Celebrating 2023 International Women’s Day
For International Women’s Day on Wednesday March 8th, AORS wants to take the opportunity to amplify the voices of women leaders in the public works industry. Karla Musso-Garcia, Manager of Operations in the Township of Oro-Medonte, is on track to become the first female AORS President in its history. We took the time to talk to Karla about what brought her into the municipal world and how we attract more young women into public works.
Karla, can you give us a little insight into your background that led you into the industry?
I went to college for Environmental Engineering Technology with the intentions to have an impact on the environmental side of things. My dream was to work in the beautiful natural landscapes in Ontario and be canoeing while taking samples and collecting data. My program had a co-op portion and with that, I applied to the City of Barrie and was hired as a Parks Planning Technician working on the Master Parks Plan for the Ardagh Bluff EP land. Working with Kevin Rankin, he showed me the impacts of operations on landscapes. There I collected urban tree data with a backpack GPS unit in the downtown core and talked about how salt for winter maintenance affects the trees. Kevin showed me how we could do selective planting for pest control and for chemical resistance, so that we could have a tree that wouldn’t be killed by winter maintenance. I was fascinated by the impact of road salt and immediately was hooked. I saw that the most effective way to have a direct impact on the environment and in the community was to be at the source – where decisions were being made. I then moved into the operations department in Barrie where I worked with other mentors like Fred Haughton and Lisa McNiven. In that department I got the variety I loved – water testing, salt management, storm water, mapping, databases – it had everything! I worked in Roads, Water, Stormwater, Winter Maintenance and Road Occupancy and then moved to New Tecumseth, and now in Oro-Medonte. That was 19 years ago – and it feels like its gone in a blink!
What made you decide to take Environmental Engineering Technology?
When I was 16/17, I chose this route thinking that was the way to work in environmental conservation. My Dad is an agroindustrial engineer and microbiologist, my brothers went to school for sciences and my mom went to university for social sciences so it felt fitting to merge all of those interests. I knew I wanted to work in the sciences field as I love data and analytical work. My brother Jose took the same program and ultimately moved out to British Columbia to Royal Roads, so I thought that seemed like a neat option. Technologist work seems like a big puzzle each time, so it was fun and rewarding.
How did you get your foot in the door in municipal public works?
My college co-op program gave me this opportunity to work with Kevin in the Forestry Department in Barrie. It clicked for me – I could work in the community I live in, have an impact to the environment and get to play with data. It’s this all-encompassing type of work that keeps me on my toes. While working in Operations at the City of Barrie, I was tasked with legislative interpretation and how it would affect operations. I also had the opportunity to get my DZ license so I could learn about the trucks and the fleet side.
What do you find most rewarding about municipal public works?
To me it really is about making an impact in the communities we live in. We are tasked to be the caretakers of those communities and it’s not something I take lightly. With my knowledge now, I really get to see how my team is doing a good job without being noticed because people are enjoying their quality of life. We are silently making sure they get to work on time, that the roads are safe, invasive or noxious plants are not spreading, the roads drain properly, that we are being efficient with our vehicles and conscious of fuel use and our carbon footprint. Our decisions affect the lives of everyone in our community and that is so rewarding. I get to work with so many amazing men and women who want to maintain and improve their communities.
Municipal public works is very much a male-dominated industry, what challenges do you face as a woman?
Public Works has been looked at in a very one-dimensional way as an equipment operator – which has historically been male-dominated. Even just existing in that space, for example, when I started even simple things like safety gear for the industry didn’t come in women’s cuts or sizing. I remember going cold-patching once, the 1-ton truck had a landscape box on it and at 5’4”, I couldn’t reach the cold patch. There were also scary moments where working in water meters and entering people’s homes, which thinking back, is actually risky practices that are tolerated for men. Taking the opportunity to participate in Roadeos also let me see issues one could face and having the ability to point these things out has allowed me to carve space for myself and others. I have been extremely lucky to work with some great people and every experience has been a lesson, whether it be positive or negative.
I also sometimes find it frustrating being heard at times, in all aspects, since I do not have an equipment operator background. Public works is such a multi-facetted industry that we need to acknowledge that the skill sets needed are not one size fits all and we need to ensure that we create the space in the toolbox to be able to expand. For me it was hard to see how I fit in the industry at first, but I did have leaders who showed how I could make my own space.
Do you have a role model in the industry?
I worked with Lisa McNiven at the City of Barrie and in Oro-Medonte and she was an incredible role model for me. She is incredibly intelligent, and she led with a quiet strength and humble confidence. She knew her stuff as she had both a Bachelor of Science and her Civil Engineering Technologist diploma and she led in a different way than anyone else. I remember joining her when she was teaching math for operators, salt management and snow school. She took the time to understand many sides of operations and took the time to teach others the “why”. My relationship with her was one where she gave you a goal and objective and allowed you to use your skill sets to achieve it. I learned so much from her on how to navigate operations and how to participate in all parts of the jobs. It was a contrast from other leaders who believed “a good operator should just know…” which is a pet peeve of mine. Lisa showed me how to share knowledge. With Lisa, you felt like you were working with her and not for her which I respected. This is also how I felt working with Fred Haughton who was the Manager of Operations at the time. Fred and Lisa both introduced me to the Simcoe County Roads Supervisor Association Meetings. It’s also important to note that Lisa was the first SCRSA female President, and her encouraging me to join was the best thing as I met so many colleagues and was able to share ideas and bounce issues off each other.
For the industry, what more do we have to do in order to encourage more women to get involved? In your opinion, what is holding us back?
If you think about when you sell your home, you stage it so anyone can picture themselves in it and we haven’t done that in public works. Women find it hard to picture themselves in our industry, and that is something we need to work on because it’s such a rewarding career. We need to do a better job at showing what we do and introduce these types of jobs to girls – and youth in general – at a younger age. There are so many varieties of careers that we don’t do a good job at highlighting. Public works is so much more than just equipment operations and is full of STEM based knowledge that is a hidden option.
What advice do you have for young women wanting to get in the industry?
Learn about where you live – as I said before – public works is the caretakers of your community. Explore the trades, learn about construction and equipment. As I said before, Public Works is more than just being an equipment operator and there are so many careers to explore so find where your interests fit in and work in the community that you love.
As the newest member coming into the AORS Executive, you will soon become AORS’ first female President in the history of the organization. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, what does that mean to you?
It takes me a bit to absorb it and I need to step back to really take it in. It is an incredible honour and I am very proud to have been elected in the County level and then at the Provincial level. I’ve worked with so many wonderful people through the Simcoe County Road Supervisors Association and with AORS, past and present. This achievement is something that I have not done alone. Some have even pushed me on even when I didn’t think I could (thanks Don!). The origins of International Women’s Day are fitting to acknowledge a change happening in the industry. I am proud and thankful; however, I know there is still lots of work to do. I am thankful I get to show my daughter Kiera (pictured here) that if she wants to, we will make space for her and others too.
(Note from AORS: Wanting to encourage more young women into public works? Check out our “Why Public Works?” flyer here.)