116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Jen Winter was happy doing private engineering consulting. She wasn't looking for a job in the public sector.
Then Cedar Rapids - the state's second-largest city - posted an opening for a public works director. She was intrigued.
'I talked to a few people about it, and I decided I could make a difference in this role, bring in a different perspective,” she said.
Winter became the city's first female public works director in 2015, managing nearly 200 employees and overseeing the city's engineering, traffic, real estate/right of way management, streets and sewer departments.
She understood how cities work, having led HR Green's transportation team, working with communities across the state. She was up on sustainability, having led a national committee driving that approach in public works.
Winter said she saw the Cedar Rapids job as an opportunity to combine all of her professional interests.
Her status as the first woman to lead the city's public works departments is not lost on Winter.
Men typically outnumber women in engineering fields, and the disparity widens in leadership positions. Winter estimates less than half of all engineering degrees go to women. And about 40 percent of those degree-holding women don't enter or stay in the field, according to a report from the University of California-Riverside.
Engineering, as it turned out, wasn't something Winter had considered until a chance conversation with a teacher in her hometown of Dyersville in northeast Iowa.
'I always really liked math and science, and I had a science teacher that I liked that, when I was talking with him about career options, asked me if I'd considered going into engineering,” she said. 'At that time, I hadn't thought about it.”
That conversation led her to do some research.
'I knew I wanted to go to Iowa State (University) because I knew they had a lot of good math and science programs there,” Winter said. 'Engineering seemed to be a good fit.”
She started out in chemical engineering - it combined her love of math and science - but quickly realized she wanted something 'more hands-on” and switched to civil engineering.
'Early on, I took civil engineering and surveying, so you get to go out and survey the lay of the land, then design a project based on that,” she said. 'I really enjoyed it. That was something I could see myself doing.”
In her current role, Winter is not surveying land but she has plenty of opportunities for hands-on work.
When the Aug. 10 derecho hit Cedar Rapids with hurricane-force winds, Winter was in the center of a disaster response team working to clear streets so utility crews could start getting the lights turned back on.
It wasn't easy.
'We are trained in emergency response, and I think after the flood of 2008, the public works department really made that a priority,” she said. 'We modeled our incident command after the same one police and fire departments use. In some of these larger disasters, public works is going to have as big a role as police and fire, so we really all need to understand the same system.”
The plan called for team members to meet at the incident command center. Having that point of contact was important in August, Winter said, 'because there was no way to communicate. Phones were down, there was no electricity, our radios didn't work because our radio tower was down.”
Once team members were gathered, she said, the question became where to start. Trees and power lines were down throughout the city, homes and vehicles had been damaged or destroyed, the city was covered in debris.
It was a supervisor from the streets department, Winter said, who got the cleanup effort started.
'He suggested using the city's snow plows to go down the streets and just push everything off to the sides,” she said. 'We talked about it and decided that was a great idea. And that allowed us to start opening up some of the emergency routes and really get the cleanup phase going.”
Winter took on a key role of updating the community at post-derecho news conferences.
Six months later, the Public Works Department and a number of independent contractors continue the herculean cleanup, with most of the city streets and alleys cleared, but with cleanup continuing into 2021, even with the snow. Downed trees are being removed from city parks. Huge root balls await disposal. Damaged street lights and streets signs are being replaced.
A lot of planning. A lot of hands-on work - just the ticket for an engineer.