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The City of Portland, Oregon

Portland Water Bureau

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Women in Water: Jasmine Varela, Operating Engineer

The Portland Water Bureau is celebrating Women’s History Month by recognizing the women on our staff who have made a mark on their chosen profession through hard work and talent. We share with you a series of stories about women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field who embody that achievement.

Women of the Water Bureau: We tip our hat to your achievements, and to all of the dedicated women who work to provide our customers with clean, safe and high-quality drinking water.

Jasmine Varela at work stationJasmine Varela
Operating Engineer at the Portland Water Bureau

What is your role at the Water Bureau?

As an operating engineer, I help operate, treat, and maintain our water distribution system. I maintain all of our pumps and motors within our system, making sure they are working efficiently and effectively.

Describe your typical day for us. What does that look like?

A typical day for me is a morning meeting within our group discussing our projects and activities for the day. Then it’s out to the field to complete my daily, weekly, and monthly work orders. Depending on my day, I can be repairing a pump, helping other districts with shut downs, cleaning tanks, repairing a regulator, investigating a pressure issue, operating our SCADA system, calibrating our chlorine analyzer, changing oil in a motor, and ordering parts for our various projects. These are only a few of the things that Operating Engineers do every day.

How has your experience been at the Water Bureau?

My experience at the Water Bureau has been one of daily growth, a thankfulness for my job, and the ability to find my voice among many. Starting as a utility worker apprentice, I worked for some great mechanics who not only helped me succeed, but enabled me to find my path. Being a member of the 2008 Women's National Pipe Tapping Team was the best experience I could have ever had at the bureau. It gave me a sense of pride in not only what I do, but a pride in representing our bureau. 

What is your greatest professional inspiration?

My greatest professional inspiration would have to be my mom. My mom raised my sister and I while going to school at nights at University of Southern California Medical School. She worked two jobs to not only keep a roof over my head and put food on the table but to put herself through school as a radiologic technologist. After my mom retired from her medical profession, she became a floral designer for the movie business in LA. She helped with the floral design work for three major movies and I was a proud daughter. My mom overcame many obstacles being a woman in the movie industry and always continued to push forward.  

Jasmine watches as two young girls go through a “Main Break Simulation” at a Women in Trades Fair workshop.What does it mean to be a woman in a field (or a bureau) where women have been historically underrepresented?

To be a woman in a field where women are the minority is a hard place to be. I think there are always people – whether male or female – who may think that a woman is unable to handle the job. Yet, there are those who also see no difference and find that a woman can actually do the job better. I feel that a lot of thoughts are due to upbringing and experiences. For me, I saw my mom do it all: work, cook dinner, change oil, fix things around the house, and love my sister and me. In turn, I believed I could do anything (within reason, of course). If you have confidence within yourself then you only have to prove to yourself that you can do that job and the others will see by your actions.  It also depends on the crew you get placed on. I had the best start with Otha Govan, Benjamin Campbell, Terry Tanski, and Rick Baldwin. They helped me to be a better utility worker by constantly helping me to learn.

Which women have served as your professional role models or mentors?

Again, my professional role model would be my mom. But outside of that, I would say my college volleyball coach, Lori Zielke. Lori Zielke was a true professional mentor in regards to coaching. She taught me how to love the sport, respect the conditioning, and to care for my players. Lori was the type of coach I knew I wanted to be when I finished college. She was tough, didn't need to cuss at you, and she lifted you up when you were down. She pushed you to the edge and was always positive. Lori made me want to do my best for her by how she treated us as young adults. She never tore us down and always kept us in check. I have had my fair share of coaches but Lori made the biggest impact on me and shaped me to be the coach I am today. She cared about us as athletes but as kids, as well.

Who should we be celebrating as “Women Making History” now?

Welders, mechanics, managers, CEOs, law makers, coaches, firefighters, police officers, equipment operators, and writers, among the few. Times have been changing, and seeing more women in any job where we have been under-represented is a celebration. 

What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in your field?

I am always talking to my volleyball kids about different careers and what they are interested in. I find that many still lack self-confidence and that breaks my heart. The advice I give them is to never give up on what you love to do, always hold your head high, and never let anyone tear you down. There will always be trials and tribulations but how you choose to look at them is what makes you better. If they want to pursue my career path, I tell them to start as a utility worker apprentice and let your actions speak for themselves. Don't ever be afraid to ask questions as that shows interest and helps you learn. The one who doesn't ask questions but “knows it all” is a failure and a liar. I would also tell them to help yourself by researching as nothing will ever be given to you on a silver platter and you wouldn't want it that way anyway. Put your best foot forward and someone along the line will notice but, most importantly, be true to yourself and who you are. 

What else do you want to share about yourself and your work?

I am very thankful for the people I have around me as an operating engineer. We have built a solid crew of players who are hard workers, have a willingness to learn, work together as a team, and are good friends. It provides a positive environment with effective work results.

Describe something about your life outside of work.

If anything, I hope my three-year-old daughter can look back and see what her mommy has done over the years at the Water Bureau, the strides she made over the years and the obstacles that I faced, and that she may have the same pride and self-confidence that my mother taught me.