Focus on the Future
Ensuring that the transportation system of tomorrow is both efficient and environmentally sustainable is perhaps one of the most important challenges for modern engineers and legislators. A functional transportation system is like the backbone of a national economy. But, as we have increasingly come to realize in recent decades, transportation left unchecked can also have a major impact on the global environment. Finding the right balance is partly about using science and technology to make the best system possible, but it is also about actively monitoring our efforts and generating standards by which to continue to make forward progress on environmental issues like global climate change.
With sights set on the future, Shari Schaftlein, Director of the FHWA’s Office of Human Environment, is working to ensure that the transportation system is moving toward greater economic and environmental sustainability. As one of FHWA's top environmental officials, she coordinates with numerous federal and state agencies to develop initiatives, create programs, set and enforce regulations, and pursue new technologies that impact the environmental sustainability of the national transportation system.
More than just building new roads and bridges, Schaftlein said, a challenge for the next generation will be to maintain and repair the current system, while continuing to work to minimize transportation's environmental impact.
“The big question is, how do we repair, how do we rebuild the system we’ve built while adding new features?" She said. "What are we going to do with climate change? ? What do we want our community or our region to look like in the future? What kind of environment do we want to have?"
Schaftlein has been studying the environment since she was a high school student. Her interest in environmental science was combined with transportation during her work as a college intern and staff person for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. There, she helped create a plan to manage contaminated stormwater runoff that was polluting the Great Lakes. Later, she took a position as an environmental planner for the Quileute Indian Tribe in La Push, Washington, where she helped with a wide variety of environmental protection and natural resource issues. She was eventually offered a position at the Washington State Department of Transportation, where she worked on what she called a “fascinating variety of transportation issues.” Working in the Puget Sound region in the northwest, known for its tremendous ecological diversity, provided a challenging array of projects that prepared Schaftlein for her role at the FHWA.
"We had to put transportation investments in a very environmentally sensitive area, from waterfront to rivers to mountains to high desert. So, quite a complicated place," she said.
Schaftlein has been with the FHWA for nine years, and has since worked on an incredibly diverse array of transportation projects and environmental initiatives, such as FHWA's Livability Initiative. This initiative is designed to enhance the quality of life in communities all over the U.S. through increased accessibility to jobs, schools, affordable housing, clean environments, and safe streets and roads. Schaftlein said the diversity of such projects made each day a different challenge, and allowed her to work with people from a wide variety of career backgrounds.
“You get to work with people, from engineers to scientists to biologists to planners to social scientists ? so every day is different, she said. “I’ve been in this field 25 years and I can barely say I’ve done the same thing twice. There’s always a slight variation on a theme, so you always go home every day thinking about the new things that you learned, new people that you meet, and the problems that you are trying to solve.”
Schaftlein said that there was an incredibly diverse range of career opportunities in transportation for students with a variety of different backgrounds and interests.
“I think there’s something for everybody that has an interest in transportation," she said.
She also noted that, as the previous generation of transportation workers reaches retirement age, there will be a high demand for new professionals in the industry.
“Most of the interstates were built over the past 50 years, and all the engineers and folks who worked on those are retiring now, so there are many opportunities opening up for young folks and young professionals to get involved,” she said.?
She recommended that students who are interested in learning about the many career opportunities in transportation take a bit of time to visit the websites of organizations like the FHWA. State departments of transportation are another fantastic career resource to pursue. Today's students, she said, have an advantage over previous generations as far as conducting career research because of the tremendous accessibility created by the internet.
She also recommended that after doing research, students could benefit from conducting informational interviews with experienced professionals in their fields of interest.
"Maybe mentor or shadow them for a day," she said. "It’ll build confidence ?. and by the end of doing a few of those, then you’ve got some material to build on.”
Schaftlein noted that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Center for Environmental Excellence lists contact information on their website for environmental professionals from each state department of transportation. This could be a valuable resource for seeking out transportation professionals.
She also recommended that students in middle and high school take the time to learn more about college internships, through which many transportation professionals, including Schaftlein, herself, got their start.
With all of these opportunities available, why not get started on your own career research today? You can search for information on FHWA internship programs by visiting their website and searching the keyword "internships." For contact information, you can access the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Center for Environmental Excellence. Or, to learn more about Schaftlein and the FHWA's Office of Human Environment and its programs, click here.