Women in Tunneling

Jenn Sketchley - March 2020's #WomenWhoTunnel

By Christina Martinsen posted 03-01-2020 02:00 AM


Women In Tunneling features an exemplary female member of the tunneling industry each month in order to highlight the significance of having diversity in the underground field. For March 2020, we are proud to introduce Jenn Sketchley, Senior Project Engineer at McMillen Jacobs Associates! Read our interview with Sketchley below where she discusses her involvement in the industry, how she got started, and what we can do to attract more women to pursue careers in the tunneling and underground construction industry. 

  1. What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?

As a design consultant, I design and manage a wide variety of large and small tunnel projects from $3M to $300M. For example, I recently delivered a design to connect two new small-diameter shafts to a live, existing water tunnel. I have also worked with clients on large multi-million-dollar projects constructed with TBMs, sequential excavation methods, and drill and blast techniques. I collaborate with our clients to develop the optimal solution unique for each job. My work product includes drawings, specifications, GBRs, and other reports produced in collaboration with both internal and external team members as well as our clients. Additionally, I go into the field as the Engineer of Record, assisting in directing new construction, rehabilitation, and inspection work. For example, I have directed grouting work on both new and rehabilitated tunnels and have been involved on in-depth inspections of tunnel linings and ground conditions.


  1. How were you introduced to the tunnel industry?

I started my career as a structural engineer designing various foundation and superstructure components for London Underground’s Paddington Station upgrades as part of the Crossrail project. I had the opportunity to work on-site during construction and got a taste of the complexity and excitement of large infrastructure projects early on in my career. Tunnel engineering in particular caught my attention when I was involved in tunnel inspections in London, and I was eager to explore it further. After moving to Washington DC, I had the opportunity to be the design manager for a portion of the Anacostia River Tunnel for the DC Clean Rivers project with McMillen Jacobs Associates, and I felt like I had found my niche. Assisting owners in designing and delivering complex tunneling projects is something I find both rewarding and challenging.


  1. What do you believe women can bring to the tunneling business?

To me, diversity is just a way of saying you value lots of different opinions and seek them out. The process of inviting and exploring different perspectives is key to innovation no matter what field you are in. In our field in particular, increasing the presence of women will help our industry thrive. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, and we need all the talented people we can get to deliver it. Women make up more than 50% of the population and have a lot of talent to offer. If we can make our field more inclusive, in addition to the immediate impact on our projects and business, we can show our children and future generations that the tunneling business is accessible for everyone.


  1. Do you think the presence of women changes a tunneling work environment? Did you have different experiences in different countries?

There are definitely fewer curse words used whenever I am new on a site! But I think that we need to focus on the value that each individual can bring and create environments where everyone feels comfortable. Gender diversity is an important element in bringing a diversity of perspectives, but not the only one. We need to be welcoming and proactively make space in our industry for people of diverse ages, gender identities, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Ultimately, we should be focusing on the unique strengths that every person brings to the work and finding the best way to maximize everyone’s impact.


  1. Even though the number of women has been increasing over the years, the tunneling industry is still considered a male oriented environment. What can be done, in your opinion, to bring awareness of this business to a larger number of women?

We need to look seriously at the inflection points around when women enter and exit our industry. We have a high number of women who are entering the industry, but then transitioning out after 5 to 10 years. This is a huge problem for employers who have invested a lot of time in employees and then lose access to their accumulated skills and knowledge when these employees leave. As a first step, I believe we need to take a more proactive stance around flexible working arrangements and managerial training to support both men and women with young families through this stage. Otherwise, we will continue to lose engineers who could otherwise go on to be valuable leaders in our industry.

Thank you, Jenn, for sharing your insightful thoughts with the UCA of SME Women In Tunneling community. We are grateful to have you as a member, and proud to have you representing Women In Tunneling.