Recently, while bemoaning state hiring difficulties due to non-competitive salaries, state Department of Administration Commissioner Bob Poe cited 79 unfilled engineering positions at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT&PF). Rep. Beth Kerttula opined that state workers are willing to earn lower wages and reach pay ceilings sooner ``because they believe in what they are doing.''
I am a woman engineer at ADOT&PF with a desire to believe in what I'm doing. I took a job at ADOT&PF because I enjoy the mental challenge engineering work offers. I didn't get my engineering degree with the hopes of limited advancement or just to ``spin my wheels'' at some ``club.'' Low pay isn't the only reason prospective employees should think long and hard before considering employment at ADOT&PF.
ADOT&PF's infrastructure is crumbling; workforce atrophy is well on its way. More than 40 percent of ADOT&PF workers are eligible for retirement within five years and an exodus of workers has bailed out early. I predict some new employees won't stay long either.
Five years ago I hired into ADOT&PF with the promise of using engineering math, science and problem-solving skills. In retrospect, I recognize how every effort was made to diminish my engineering abilities - often in favor of glorified secretarial duties. Instead of meaningful jobs and training, inclusion and teamwork, I was hot-potatoed from section to section and barred from the kinds of work that could qualify me for the Professional Engineer exam and career advancement at ADOT&PF.
Blocked from work opportunities using math or science, I turned my attention to problem solving - what would it take to re-engineer this patriarchal culture? As a union steward, I am familiar with issues that contribute to low morale in the department. How do we retool leadership styles that antagonize and ridicule subordinates, underutilize worker skills, dull employee potentials, erode desire? How can we transform into a respectful, productive, magnet work place?
Lawsuits have been filed and arbitrations won over ADOT&PF's disparaging treatment of female employees. In Fairbanks, a skilled woman engineer - a dedicated 20-year employee with prior Design Project Manager II experience - was passed over in favor of a newly hired male with very little design experience. She was also Chinese and not an alumnus of a local Catholic high school. Last summer a 17-year employee, a former airport leasing manager, won a court settlement regarding hostile and harassing treatment by her boss. The suit was filed against not only the Anchorage International Airport manager, but also against the Aviation Operations director and an ADOT&PF deputy commissioner whom she alleged conspired to cover up and to obstruct investigation of her claims. Arbitration of a 1997 class action grievance mandated management to promote work-place diversity and address concerns of the women in the department. The directive further read: Insure a positive work environment for all employees and recognize the positive contributions of women and minorities in the department.
Such actions seemed encouraging steps for employees who hoped ADOT&PF could become a workplace to recommend to their engineer daughters. Day-to-day reality is not so hopeful though. Offenders kept their jobs and management payback followed grievances. Many employees who helped prove cases were driven from state service. ADOT&PF spent thousands of dollars for attorneys to investigate the work climate and to produce white papers on the subject, yet conclusions were never published.
Response to my assertions that women engineers are marginalized, undermined and kept from advancement will be that there are some well-positioned upper-management females in the department. My observations as to why they were chosen would probably not jibe with the opinions of female managers who support the department's position when the suggestion of disparate treatment is posed in any forum.
It doesn't take long for new employees to become discouraged by the games played at their expense. How often are talented new employees wrung out? How many fail probation at the expense of a bully's power plays? Threats and broken promises help convince new employees they should stay here just long enough to gain experience, then move on to a more savory work place.
Employees don't have to be bullied to be productive. It's time to substitute accountability and collaboration for tactics to invalidate, isolate and silence. As the rising tide of federal funds flows into Alaska through ADOT&PF, it is in the best interest of all that we provide a positive and productive workplace to build a future for the best engineers and workers of any sex, race or religion. In fact, ADOT&PF's federal funding ($230 million per year) is contingent upon providing equal opportunity for all. Established patterns of male entitlement and ``club membership'' may be hard to give up.
But those of us who believe in more than second-class citizenship will not wait 20 years for our justice.
Nancy Rongstad is an engineer with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities in Juneau.
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