Power To Choose

Laurie McCarron (2006)

The Gap: One Engineer's Story 

Grande Prairie’s Dunvegan Bridge connects the hilly banks on either side of the Peace River. Not only is it Alberta’s only vehicle suspension bridge, but with an impressive span of 550 metres, it is also the fourth longest structure of its kind in Canada.  Laurie McCarron, 33, a bridge engineer with MPA Engineering Ltd.'s Grande Prairie office, is proud to be among the small number of the province’s engineers who are qualified to carry outwork on the Dunvegan Bridge.

Our company does everything from inspection to design – building new bridges and repairing older ones.  We work mainly on smaller, freestanding bridges, but I have been able to do certain types of work on bigger structures like the Dunvegan.”

McCarron says that one of the things she enjoys most about her position is that there is always something new to learn.

Learning new things can be a challenge to some people, but I find challenges to be part of the fun.  Every time I’ve gone to a new job, there’s more to learn.  For my job, it takes five years minimum to get the necessary training to work on bridges. Our office gets calls from guys who have been in the engineering business for 30, 35 years who call us to ask questions about bridges. I think that it’s exciting to think you can be part of this industry for that long period of time and still feel challenged by your work.”

Growing up, McCarron was good at construction and design, but thought she’d probably end up working as a carpenter, not an engineer.  “When I was young, I remember that there was a couple who had a carpentry business set up in the basement of a local church. I would go there after school and I learned to build tables and chairs and all sorts of crafty things. I think that’s what got me headed in this direction.”

Even in her first year at Grande Prairie Regional College, building bridges was not on McCarron’s radar screen In fact, she admits that she didn’t know what an engineer was back then.  “I told my college counselor that I liked math and science, but that I didn’t want to be a biologist or go into the medical field.  She recommended engineering and arranged for me to meet a couple of local engineers. If I hadn’t gone to see my counselor, I never would have chosen this career simply because I didn’t know what it was about.”

McCarron, the daughter of an electronics technician, finished her first year at Grande Prairie Regional College and then completed her engineering degree at the University of Alberta.  “My parents were always supportive. Their attitude was always, ‘Do whatever you want to do,’” she says.

Upon graduating in 1996, McCarron started her career as an engineer at an oil company before going on to positions with the City of Grande Prairie and then to a surveying firm that built roads.  “One day, we were working on a road when we came to a bridge. So I asked who does this and how do they do it? The next thing I know, I’m working for this bridge company.”

Although she is one of the very few Aboriginal women working in Alberta’s engineering industry, McCarron says she has not encountered any significant discrimination.  “Before my current job, I rarely worked with any women but fortunately, I have never had any real problems with discrimination. There may have been the odd time, but it certainly hasn’t been a dominant experience,” she says.

Today, McCarron is in good company as one of three female engineers in an office of 20 people. She also appreciates working for a firm that is considerate of her needs as a busy, working mom.  “I have a two-year-old daughter and am now expecting my second child in June,” she says. “MPA Engineering has been really great at accommodating my hours so that my schedule is flexible and I have some balance in my life.”

Away from the office, McCarron enjoys spending time with her family, being outdoors, playing sports and yes, doing some carpentry.  “I’d love to do more, but it’s hard to find the time or the work space. So for the time being, my carpentry is limited to doing renovations around the house,” she laughs.

When asked if she would recommend engineering to other young women, McCarron does not hesitate. “I would definitely say ‘go for it!’ Don’t let anything hold you back because there’s really nothing to be afraid of,” she says. “This is a great field to get into – it’s good pay, stable employment, challenging work and it opens the door to unlimited opportunities. I can really go almost anywhere to work now, but my home is in Grande Prairie.”

written by: Barbara Chabai