On her first day at Mohawk back in 1979, Irene McNeil ’81 was surprised to find herself the only woman in her Transportation Engineering Technology class. She has since enjoyed more than 30 years in the transportation business, including a career highlight - becoming the first female General Manager at Markham Transit, a public transit agency in York Region.
Having a natural curiosity about geography, combined with an interest in the socio-economic forces that shape our environment, the Mohawk program seemed a good fit. It didn’t occur to her that this was not a typical career path for women at the time. Decades later, after enjoying a full career in transportation, she looks back at the various ways she was able to excel in a male-dominated field, looking to both male and female leaders as mentors, and becoming a mentor to many herself.
Upon graduation, from what she described as a “challenging but rewarding” program, she and her classmates were all able to land jobs directly out of school. Her educational path continued at the University of Waterloo where she was able to transfer her college credits to obtain a degree in Environmental Studies in half the usual time.
Her successful career in both transportation and public transit culminated in the position of Director of Strategic Policy & Business Planning for the Regional transportation department in York Region (just north of Toronto). “That is where it became really evident to me how critical good transportation policy and strategic infrastructure investment is to smart urban development. Effective traffic operations, a well-planned public transit network and smart development are critical to a balanced urban economy. ” she shares.
While at York Region, she maintained her connection to Mohawk through the hiring of co-op students, many of whom became full-time employees upon their graduation.
When asked to share some advice to students today, Irene thinks, “Having a natural curiosity about your field of study is critical.” She also advises, “regardless of technical skills, a successful student will quickly realize that strong communication skills are crucial.” She continues, “Whether it be with co-workers or the public, clear communication is needed to convey project objectives or the reasons behind sometimes tough, but necessary, decisions.”
She also recalls the value that she experienced in using a collaborative approach, “No matter what one does, there is always a better solution when there is consultation with partners. The end results are always better if there’s a multi-disciplinary approach to problem-solving.”
As she enjoys retirement, Irene is looking for ways to give back and assist the next generation of graduates discover their full potential in a rewarding career. She shares, “The Transportation Engineering Technology program at Mohawk gave me a unique insight into a very specific element of geography and city building. After more than 30 years in the transportation field, I came to understand how incredibly important the movement of people and goods is in shaping cities and regions.”