (APWA) and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) -- have mentorship programs and student chapters. And the University of Washington has a great counseling center called Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).
If you're changing careers and can't get through the four-year intensive degree, you could go into construction management. To see what the work is like, you could try working for a construction company. Or go talk to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and see what they suggest.
Q. How competitive is it to become a civil engineer?
A. It's a good field to go into. There's a shortage of engineers and huge projects coming up in our region: the Viaduct, rebuilding 520, extending light rail to the Eastside. I've heard that every person graduating from the University of Washington civil engineering class is needed now. There were 80 to 90 graduates last year and one firm wanted to hire them all.
Freelance writer Michelle Goodman is the author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. She lives in Seattle, where she works from a spare bedroom with her dog Buddy at her feet.
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