She already has great job experience through internships and in her 1.5 years working full-time as an engineer. She is learning how to interact with coworkers with differing experience and personality and how to work with a new boss with a much different managing style than her previous boss. These are real issues that all engineers face and it is interesting to read about how she is approaching and overcoming road bumps early in her career.
Engineering Emily (EE): How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
Jessica Powell (JP): I was always in advanced math classes throughout my primary and secondary schooling, so I knew I was pretty decent at it. I’ll admit I had NO idea what I was getting into when I applied to Gonzaga University with a preference in Civil Engineering. I only knew I was interested in buildings and figuring out what made them stay standing.
EE: What was your college major?
JP: I started out thinking I was going to get a dual degree in engineering and music (I had played violin and piano my whole life up to that point and gotten a violin performance music scholarship). I made it halfway through my first semester before I realized the magnitude of that undertaking, and seeing as I didn’t like the music program at GU, I focused my studies on getting a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering (BSCE) with a minor in mathematics.
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student?
JP: I was the only girl out of 42 in my residence hall who was majoring in any type of engineering, so I felt isolated. I didn’t know anybody going into college and focused on my studies for the first two years. It wasn’t until the end of my second year that I finally found friends (who ended up also being in engineering). It was very overwhelming and I definitely felt like I didn’t belong until I met people who understood what I was going through and accepted me and my late-night studying. As scary as it can be, I really encourage anyone to try clubs and getting to know other engineers in their classes as soon as possible. I wish I would’ve found my friends sooner!
EE: Did you do any engineering internships during college?
JP: I was able to do two paid internships during the summers of my college years. The first was for the Department of Natural Resources in the peninsula of Washington State (the city of Forks, for you Twilight fans). I learned so much from this internship in all areas of civil engineering. I surveyed in ravines and back forest roads, designed corrugated steel pipes to allow fish-friendly rivers to pass under the forest roads, and oversaw the construction process of the installation of those culverts. My second internship was in construction management where I shadowed project managers and inspectors on a high-profile railroad bridge reconstruction project. This internship taught me more about construction standards and project organization and budget. I would recommend participating in at least one internship before you graduate. Having two helped me branch out and gain more well-rounded experience. Apply early and be prepared!
EE: How did you find/get hired for your first engineering job?
JP: Gonzaga has a very established career center and alumni connection program which helped me connect to more opportunities. I attended career fairs where I practiced presenting myself and I subscribed to monthly emails with updated job openings. Of course there are always job search engines online to supplement your search. I received a forwarded email from a recruiter during my finals week of senior year. My roommate encouraged me to call instead of email, and that recruiter still remembers the effect that call had. I had a polished resume and cover letter (that I had everyone I know look at and give me feedback on) and three interviews later I ended up getting the job over someone with their master’s degree. Never underestimate the power of practicing interview questions and being personable.
EE: What industry do you currently work in?
JP: I work in the Telecom/Structural industry. Most of my work consists of analyzing and designing modifications to cell towers and rooftop structures that hold all the antennas and equipment that provide network to cell phones. The structural department at my current company also helps out our civil department with subgrade detention and retention vaults and retaining walls, and occasionally we receive our own purely structural projects like modifying a restaurant or a private residence.
EE: Have you had to move for work?
JP: My first move was from my parents’ house after college into my own place as soon as I found out where I’d be working. My current company is relatively small and is focused locally so there have not been any additional opportunities or requirements to move for work.
EE: What has been your best experience working as an engineer?
JP: Really just watching people’s eyebrows shoot up when they find out that the blonde 23-year-old in front of them is a structural engineer (in training).
Finishing a really long and challenging project has been very fulfilling, as well as sharing my accomplishments with friends and family who have supported me throughout my entire journey to become a structural engineer.
EE: What has been your most challenging experience working as an engineer?
JP: Managing my anxiety during a boss transition. My anxiety makes me irrationally terrified that my work is wrong or late or not good enough and that my boss thinks I’m incapable, etc. This was tough when my old boss, whom I really liked, decided to resign and stay at home with her new baby. She found her replacement, and we’ve been working through the transition for about 4 months now. My motto so far is “Communicate and provide solutions!”
EE: Do you feel women are treated equally to men in engineering?
JP: No, but I think it’s getting better. More and more people are becoming aware of intentional and unintentional sexism. I know for a fact that I’m paid less than my male friend who is a Civil EIT at our company, and there are times when my coworkers, who are genuinely trying to help, interrupt me multiple times in the same conversation or try to tell me how to do something when I didn’t ask for their help in the first place. We’re working on it.
EE: How do you balance career and home life?
JP: I leave work at work. I stay longer if I’m needed during busier seasons, but stick to 40 if we’re in a lull. I’m in at 7 and out at 4. Boundaries are so so so important to make sure you’re taking care of the other aspects of your life: physical health, emotional health, finances, family, friends, hygiene, home environment, spiritual health, etc. If you don’t feel fulfilled in the specific ways unique to you, you’re going to feel off. I schedule in fitness time, family time, and me time. The work will still be there tomorrow.
EE: What advice do you have for girls interested becoming an engineer?
JP: If you like learning and solving problems, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Research famous women and different engineering fields. You’re not alone!
EE: Would you still become an engineer if you could do it all over again?
JP: I love a challenge, so yes.
EE: Any other information or stories you’d like to share?
JP: The engineering industry is fun and challenging, but it can feel isolating if you don’t have anyone to connect with. Fortunately, I really enjoy working with my coworker, and I have a friend from school who works in another department whom I get to confide in. If anyone has any questions they want to ask or just want to reach out and say hi, please do so!
Thanks for sharing your experiences and advice Jessica! As you read, Jessica is a very impressive young woman. I loved reading that Jessica is not only an engineer, but an accomplished musician as well! I strongly believe in the connection between STEM career fields and the Arts, and it’s why I am supportive of including Arts in children’s STEAM educations.
I think Jessica is doing a great job so far at knowing who she is and what she wants in her career and proactively trying to manage situations that aren’t working as planned on the job. With so many women leaving engineering careers (including me and several of my previous interviewees), I want to do all I can to help encourage the next generation of women engineers to change the pattern of women leaving engineering.
My best advice to Jessica is be yourself, do you best work everyday, develop good working relationships with your coworkers, have confidence in your abilities and your work, and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself! I had many situations early in my career when I wish I stood up stronger for myself and gave off more self-confidence. I think women struggle with this more than men and it can hurt our careers.
A few things that I think will help keep more women in the engineering workforce is encouraging employers to stamp out all unfair/unequal treatment of women engineers, providing women coaching and mentoring to help them gain more self-confidence in the workplace, asking employers to offer better work/life balance for working moms, and most importantly, promote and hire more women engineers so that young engineers have role models and mentors. I’m slowing raising awareness to these issues on my blog and I will work on being more vocal and proactive for women engineers in 2019. 🙂
Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions for Jessica, or would like to leave any words or advice or encouragement for her.
If you’d like to share your story and be featured on the blog, please contact me today!
I really enjoyed your interview, Jessica. You have a strength in communicating which will serve you well in engineering. Being able to clearly communicate a technical concept is invaluable. Don’t be afraid to speak up in technical discussions. Your fellow engineers will respect you, and you will advance quickly into a leadership position.
Great advice Florence, and I completely agree! Thank you! 🙂