September 21, 2017
by Shanna Crigger, Graniterock
The traits and skills that allow Jennifer Wilson to navigate a foreign country on her mountain bike, for months at a time, are the same qualities that make her a well-respected Caltrans engineer.
The 17-year veteran of the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) Division of Construction, responsible for overseeing infrastructure projects in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, is known as a problem-solver, someone who plans ahead and deals honestly with contractors.
“Jen is smart and knows the specs and what’s required with every job,” says Karl Philipovitch, a Graniterock construction area manager. “She also brings a practical approach to problems and issues.”
As a senior engineer, Jennifer’s role requires she work closely with the contractors who win Caltrans jobs in her region, ensuring the projects are built according to state plans and standards.
The work involves managing a wide range of issues, including materials testing, inspections, and change orders.
Her favorite project has been the nearly $50 million San Juan Road/Highway 101 interchange from 2013-2015 in Monterey County, due to its complexity and success in improving the busy corridor’s safety for drivers.
“My whole goal with any project is to deliver the product we’re supposed to deliver,” Jennifer says. “I want to make sure the public is happy and that the Caltrans maintenance guys are happy, because they’re the ones who have to maintain what we build forever.”
Jennifer grew up in Redding with an owner-operator stepfather, who often brought her to job sites and showed her the equipment and how each piece works — from backhoes and excavators to dozers and water trucks. Knowledge from those childhood experiences paid off down the road, as she relates well to the contractors building highways, retaining walls, overpasses, bridges, and other state infrastructure.
Jennifer graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in environmental studies in 1998 with hopes of landing a job that would let her “save the world.” She soon discovered pay in nonprofit environmental work probably wouldn’t lead to world travel and homeownership, which motivated Jennifer to put her math aptitude to work and earn a civil engineering degree at UC Berkeley.
Life outside of Caltrans for Jennifer is marked by serious wanderlust and a bucket list 17,000 feet high. The Aptos resident and her boyfriend Todd take stretches of time off to trek Nepal’s 100-mile Annapurna mountain range, pedal their mountain bikes through New Zealand, or explore Patagonia.
The Continental Divide mountain bike trail, just shy of 3,000 miles from Montana to New Mexico, got crossed off her list a few years ago. However, when the adventure is over, she’s happy to come home and get going on the next big project.
“Mountain biking is my passion in life,” Jennifer says. “But I love my work, too. I’m really lucky.”