Board Spotlight: Paula Pienton, Treasurer, WTS Foundation
Paula Pienton, S.E., P.E., Director of Passenger Rail at T.Y. Lin International, serves as Treasurer for the WTS Foundation Board of Directors. WTS sat down with Paula to find out how she got involved in the transportation industry and what drives her passion for the advancement of women in the industry.
WTS: Let’s start with your role at T.Y. Lin. Can you tell us a little about the firm, and what you do?
PP: T.Y. Lin International (TYLI) is a global, multi-disciplinary engineering firm focused on a vision that we create a better tomorrow through innovation, excellence, and service. I am in the role of Central Region lead for Rail and Transit and serve as the firm’s national lead for passenger rail service.
WTS: Where did you get your start in the industry?
PP: I left the University of Illinois with a fairly singular vision – I wanted to design bridges, and I wanted to become licensed as a Structural Engineer; both were achieved. My father retired as a structural iron worker, and over the years I would often hear stories about engineers who thought they were building Swiss watches, that being practical about the means and methods in the field should be a part of the education system. This pushed me to gain construction management experience. Eventually, I moved into a position at Metra, the commuter rail agency in Chicago, as a PM in the Capital Projects group, engaged in both construction and design projects. It was an incredible experience to work with such a dynamic team at the agency, engaged with consultants and contractors. I realized my passion lie in transit services – working to provide reliable, convenient mobility choices to the public. Transit is a game changer for communities and quality of life.
WTS: You are you particularly passionate about attracting young women to the industry. What drives that passion?
PP: In high school, I thought I might be interested in structural engineering and took a drafting class. I was the only girl in the class, a situation duplicated in my life too often. The teacher called my home to have my parents approve a transfer to home economics, that his class was not a place for me to find a boyfriend! The transfer didn’t happen – both of my parents encouraged me to go against the norm, and I am forever grateful. Many classes, many meetings, many jobsites, have found me to be the only female over the years. There have been a variety of reactions to my presence at the table. In the span of my career, I would like to see that become a rare experience, not the norm. I don’t think our industry can afford to disregard qualified people based on gender. Innovative solutions are derived from diversity in the makeup of the team. Women need to be at the table.
WTS: What has been your experience as it pertains to women in leadership roles and career development? What have you witnessed during the course of your career?
PP: I have been blessed with great mentors of both female and male persuasion from early in my career. My very first assignment was under the leadership of a female structural engineer and it provided me with confidence that I could make my way in the industry. My first woman ‘boss’ was just recently (5 years) in my career. It has been refreshing to learn from and observe her leadership style. I cannot specifically single out traits as being dominant by gender though, as I have had the opportunity to work for a number of leaders and they each bring a singular flair to their role. That style may be driven by life experiences based on gender, but I would venture to say it is equally formed by family, culture and environment, creating unique traits for each.
WTS: What do you think is the best path forward to making change in the gender makeup of the transportation industry?
PP: Continuing to educate students, guidance counselors and career advisors on the many roles in the industry is essential to gaining a greater percentage of females into the industry. Speaking at high school career fairs, I have recognized that young women (and men) are not always aware of the many tracks available in our industry and the different levels of education or training that can enable participation. Taking the time to reach out to your alma matter—high school or university—and connecting with students to share what you do and how you arrived there is rewarding and inspires people to enter our world. We all have a responsibility to tell the story, so young women are aware of the options.
WTS: Why did you feel it was important to join the Board of WTS Foundation?
PP: I am an eternal volunteer! But the Foundation speaks to the things I am passionate about – providing opportunity to young women to advance themselves. Our focus on education, research, and scholarship is fundamental to attracting, engaging, and rewarding the future leaders of our industry. Igniting the spark to engage another generation of women is a welcome challenge.
WTS: Where are the opportunities for the next generation of leaders in this industry?
PP: Everywhere. All aspects of the industry are faced with change – technology is driving new facets of the industry, hard for me to even envision what may be. The traditional roles many of us grew up in are blending with the world of finance, energy, and technology. Women from the industry will need to step into politics to have a voice in the future of our infrastructure and financing, helping to prioritize where the country’s values lie. Connectivity of services for quality of life, innovation for efficient freight delivery and sustainable energy sources for the health of our world will drive the future of transportation.
WTS: What strategies do you feel will help bring WTS closer to achieving its mission?
PP: Continually building our network, stitching together Chapters into Regions into Nations into Global influence is how we will link the network to lift all of us together. In WTS International’s 40 years, they have achieved a recognized role in the industry and had immense influence on so many already. The momentum continues to build and will continue through organic growth driven by the value members derive from participation. Each of us needs to make an effort to reach out and be the inspiration for the next generation to join us.
To learn more about Paula, click HERE for her full biography.