By any measure, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, current IBTTA president and commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDoT), has had a wildly successful career in transportation.
A native New Jerseyan, she has more than 32 years in the industry and 40 years in government service. She has risen to the top - but like everyone, there have been some low moments. More on those later. To start with, she is talking to ITS International about the importance of encouraging young people into the transportation industry.
“Transportation is foundational to almost everything we do: transportation is what gets us to the doctor, it is what fuels our economies, it is what makes us a global society,” she begins.
This is the sort of big-picture thinking which will get people – particularly young people – interested; Gutierrez-Scaccetti sets great store by encouraging youngsters in particular to see the interdependence of different modes, how things fit together: “For us it's critical that we enthuse young people, encourage young people, coach young people and really show them what fun and what vision they could have in transportation.”
She is particularly pleased to talk to interns at NJDoT, encouraging them to see the connections between the technology they habitually use – phones or drones, for example – and the work that the agency does. “We fly drones here. We use them for different purposes,” she smiles. “We want to understand your vision and we want to understand how we build the transportation system that will really serve you, which is a far different group than the group we were serving when we built the Interstate. So we really want to engage them, encourage them, give them a voice. And I think if we do that, then we will grow up a pool of young people that will be ready to take on the reins of almost any role in transportation, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti is clearly energised by these conversations. “They are much less fearful of technology, they're open to it,” she says of the interns. “They understand the ‘good power’ of technology and, honestly, that is such a big part of our future that we need those bright minds that have broad vision to say, ‘Hey, here's the simple way to fix this problem, DoT, or turnpike, or toll bridge – we can do these things much more simply because we can develop an app or we can tweak the technology to better serve our customers, whatever it may be.’ And they're just less apprehensive of adopting new things. And it's important for me to continue to encourage that: the best part of my job is when I can be around young people and listen to them and get their point of view.”
IBTTA is similarly supportive through its Young Professionals Council. Recent meetings have seen fruitful exchanges of views over returning to work from the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, or recruitment, how to conduct yourself at interviews and on workforce development more generally. The key is bringing together seasoned professionals in tolling and transportation with people who are just embarking on a career, “not just having conferences for the senior members of your organization,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti says
“IBTTA is a good forum for those kinds of discussions, for that openness,” she explains. “I often challenge our executives to always make sure they bring a new young person, whether it's IBTTA or other organisations I represent or speak at, because until we bring them in and let them see all the fantastic things that come with transportation – the economic development, the local aid, the technology, the way we benefit communities – they don't really get it.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti’s own story is a very useful recruiting tool. When she began her career in transportation at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, she was not happy. “For the first six months I was, like, who the heck wants to talk about asphalt and concrete all day? This is so boring! I just wanted to get into HR, and I wanted to negotiate labour contracts. So for six months, I was a baby: ‘Why did I do this?’ But that was my own fault.”
A shift in attitude was required. “I told this story to kids yesterday: I needed to open my eyes to everything that happens inside of transportation. So, I'm at the Turnpike Authority. We negotiate labour contracts. We have marketing contracts with concessionaires. We have government relations. We have community relations. We have plenty of engineers and maintenance guys. We have dispatchers - it's like running a little city. It's not just running a road. So when you start to tell them that, with almost any skill, you can graduate with almost any degree and have a valuable role in transportation because we have such a broad reach. So, I really try to encourage folks to bring young people to our meetings so they can see that.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti was at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority for two decades – so her honesty about problems at the start of her time there is particularly refreshing to hear. Opening her eyes to the possibilities was the beginning of a fruitful time. “I'm a very, very firm believer that we have to take responsibility for ourselves,” she says. “We cannot wait for someone to necessarily come and drag us out of our funk. Sometimes we have to be a little assertive. I wound up in the law department doing contract administration work. I'm a big believer in God's hand, and apparently, that's where I was supposed to be.”
She discovered a lot about practical aspects of the law: how bond deals are created, how procurements are done, how underwriters are hired. “And every time I had the opportunity to volunteer to do something, when they'd say, ‘We need somebody to do this.’ I’d go, ‘I’ll try!’ Whatever it was, ‘I'll try.’ And you know what? I had to make an investment of time, but that's really what seeded me to be able to continue to grow in the organisation, because I wanted to learn about procurement; I wanted to learn about finance; I wanted to learn about operations. It's what allowed me to have an absolutely phenomenal 21-year career at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.”
The flipside of all that enthusiasm and goodwill was how painful it was when it ended. “I'm also honest with them. After 21 years, Governor [Chris] Christie had other plans for my job, and it was probably one of the hardest times in my existence. But again, God's hand sent me to Florida where I worked with the Turnpike – it was inside a DoT. And then, finally, where do I land? Inside the NJDoT. So, your career is never a straight path, I don't think. I try to tell young people that every day is not going to be good, but there is good in every day. There's always something exciting, there are never two days that are the same. You're not going to come here and produce widgets, and then go home, and come back and produce widgets and go home. You're going to be challenged every day, because the infrastructure system is alive. It's not dormant, it's constantly evolving. There are always issues, so it is a very active ongoing role that we play.”
Resilience and sustainability
That role is also expanding. “A DoT’s lane is not as narrow as it once was,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti suggests. “And it's expanded not only in terms of transportation opportunity, but respect for the environment, for climate change, for resiliency and sustainability. Those are now all overlays on what we do: we have to think differently. And I believe our young people are going to be phenomenally good at helping us make the change, to pivot to that broader vision which is just going to be so essential to the success of our economy, to the success of our communities, and quality of life.”
We’re back to the beginning: she returns to her enthusiasm for the interns, their passion for technology. “You know, we're not going to let them slip through our hands,” she says. “Our young people, they energise me every day. They teach me every day. They impress me every day. It's phenomenal to watch them grow and to remind them there's really no mistake they can make that we can't fix. I really hope that folks that are at my level in their careers will embrace these young folks, and I think they have.”
Leadership happens at every level of an organisation, she says. “You may not be a leader in title, but by virtue of your attributes and how you handle group projects and working together, you always show leadership. Opportunity is always the opportunity to do well – but always remember the opportunity to do good, so we're all successful. We need to show that wherever we go, and IBTTA has been a phenomenally good organisation at doing both.”
Her final words are to her younger self when she started at New Jersey Turnpike Authority: “Open your eyes. Make things big, don’t make things small. See the possibilities.” She laughs: “If I’d done that at the beginning, I’d have had a happier first six months. But it worked out well in the end. I love what I do every day, even the days that sometimes I want to pull the hair out of my head.”
Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti: curriculum vitae
Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti was confirmed as the 19th commissioner of New Jersey DoT in 2018. She is also chair of NJ Transit, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
Before her current role, she was executive director and CEO at Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, a part of Florida DoT, where she was also a member of the policy-setting executive committee, which reports to the Florida secretary of transportation.
She started her career with 21 years at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, working her way up from a contract administrator to executive director, a post she held from 2008 to 2010.