Felipe Aliva and Holly Powell work in the Fitchburg, Wis., public works department. Aliva took a job there 12 years ago to build the department’s GIS database. Powell moved from her internship into a staff position after graduating from college.
Jeremy Crosby, city of Fitchburg Felipe Aliva and Holly Powell work in the Fitchburg, Wis., public works department. Aliva took a job there 12 years ago to build the department’s GIS database. Powell moved from her internship into a staff position after graduating from college.

The first days on any new job are daunting, but public works is particularly overwhelming. Armed with the latest skills and fresh ideas, the novice must integrate into an established workforce in an organization that encompasses an unimagined diversity of functions.

It’s not long before their communication skills and ethics are tested.

Some new hires are intimidated by the profession’s lingo and acronyms; others are impatient to implement change.

The first order of business, according to those who’ve been there, is to ask questions..

“I didn’t want to be that annoying new person, but it’s okay to be that person,” says Therese Vink, 33, capital projects and development manager for the City of Olathe, Kan. “Folks who’ve been there 15 years will be happy you’re asking questions rather than doing it on your own.”

Eric Dundee, 35, principal engineer for the City of Madison, Wis., suggests becoming familiar with current practices and the reasons behind them before pushing a “better” way.

“The answer isn’t always black and white or economically feasible,” he says. “Even though you have a solution, be honest about what you don’t know and figure out who can give you the answer.”

In a field as varied as public works, fitting in involves learning who does what. Experienced team members with different specialties will become resources and even mentors.

“No one can do it all,” says Holly Powell, 27, engineering technician II for the City of Fitchburg, Wis. “Focus on your strengths, because someone else in the group has one of your weaknesses as a strength.”

Next page: Encountering resistance