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TxDOT Making Effort to Hire Women, Bring in Diversity

Tue April 02, 2024 - West Edition #7
Irwin Rapoport – CEG Correspondent

Valerie Alvarado
Photo courtesy of TxDOT
Valerie Alvarado
Valerie Alvarado   (Photo courtesy of TxDOT) TxDOT recruits at local events to help get people interested in careers at the DOT.   (Photo courtesy of TxDOT)

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is one of the largest and most funded DOTs in the nation and with annual budgets that are increasing on a regular basis as the state continues to invest in its highway network.

New construction and upgrading its existing infrastructure has led to more hiring and that includes a percentage of women.

TxDOT is looking to bring in solid talent from across the state and wants to bring in more women at all levels of the organization, including engineers, infrastructure designers, project managers, researchers, analysts, financial officers, surveyors and inspectors.

March 8th celebrated International Women's Day and Valerie Alvarado, the district construction engineer of TxDOT's Odessa District, sat down with Construction Equipment Guide for an exclusive Q&A.

Alvarado, now 28, has been with TxDOT for almost nine years. Born and raised in Odessa, a key center in oil and gas production, she was originally keen to pursue a career in the energy sector. However, various twists and turns placed her on the freeway leading to civil construction, with a focus on road and bridge and transportation construction.

It was in 2016 that Alvarado graduated from the University of Texas in the Permian Basin with a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering. It was working for TxDOT as a summer intern and later doing part-time work for the DOT that sealed the deal. The planets, you can say, aligned. TxDOT was seeking talented professionals and simultaneously, looking to increase the number of women working at the expanding agency. Alvarado happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Now, TxDOT has a talented construction engineer who knows her stuff and the added bonus is that the Odessa native is able to serve the community she has always called home.

CEG: What led you to pursue engineering and in particular, mechanical engineering?

Alvarado: At Odessa High School I had a great physics teacher, Mr. Brant, (Physics A and B). Hands down the best teacher I ever had. I enjoyed learning about concepts that apply to our everyday life. He explained to me that physics is more than theoretical principles, while engineering applied those principles to real world problems. I did consider studying petroleum engineering due to the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin, but I wanted to have more industry options, so I chose mechanical.

CEG: Did anyone in your life or educational career have experience in construction or with general contractors?

Alvarado: Yes. I watched my father work in the oil and gas industry most of his life and he eventually built his own companies. My dad's company consists of safety, construction and environmental work that caters to the oil and gas industry. He would take me to safety meetings, site visits and walk me through solutions they would develop when an issue arose.

CEG: Why did you decide to work for TxDOT? What role did you start in and have you changed roles since then?

Alvarado: I initially started with TxDOT to gain engineering experience while I finished my schooling. After my internship, I was sold. I saw many career and development opportunities here, especially for a young engineer. When I graduated, I started as an engineering assistant, working on design projects and preparing for professional licensure. After I received my professional engineering license, I was promoted to district design engineer and served in that role for about four years. Then transitioned to my current role as construction engineer.

During my part-time internship, TxDOT asked me to join full time upon graduation. I enjoyed going out to the field to help with surveying and environmental activities. I also liked learning about the process for plan development/design. I was amazed at the amount of coordination required to get a project ready for bid.

I had many mentors at the beginning of my career, some of which I still look up to and get their thoughts on things, such as Gary Law, Robert Ornelas, Gabriel Ramirez and Ciro Baeza, just to name a few.

CEG: How would you describe your experiences and projects you've worked on at TxDOT?

Alvarado: In my career with TxDOT, I have encountered many rewarding experiences. You get exposed to several aspects in a project. Roadway, bridges, pavement materials/forensics and safety enhancements to name a few. The most rewarding part for me is seeing the safety benefit in our local community from our work. When I see an area that has experienced a high amount of crashes or congestion, for example, and we build a solution or save a life, that is very rewarding to me.

I have worked on several roadway rehabilitation projects, safety improvements and bridge projects. I am most proud of the two grade separation bridges at SH 302/SH 115 and the railroad in Winkler County. This project was on a critical timeline to develop plans and acquiring Right of Way was not an option. There were several issues at this intersection due to the high skew and truck traffic. We developed this project on time for bid opening and the construction was completed ahead of schedule. It was a big team effort to work through the geometry, utility and schedule constraints.

It is very rewarding to drive on roads and bridges that I helped bring to life. We have a great team at the Odessa District. This team is always looking for innovative opportunities and adding value to our community. Safety is an "all hands on deck" approach at the department and it shows on the projects we deliver.

CEG: Do you feel accepted as a woman in a role/industry that is still male-dominated to a large extent? Do you work with other women in leadership roles within TxDOT?

Alvarado: I do feel accepted. I believe now more than ever, every industry is increasing their female presence, which is great to see. I also believe you should always have the most ownership in your career. If you take your career development into your hands and seek good mentors, the female/male ratio shouldn't affect you in a negative way. I work alongside several women within TxDOT, which I am very thankful for.

CEG: Were there many other women studying engineering with you? What about teachers who were women?

Alvarado: The classroom was predominantly composed of men in school. All my teachers at the university were also men. Engineering is a team sport. UTPB did a good job of forming groups on special projects where we learned to collaborate with one another. In my new role in construction, I am learning more about the material testing, selection of pavements and construction strategies. I felt very welcomed by students and professors. Everyone valued my opinions and there was always someone I could go to for help.

CEG: What advice do you have for women considering engineering and careers in construction ?

Alvarado: My advice is to first find out what interests you, have a game plan, give yourself grace and be able to adapt to changes, then shoot for the stars. Finding a good mentor who you can bounce ideas and questions off of is good too.

I do serve as a mentor in our young engineering group. My current mentee is an engineering assistant, Alondra. She has several goals for herself within the department and is a great leader. I served a term for the Society of Women in Engineering chapter at the University of Texas Permian Basin as their industry representative, where I shared with students the career opportunities at TxDOT and the support we provide for FE and PE tests for professional licensure. There also are several UTPB alumni at TxDOT Odessa District and we attempt to attend as many career fairs as we can.

CEG: Looking back upon your time with TxDOT and the construction sector, what are some of the observations that stand out?

Alvarado: I believe it is important to hone in on careers/organizations that expose you to different areas of the industry. You don't want to wind up developing yourself in only one thing. It is also important to build good relationships. This is a skill that definitely pays off in the long run. CEG

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