English major in a STEM world
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
When I first began working at CH2M, I had never heard of the company, even though I'm an Oregonian born and bred (as is the company itself)! Founded in Corvallis in 1946 by three Oregon State University graduates and their professor, CH2M (HILL) is known to engineers far and wide, especially in Oregon. But I was an English major, and back in those days the company kept a low profile and preferred to rely on word-of-mouth advertising. "CH2M what?" I thought.
After teaching English in Japan for three years, I began temping as an admin assistant before discovering that CH2M HILL had an Editing Department. At the time, only the Word Processing Department and graphic and CAD designers had computers, and we editors marked up documents with a red pen. I cut my teeth (sharpened my editing skills) on wastewater treatment manuals, environmental impact statements, and water rate studies. I told my husband I would only be here for five years, maximum. But I stayed for 28 years. Here's why I stayed for so long:
I love working with talented, innovative nice people. From the beginning, I was never made to feel stupid for asking a question, making my entry into the corporate world much easier. I like first-name kinds of companies, where employees email the CEO directly with their feedback or suggestions...and they respond. At CH2M, one of the founders wrote a "Little Yellow Book" to guide the way people operated, and he greeted every single employee, no matter their position, with respect and interest. And engineers and scientists are cool people! They tend to be no or low drama, the salt of the earth, and even though I prefer literary fiction and nonfiction over math and physics, I love working with people who are wired differently than me. But we have one important trait in common: we love to solve challenges creatively, so we appreciate each other.
Finding out what I love to do. The best companies provide ways for employees to bring their best selves. Although I started off as an editor, I always have found joy in writing. After having to rescue proposal after proposal at the last minute, I worked with a few others to pioneer the prospect of "proposal manager," using our writing and organizational skills to take charge of proposals instead of trying to fix them at the end. The consulting staff liked this idea, too, because they could spend more time doing what they did best. Years later, I reinvented myself as a marketing & communications manager. It is unfortunately uncommon for English majors to be able to use their education in their careers, so I have been lucky.
Reinvention opportunities in a company that cares about communications. In my career, I have worked as a technical editor, newsletter writer, proposal manager, group leader, staff manager, business development manager, and marketing & communications manager. For half my career I had the great fortune of working with the best of the best...I managed our Northwest Publications group of 70+ editors, proposal managers, graphic designers, document publishers, and repro staff in 7 offices in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, and Washington. After reorganization, I moved into marketing & communications. Because CH2M cared about quality, we had professionals who helped our engineers, planners, and scientists produce polished deliverables that met our clients' needs. Not all environmental engineering/consulting firms are this way.
A company that cared about making the world a better place. Safety, sustainability, ethics...these were CH2M HILL's core values. I was fortunate to lead communications for our sustainability and corporate citizenship programs, and I loved the fact we walked our talk in making the world a better place. Safety was emphasized from the top, through the ranks, and discussed constantly. We were named a "World's Most Ethical Company" for 9 years by Ethisphere Institute. We had strong practices in place to promote worker welfare. We had an internal environmental management program for 13 years. And we gave over $1 million each year to nonprofits that focus on STEM education and building sustainable communities through the CH2M Foundation. My colleagues mentored young people in STEM careers, and we sent employee volunteers around the world to build bridges and water infrastructure in developing countries. I was proud to work with people who do this kind of work, and I got to tell their stories. What could be better than that?
Flexibility and work/life balance. When I faced the biggest crisis of my life (my oldest son being born at 24 weeks gestation), CH2M, my boss, and my wonderful colleagues had my back. I was able to come back to work part time while he was in the NICU for four months and then take off three full months for maternity leave when he came home. And this was just five months into taking on the Northwest Regional Publications Manager role. I continued working from home on Fridays for 15 years at CH2M, and many coworkers were full-time teleworkers. When one of my kids had a daytime school event, I could go. When I wanted to take a day or a week off, I did. I was responsible for getting my job done and for doing it well. I loved the autonomy and flexibility.
Opportunities for women. The STEM world continues to be male dominated, although that's changing slowly. CH2M was a great place for women, and I was honored that we were the first large company in the architecture/engineering industry to have a woman CEO--a role model within the company and outside as well. When Jacque Hinman visited our Portland office, she met with women, sharing her perspectives and the challenges she faced early in her career. She was personable, candid, funny, insightful, and engaging. When she took on the position of CEO and chair, it was similar to President Barack Obama inheriting the banking crisis and the recession. She had to lead us through many difficult decisions to save the company and ultimately prepared for it to be acquired by mega-engineering firm Jacobs. During her tenure, she prioritized STEM education for girls and spoken widely about the importance of diversity in this industry. Jacque shared that in her next position, she hopes to do more to mentor women and girls.
After 28 years of a great career with CH2M, I left the company after the acquisition when it became clear that the new company did not value sustainability and corporate citizenship to the same extent. I will always be grateful to CH2M for the opportunities that STEM world gave this English major!