USACE women thrive in male-dominated engineering

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Regel

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Regel

By Jennifer Aldridge

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Europe District Public Affairs Office

Only 20 percent of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District Engineering and Construction Division employees are women. While the branch is led by a female chief, the office — like many in the U.S. — still lacks women.

In honor of Women’s History Month in March, Engineering in Europe spoke with three outstanding women here to find out how they selected and continue to thrive in a male-dominated career field.

These USACE women — a mechanical engineer, an engineering technician and a civil engineer — discuss their educational backgrounds, work experience and achievements to encourage girls and young women to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and math.   

Dhanvir Aujla, a mechanical engineer supporting the district’s Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe program:

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Aujla: I wanted to be a veterinarian. Growing up, I loved animals, but my family didn’t have any cats or dogs. I always wanted a pet.

How did you become an engineer?

Aujla: I took physics in high school and we researched jobs requiring physics. I wrote a paper on electrical engineering. I thought it was something I would probably like to do.

As an engineer, how did you decide to work for USACE?

Aujla: I had a friend that worked for the Corps and she described the intern program to me. I applied and was accepted. That’s how I ended up here at Europe District. I never expected to work on the military construction side of mechanical engineering — heating, ventilation, air conditioning and plumbing systems — because they have nothing to do with materials. But I found that I really like the energy piece of construction.

Is engineering a portable career field?

Aujla: I think so — I am here in Germany. As a mechanical engineer working on military construction, I am responsible for all HVAC systems in our DODDS-Europe school facility designs. Every building in the world requires HVAC. I think I can take my degree and transfer it across the globe.

Would you suggest students today pursue engineering and STEM-related fields?

Aujla: If you’re interested, engineering is a great career field to be in. It’s exciting and there are a lot of subfields of mechanical, electrical and civil engineering that I didn’t know about when I was younger. I knew nothing about biomedical engineering, for example. I also think artificial intelligence and robotics will be a big part of our future, and there will be opportunities in the energy field because of energy crises happening across the world.

As you know, there is a shortage of STEM professionals in the U.S. How can we attract students, especially females, to engineering?

Aujla: I think outreach is really important. I was actually the president of the Society of Women Engineers in college. We worked with Girl Scouts to help them earn their science badges. We conducted outreach programs with local schools as well. I remember working with a particular group of students and a girl telling me, “I can’t be an astronaut because only boys are astronauts.” I was so floored. I had no idea that was an actual perception until she said it. It is important to get into the schools early so kids can dream and see what actual engineers do.

Sharon Thomas, an engineering technician supporting the Construction Support Services Section: 

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Thomas: I wanted to be a nurse. Then, I wrote a high school paper on careers and I actually selected mechanical engineering. When I researched what was required, I thought it was too much. I just didn’t have the math skills and there wasn’t advanced math offered at my high school. So I ended up joining the U.S. Air Force and specializing in law enforcement. After four years, I transitioned to education and training.

How did you become an engineering technician?

Thomas: After military retirement, I applied for a position as an administrative clerk with USACE’s Alaska District area office. My supervisor asked what I thought about becoming a civil engineering technician. I switched over, and that is how I got into the construction side of USACE.

What has working for USACE taught you?

Thomas: There is always room for improvement in engineering and construction. We know how to do our job, but can we do it better for our customers and partners who have to live with the finished product.

How can we attract students, especially females, to engineering?

Thomas: We need to make the field more human. There is a label, a stigma, that engineers are very smart, very nerdy noncommunicators. But this isn’t true; we need to share that with young women.

Jennifer Regel, the district’s DoDDS-Europe Stuttgart schools project engineer:

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Regel: I wanted to be an inventor or a swimming teacher — the dreams of a 5-year-old girl. I still love the water, but I chose engineering. Engineers get to invent every day. I grew up in Montana and spent a lot of time outdoors. I loved building, which is what led me to structural engineering.

How did you become an engineer?

Regel: It required dedication, patience and support from friends and family. After earning my degree, I passed an eight-hour Fundamentals of Engineering exam, worked directly under a professional engineer for four years and finally passed the Professional Engineering exam. Now I am a licensed engineer.

Did your upbringing impact your career choice?

Regel: I am an engineer because of how I was raised — education was the No. 1 priority in my family. I remember my grandma telling me, “no matter what, no one can take away your education,” and that stuck with me. Also, my dad, who is a certified public accountant and retired professor, spent hundreds of hours with me, answering question after question about why numbers work the way they do. My mom encouraged me and was always there to go through math problems again and again. They have been my biggest cheerleaders.

How has your career benefited from being a professional engineer?

Regel: In the private sector, being a licensed professional engineer is everything. It allows you to take responsibility for your own designs, be in business for yourself and be the approving authority within an engineering firm. In the government, having a professional engineer license is a benefit because it opens more career opportunities. It demonstrates the time you have put into learning the technical requirements of your position.    

How can we attract students, especially females, to engineering?

Regel: Mentoring young students, spending time showing them a vast array of opportunities they will have, if they master the skill set, will be effective in increasing our future workforce. Also, women bring different attributes to the table. I have worked with some pretty smart male and female engineers, but the vast majority of engineers I have worked with have been male. It is still a male-dominated profession, and that can make it challenging for a woman in the field. I think as we continue to promote STEM to all students — regardless of gender or background — and provide positive role models, we will see greater diversity in engineering.