Women in Engineering Spotlight: Sarah Shafer

Posted on Wednesday, July 24th, 2019 by
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We recently had the honor of interviewing Sarah Shafer, PE, LEED AP BD+C about her career. Over the years, she’s seen multiple facets of the engineering profession, including corporate consulting and municipal civil service. Drawing on that dual perspective, she shared with us her thoughts on how the engineering profession has changed over time and where she thinks it will go in the next five years.

Tell me a little about your career.
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked on everything from small development to master plans, from roads to emergency service upgrades. Like many, my career path has been greatly impacted by economic ups and downs, as well as great opportunity. From 2005 to 2008, I was working in South Florida on private developments. When the recession started, our corner of the country was very quickly affected by it, but it opened up opportunity within municipal civil service. Shortly after, we were hit by some major storms and emergencies along the gulf coastline. I was able to work with larger initiatives as a self-employed consultant and temporary contract employee working on environmental and recovery projects. In 2012, I made the move to the Midwest where I’ve been working for the last seven years. I cannot believe how quickly those years have passed, as I’ve built relationships with the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT), Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), consultants, and municipalities.

What sparked your interest in engineering?
My father had a lot to do with my interest in engineering. He always spoke highly of the profession growing up, because engineers were the creators. Their designs could get us from one coast to the next, provide places to shop, and clean water. Through his eyes, I saw those contributions as a gift to humanity. All of the things we forget about – the quiet necessities – are the work of engineers.

What led you to the public sector?
My affinity for building livable communities brought me here. Because I’ve been exposed to different types of engineering professions, I’ve discovered I like to have one hand in planning and the other in engineering. Master planning services to accommodate a variety of needs is something I truly enjoy.

I also like looking at various industries (stormwater, transportation, water, etc.) and accommodating for them prior to growth. That approach is relatively new and requires a lot of collaboration. It’s one of the things I like best about the work I’m doing. It’s wonderful to partner with municipal agencies, public works, and community redevelopment to deliver for stakeholders and residents in a proactive way.

What do you enjoy about it?
I enjoy the collaboration and problem solving that comes with involving all stakeholders to create sustainable assets for communities. Looking at all aspects – water, sewer, parks, sidewalks, street connections – helps foster growth and improves quality of life. Sustainable, walkable, and livable communities are something that has been lost over the years, and working with multiple departments to bring it back is incredibly important to the future.

How has the engineering profession changed since you started?
It has ebbed and flowed, since I started. When I began, the field was focused on implementation and being proactive. Then, as the recession hit, projects were more geared towards development calling the shots. Now, communities are starting to be more forward thinking and master plan oriented. They are not as reactive. They’re ready to be proactive – even if it costs a little more upfront, because they know this approach will reap better results in the long run.

In addition to those changes, we’ve also seen so many technological advancements. Computer and modeling programs have evolved considerably. They can create much more complex models and help us utilize big data in ways we are still imagining. As a result, we can produce higher quality products for clients and the general public.

How do you think it will change in the next five years?
I think we will see a greater reliance on data. There will be more data driven decision making and design. There will be more stoplight data used and water flow calculators on pipes to get real time analysis and dynamic responses. Right now, we’re more lag-time reactionary on the service side. With this kind of information, we can produce a higher quality product and service by putting a long-range plan in place that actually works well. Municipalities will be able to watch and document things like rain events to see how it impacts stormwater and sewer to implement treatment centers more effectively. That data can be used to help plan system upgrades across many service lines.

Were there many women in engineering when you began? Has that changed? Why do you think that is?
There were quite a few female engineers in the workplace when I started, but now that I’m in the middle of my career, there are a lot fewer of us, as it can be a pretty rigid work environment. For many dual-income families, there is a need for flexibility, and as a result, the workforce is demanding it. Whether it’s fluidity on hours or where work can take place, these are the kinds of changes that will encourage the future generation of female engineers to feel more confident in continuing on their career paths.

Increasing interest in technological careers has been top of mind for many. How do you think we can attract more people to these professions?
Technological careers have a reputation for being staunchy and boring. There is this stereotype that to enter into these jobs you have to have earned the perfect grades, but the truth is these careers are all about problem solving and connecting with people. Nearly all professions are built with the want to connect with others and provide services that meet a need. Taking on these jobs isn’t something unattainable, and we need to do a better job of communicating that aspect of creativity beyond linework.

Looking ahead, there are some advancements that could impact the way we design, like autonomous cars. How do you think communities can anticipate and support these new developments, particularly when it’s something completely new?
Communities need to keep a pulse on what’s shifting and changing. There are ways to be prepared that aren’t cost prohibitive. For example, if we know a main corridor will likely be a route for autonomous vehicles, we can start to make way for that now. It’s important to look at what we’re doing today and see if there are elements we can incorporate into the cost of a current project that will save us time and money down the road.

There is a lot of new and upcoming technology that could greatly impact our communities. Being enthusiastic and proactive about these changes is really important. When we get locked into the day-to-day, we can miss the opportunity to advance the profession. Being aware of these developments and beginning to solve for how we will use them invigorates not only our work, but also our cities.

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