Editor's note: The following is a reflection of recently retired District 6 Engineer Nelrae Succio. Succio came to MnDOT in 1982—a time when female engineers were scarce at MnDOT.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a master’s degree in management of technology from the University of Minnesota. As a 30-year veteran of the agency, Succio claims many engineering accomplishments across the state. Beyond that, she is extremely proud to be among other women trail-blazers in the agency.
Some of her achievements include:
- One of the first female grad engineers hired (1982)
- First female construction project engineer (1984)
- First female assistant district engineer for Maintenance (1994)
- Project manager to design and build MnROAD research facility (1989-94)
- First female construction engineer in Construction Managers Group (1994)
- First female district engineer (1998)
- First female to supervise all district engineers in the state (2001)
- Member of MnDOT’s Diversity Council (18 years)
By Nelrae Succio
Growing up, my test scores were always highest in math and science. Yet my high school counselor told me women are teachers, nurses or secretaries. After getting my first degree in music education, I couldn’t find a job. So I began taking classes again.
My criteria for a new career included:
- Work anywhere in the U.S.
- Possibly work outdoors
- Make $20,000 a year
- Use my strengths in science and math
Several of my cousins (all male) were engineers, so it seemed like an interesting and viable option for me. I also thought it would challenge me in new ways.
MnDOT hired me as a grad engineer in 1982. That year, the department hired 13-14 women into the program in an attempt to diversify the workforce. Four of us women were placed in the districts for the first time ever, and my assignment was in the Brainerd office. I made $9.44 an hour. This wasn’t quite $20,000 a year, but the goal was in sight. And I knew that I wanted to be a district engineer one day.
During that first assignment, I went alone to the Bituminous Conference. When I walked in the door, I could have heard a pin drop. Every head turned to look at me. The room fell silent, and all of the men wondered if I was lost.
I was very serious my first year or two on the job. I barely laughed or smiled because I wanted to fit in and be taken seriously. I focused on doing everything just like the men. I tried to be like them for so long and be “one of the guys,” I think I lost myself for a while and didn’t bring all of myself to the workplace every day.
I often experienced situations where my opinions or suggestions were ignored. Then a male counterpart said the exact same thing and everybody acted like it was the best idea they heard all day.
The assistant district engineer in Brainerd, Dave Smilonich, helped me get exposure to several different areas. He treated me fairly and equally. He and other mentors gave me advice and watched my back, which I needed.
As I matured in the organization, I figured out how I could be me. I learned quickly that whenever I began a new position, I’d be greatly tested. Men had the privilege of others automatically accepting their credentials. I didn’t have that. I had to work for mine.
Today MnDOT focuses so much more on hiring women and minority employees, which is great. But we still have a long way to go. Looking around at the managers conferences, I notice that a glass ceiling remains. In the management ranks, we have gender diversity but not racial diversity. MnDOT must continue working towards that.
One of the achievements I’m most proud of is changing the culture in District 6. When I walked in the door as district engineer, employees were used to a district engineer who operated with command and control leadership. I’m not like that. I work with people. And they work with me, not for me. We’ve brought a lot of diversity into District 6 in several ways and at all levels.
In December 2012, I went back to that same bituminous conference—now the Asphalt Paver’s Conference and Award Banquet. I walked in and was greeted by several diverse people—MnDOT employees and contractors alike. The landscape of that conference and the entire industry has changed tremendously in my 30-year career.
I am also proud of helping women in the department by paving the way and opening doors. Holding the positions I had has led to greater acceptance of women in some non-traditional roles. Together, we’ve proven that women can do the job, given the opportunity.
Before retiring, I was champion of the MnDOT-sanctioned employee resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning employees and allies. LGBTQ employees need to feel welcome and included in this department. I am honored to have been their champion, even though I know some folks questioned my doing that.
My advice for women and members of all minority groups who are new at MnDOT is to take advantage of every opportunity. Don’t be afraid to try new things and move to new places. Get out there and be yourself, because being yourself is pretty darn good. Otherwise, MnDOT wouldn’t have hired you.
I’ve paid forward what my mentors did for me. I nurtured and advised several women and men as they grew in their careers. And I gave many people opportunities to do different things and gain experience in other areas of the department.
Wonderful people make up this agency. We do great work, and I’m proud of the years I’ve served the state of Minnesota. Like so many, I never thought about a career in public service before I came to MnDOT, but I’m so glad that’s how it worked out.
Nelrae Succio (right) listens to stories and speeches from several speakers during her retirement celebration at the Rochester Truck Station in December. Photo by David Gonzalez