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A career in engineering: It's a glamorous way to go

From left, Brandi Popenhagen, Amy Grothaus and Angela Popenhagen are enthusiastic about their careers in engineering and the opportunities for young women considering entering the field. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Meg Heaton)

To hear Brandi Popenhagen talk, Taylor Swift and company have nothing on her and her fellow engineers.

“What we do is pretty glamourous. We design and help build things that will last a hundred years or more, impact people every day and change the world we live in. I don’t think Taylor Swift can say that.”

Popenhagen, along with fellow female engineers, Angela Popenhagen, (her sister-in-law) and Amy Grothaus recently sat down with the Star-Observer to talk about their careers and to encourage female students to start early thinking about a similar career for themselves.

Brandi Popenhagen is a transportation engineer with HDR out of Golden Valley, Minn., at work on the new St. Croix River bridge in Stillwater. She has been an engineer for 16 years.

Grothaus is a pavement engineer with Intertec out of the Twin Cities and has been at her career for 16 years.

Angela Popenhagen has been a civil engineer for 20 years and works for Stevens Engineers.

All three women live in Hudson with their families. They will also be together at the third annual Women in STEM+ on Feb. 12 to tell young students, especially girls, about what great jobs they have.

All three women graduated from the University of Minnesota with civil engineering degrees. They remember that female students in engineering were in the minority but that also gave them the opportunity to stand out among their male peers. They are not the type of women to be intimidated but over the years they have occasionally run into colleagues and clients who aren’t comfortable with women engineers.

They deal with that by proving the skeptics wrong. What they really would like to see change is the number of women like them in the field. There are, by most accounts, a serious shortage of engineers especially female engineers.

Brandi Popenhagen remembers her high school physics teacher as the first person who got her thinking about her career. “He made me believe in myself and as a result I started to think this is the type of thing I could do. I wanted to be independent and make my own money and this was a way to do it.”

She didn’t get the same support from her guidance counselor who when she told him about her plans to be an engineer, said “You want to drive trains? He was a nightmare.”

Angela Popenhagen said she thinks students can get intimidated by the math, generally two years of calculus and physics, “but you can get through it.”

Grothaus said science and math smarts aren’t the only things that matter when you enter the field. “Common sense counts as well.” She began college as a business major at St. Cloud State in Minnesota but was bored by her classes. She took up engineering when she transferred to the U of M. “The classes were hard but I really enjoyed them. I had a sense I belonged there right from the start.”

Her father was in construction. “He told me early on. Don’t be a builder; be the person who designs what they build. My parents were very supportive of my choice.”

Brandi Popenhagen attended the pre-engineering program at UW-River Falls before transferring. The program is designed to be compatible with the UW-Madison and U of M programs but allows students to get started in a smaller environment. And even as big as the U of M is, the women said the school of engineering is like a separate school where everyone gets to know each other.

Brandi Popenhagen was dating Angela’s brother and heard about the jobs Angela was working on. “I remember thinking I wanted to be part of something big like that, something I could point to and tell my kids I helped create that.” The St. Croix River bridge will be a pretty big thing she can point to.

Initially Angela thought she would be a math and physics teacher but by age 21 she had decided that engineering was a better fit, even if she was in the minority.

None of the women say being in that minority was an issue for them but they know others may make assumptions like that they didn’t have to work as hard as men to get where they are.

“Actually, it is the opposite. I think we work harder to prove that we know as much and are as good at our jobs as anyone.”

Grothaus said she has experienced some discrimination and resentment from a few of the crews she has worked with over the years but it isn’t something she focuses on and says her work on a variety of projects with a variety of people speaks for itself.

All say women engineers are a pretty tight-knit group and they support one another.

The biggest challenge these engineers face might be the same as most working women — how to balance raising children and managing a career.

Grothaus, who has two children, went part-time for a period to spend more time with her children. She has since returned to work full-time and is making the adjustment both at home and on the job.

Brandi Popenhagen said her number one requirement from an employer is flexibility. “My husband travels for his work and I need to be able to manage kids and work. That’s always in the back of my mind when I consider a job.”

Angela Popenhagen believes that balancing act will always be a challenge for women, regardless of their career. But with engineers in such short supply, employers may have to give a little more than usual to get the work done.

Brandi Popenhagen says the shortage of qualified people is reaching critical levels. She says there is currently a shortage of 100 bridge engineers. Grothaus said she knows of a company that has 150 job openings for engineers.

That’s why the women are excited to participate in Women in STEM+. They see the field as a real bright spot for good jobs for years to come, especially for women. And based on the things they design and build and create every day that touch and improve the lives of thousands, it is every bit as glamourous as being a rock star.

HSD presents third annual Women in STEM+

This special event is designed to expose Hudson students, especially young girls (K-12) to future opportunities in STEM careers The event will be held Feb. 12, from 5-8 p.m. at Hudson Middle School. Students will have the opportunity to explore science, technology, engineering, math, applied arts and manufacturing, meet and talk with several female professionals in STEM careers, participate in hands-on STEM activities and meet and talk with several local representatives from Minnesota and Wisconsin universities and colleges.

Businesses will have booths to showcase what they do and the careers that make up their business.

For more information about Women in STEM+ contact Melisa Hansen, School to Career Coordinator for the Hudson School District at (715) 377-3712, hansenma@hudson.k12.wi.us or Jodie Bray, Technology and Engineering Instructor, Hudson Middle School at (517) 449-8732, brayjf@hudson.k12.wi.us.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

(715) 808-8604
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