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CHANGE AGENT: Susan Martinovich, Woman with a Vision

Susan Martinovich, CH2M HILL

Susan Martinovich had to do everything from scratch when she worked for the Nevada Department of Transportation during the summers she attended the University of Nevada-Reno for civil engineering more than three decades ago.

“Everything was done by hand, even the calculations and drawings,” says Martinovich, 51, of her work as a budding bridge builder. “But now I can drive under a bridge and say, ‘I designed that.’”

And designing bridges is not all Martinovich has achieved. Since recently retiring as Director of the Nevada DOT for five years, she’s joined CH2M HILL, directing the Denver-based firm’s North American highway/bridge segment. Martinovich was also the first woman president of The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and she’s working to be a more active member of WTS International.

Those college-summer beginnings taught her early on that design requires knowing everything from the first idea through to completion—call it vision and ambition mixed with a little dirt. “As a bridge designer, you have to know the earth on which you’re going to put the bridge; and there are many aspects of that earth that need to be considered.” says Martinovich,

Over the course of her successful career, Martinovich earned her role as the person who “put it all together,” whether it was designing a bridge, coordinating a major interstate highway expansion project, or figuring out the next step after a meeting.

“In meetings, people sit around and talk, but when it’s over, who’s going to do what and when?  I always took the initiative and would take notes, be the one to follow through, volunteer and speak up. That’s how I was recognized to go into the front office. It’s a matter of being at the right place at the right time—with the right equipment.”

Martinovich had a head start in the transportation field: born in Carson City, NV, and the oldest of three, her father worked for NDOT, first in the traffic section, then in IT working with computers. Her mother was a nurse.

Math and science came easily to her. “I didn’t like the reading and memorization, but math was great,” she says. “There were a lot of scholarships to go into engineering; I think I had an advantage because I was a woman—but I had the grades, too.”  Martinovich remembers her father asking, “Do you really want this?”  Her reply: “Yes, Dad, I do.”

After she graduated from college in 1983, Martinovich remained in Carson City to start a family. From her marriage, which lasted until 2009, she has two sons: the oldest followed in her footsteps and became a civil engineer; her younger son is a decorated Marine.

When she began working full time at NDOT, she joined a rotational engineering program, which allowed entry-level engineers to rotate around different divisions to learn how it all fit together. But she was with that program only eight months, because an opening came up in the bridge division, where she remained for six years.   

It was in the NDOT bridge division that her ambition began to flower. “I looked forward,” she says. She wanted to be a supervisor, an Engineer 4 in bureaucratic terms, but found she couldn’t because she hadn’t supervised anyone in the bridge division. She transferred to the roadway division where she could supervise, made it to an Engineer 4, and remained there six more years.

Martinovich says the fact that she was one of only two women in the bridge division did not negatively affect her—internally, anyway.  “The fact that I was a woman was most interesting out in the field with contractors,” she says. “I got a call one day from a contractor who said, ‘I have a question about the bridge; I need to speak to one of the designers.’ ‘I’m one of the designers,’ I told him. There were a few moments of silence, but eventually he asked his questions.”

With the goal of one day becoming NDOT Director, Martinovich took advantage of a change in Nevada state government during the mid-1990s when the new governor appointed a director for NDOT, and she applied for an open position as assistant director of the engineering group—her first “front office” job. She landed the job, bypassing two of her superiors. “It was a bit awkward that I was now their boss, but they also knew I had a strong work ethic and I communicated with them,” she says. She had a harder time with it than they did, though. “These were people I admired and respected, and here I was now telling them what to do.”

In 2003, Martinovich became deputy director and chief engineer at NDOT, before ultimately achieving her goal of running the entire department in 2007.

While becoming Director was always her goal, Martinovich’s ambition was wed to five other goals:

1.      Opening up communication among the various departments.

2.      Getting money for projects.

3.      Communicating better with the construction industry.

4.      Providing and teaching leadership skills.

5.      Improving safety on Nevada’s roads.

“I told people I wanted to be Director when I first got to the front office,” she says. “And when I got the job, I told everyone about my five goals. So when, in 2011, I realized I had done everything I wanted to do, I needed to figure out now what?

“Now what” became retirement from NDOT and her departure from Nevada and move to CH2M HILL. “I chose this firm because I feel I can continue to make a difference in national policy, and this gives me another avenue and opportunity to do just that as part of a very talented team.”

Martinovich’s post with CH2M HILL is still new, and she’s feeling her way. “I’m still kind of picking up, drinking from a fire hose.”  One of the great things about her job is that she telecommutes. Divorced and with two grown sons, she is free to travel for business and to her three homes in Nevada and Wyoming.

Along with her role at CH2M HILL, Martinovich will be putting more volunteer time in with WTS International to bring more women to the field that has given her great satisfaction.  “WTS is a great resource for transportation professionals to learn and grow and a way to attract more women to the industry.

“Women bring a different, collaborative, and much needed perspective to the field,” she says. “Traditionally, engineering isn’t a women’s field and the numbers are still not going up enough. But they are better than when I started. I think the numbers are growing because there is now more mentorship and camaraderie thanks to the work that WTS International is doing.”

With her track record for achieving what she sets out to do, Martinovich is poised to make a serious impact on the industry and workforce development.



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