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Episode 184: Relaunching in the Transportation Industry, with Arlene Willis

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Episode Description

Arlene Willis relaunched into a demanding role in the transportation industry after a 13-year career break. She has been at the Florida Department of Transportation for over two years now, her first full time role after her career break, following a shorter period in a part time role while taking courses in aviation. Pre-career break, Arlene built her career in transportation systems, policy, technology integration, enterprise software development and planning for 9 years. Arlene has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and a master’s degree in transportation and highway engineering. She gets into detail about the resilience she needed during her relaunch and discusses upskilling in terms of having to “unlearn old ways and relearn new ways.” A great conversation with an inspiring relauncher.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today, we welcome Arlene Willis. Arlene has a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering and a master's degree in transportation and highway engineering.

She built her career in transportation systems, policy, technology integration, enterprise software development, and planning for about nine years before taking a thirteen year career break. She has been at the Florida Department of Transportation for over two years now, her first full-time role after her relaunch, following a shorter period in a part-time role while taking courses in aviation. We will talk about her relaunch and how she did it, including working in a part-time role as a senior program manager for the ITWomen Foundation, and how she was able to get back into a demanding role in the transportation industry after so many years away. We'll also talk about how it feels to be back now over two years after her relaunch. Arlene, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Arlene Willis: Thank you Carol, for having me. I really am happy to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: We're excited to have this conversation. Why don't we start by getting some background on your career leading up to your career break?

Arlene Willis: My career leading up to my career break was still in transportation, but with Broward Mass Transit in Florida. Then I moved, I had many breaks before the big break, one was two months and one was seven months. So I worked with a MTA in New York City as well. And, one of the roles that I did was ride-checking staff in the field and spot checking that they were conducting their accounts correctly, I also wrote business cases. The two most memorable for me were rerouting bus service away from the power plants throughout the Bronx and upper Manhattan, and also later reintroducing bus service to the Wall Street area. Both of those were prompted by the events of September 11th, 2001. The Broward County Mass Transit Division was where I started writing technical papers, and in particular, leaving a legacy of a bus ridership database, which they're still using today for route analysis.

It helps to inform decisions for the long range planning activities. Some of the technology things that I did at Broward County included working with transit signal priority and facilitating interdepartmental conversations so that traffic engineers would speak to transportation and transit planners on the whole idea of having buses communicate with traffic signals.

And that today is more commonplace than it was then.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So that's interesting, because of course, as someone who's not at all in this field the whole idea about buses communicating with traffic signals is, I guess, maybe something I was remotely aware of. But wow, it's very interesting and it shows just how specialized certain types of engineering can be and that there's this whole field of traffic engineering. Arlene, can you talk about what prompted your career break and how long you were on career break?

Arlene Willis: My career break was a three-stage process, two months, then seven months, then thirteen years. There was one break of two months when I moved from Florida to New Jersey and worked with the MTA in New York, and that was when I got married. And then there was a second break, two years, a year and a half later for seven months when I moved back from New York to Florida, and this was after September 11th. Once I returned, I worked again with the Broward County Mass Transit Division and then took another break with the second baby.

So, I had this break because I had family, I was a trailing spouse, and then my first born had some health ailments, and so I needed to take that break to take care of her. And it took me a long time to transition and restore my well being because while I was on that break, four years into those thirteen years, I also became a victim of domestic violence.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay.

Arlene Willis: I have now transitioned, and I've been very well since, and I have onboarded with the Florida Department of Transportation and doing very well.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm very glad to hear that now, and thank you for talking to us about something so personal, it's very generous of you. So, you were on a thirteen year career break, and can you just give us some more detail about when you decided you were ready to go back? And then, what were the actual steps that you took that led to you getting hired again?

Arlene Willis: I knew I was ready to get back to the workplace when I knew that my son was going to be safe walking from the school bus home. So before he was of age, that was my second baby, before he was of age to walk from the bus to home, I would have to meet the bus or I would have to pick up the kids at school. Just picture it, mom, I became single, I had two kids in two different schools with two different schedules, two different sets of extracurricular activities, and just one me. I had to meet the 4:30 bus every evening.

So I knew I was ready to get back once he was able to safely walk home.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I see, so then once that happened, that was a milestone moment that you recognized and were planning for when your son reached a certain age, then right after that, did you automatically think you were going to go back into something related to what you left or the same field, or was there any sort of a process where you were figuring that all over again before you actually went on the active job search?

Arlene Willis: Carol, thank you for asking me that question, because that was a question I was conflicted with during the break. It was never a break where I just never did anything professionally. I kept my foot in the door by working part-time or doing volunteer work within the field and outside of the field, of course, at my kids' school as well. And so when it came time to go back into the workplace, one of the key steps I took was to assess myself and to figure out for myself, did I want to return into transit? Did I want to return into the workplace doing something else? And what happened for me was I realized I needed to be in a dynamic environment. And for me, the transportation industry provided that. What I did was I went to a local college, I took some aviation courses, it got me waking up my brain, speaking to professionals, younger professionals, and just figuring out some of the new language that was being used in industry.

I also got a chance to work part-time in the aviation industry while finding myself again, because when you go through a break, especially for family, you change, you shift in ideas and you also grow.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So this is so instructive and revealing about a thought process. And I remember when we were talking earlier, you had told me that iRelaunch was helpful in your process. And I want to ask you, how did you find out about iRelaunch and specifically what within our tools and resources and community did you find helpful?

Arlene Willis: So, let me back up a bit, Carol. While I was on that break, I tried to marry who I was before as a professional in transportation and in the STEM field, in a STEM career as a woman, and also now being so involved in schools.

And what happened for me was I learned through a colleague of a part-time position with ITWomen, and I worked with ITWomen as the Role Model Speakers' coordinator. I got a chance to be in schools, share my passion for the STEM careers, and also introduce professionals to the schools for it. What ended up happening was my supervisor, my boss, Victoria Usherenko, who is the founder and CEO at the time of ITWomen, said to me, "Arlene people are trying to find you and they can't find you on LinkedIn, and they're not finding you online. You need to have a LinkedIn profile." I laughed it off a couple of times, and then I realized, it's time to get vulnerable and share who I am with the world. I created that profile and I put it on, then I started to reconnect with old colleagues and people I had worked with before and people who I went to college with before.

And when I was searching for how to go back to work, I happened upon iRelaunch, and Carol, I think all our communications with each other span several years, so, I really want to say thank you very much for being there. Because what ended up happening for me was the language that you used then, the posts that you shared, and the links that you provided gave me an opportunity to reframe who I was as a professional.

I wasn't just someone who took a break and now I want to go back. I was someone who took a break for a worthy cause and I was relaunching my career. So the whole language of relaunching and opting in came from my interaction with the posts that you had and so on.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm very glad that language and the thought process helped. I liked the way you call it, with the reframing, that's a very good way of summarizing what part of the transition we go through as relaunchers. So, you talked about when you were in the Role Model Speakers Program, it sounds like you were a role model yourself speaking in front of audiences, was it classrooms or students?

Arlene Willis: It was classrooms. That's Interesting you picked up on that one, because it was a really great fit, because my role was coordinating with professionals who have their busy work days, and the school administrators and teachers who wanted to share the STEM subject area as a career for their students, in particular girls. Because one of the key things ITWomen does is provide scholarships for girls who want to pursue careers in the STEM field.

So what used to happen was if I had a no-show of a speaker, I would be the speaker. I was the back up.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great. And it's really interesting too, because you weren't relaunched yet, but you had this professional identity and you were a role model. And I don't know if that was helpful in your mindset when you're going through the relaunch to already remind yourself about your professional status and identity.

Arlene Willis: Yes, Carol, you're right, it helped to keep me positive in my mindset because on the domestic front, I was going through so much emotionally and I had to find a way to stay positive. So for me, it was a way to stay positive. And not only did I work with ITWomen, but when I also went back to school in aviation and also worked part-time in aviation, that also helped me to stay positive. And as much as I didn't consider those as career moves, they in effect helped my ultimate career move when it was time to go back out.

So yes, it was a helpful mindset move for me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so let's now return to the steps that happened, that led to your role in the Florida Department of Transportation. Can you walk us through sort of a play by play what happened and how you got there?

Arlene Willis: Oh, sure. It happened in three steps. First. I decided you need to go back out to the workplace. And then I had to regroup or find my tribe again, which happened with my interactions with professionals on LinkedIn. And one of the key things that happened was a dear colleague of mine from many years ago, I reconnected with her and we decided to meet in person and have lunch. And then, her name is Thuha Nguyen, and she invited me to a Lunch and Learn, a professional event that she was hosting in the auditorium of the department I work in today.

I then started to look at vacancies and I had to apply for the vacancy online, but then I had this network that I could tap into to find out more about the position, more about the industry, more about the specific department I had even applied for. And that was really how I got back in the game.

It was a series of steps. You can always have passion. You can always have a need for financial security. For me, I really wanted to have a hope for a better future for my children. However, you have to take some steps and be willing to be vulnerable again, to reach out, to ask for help. And that was really what got me where I am today. And so, I went in and I interviewed and I've hit the ground running and I'm not looking back.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow, that's really something. When you were interviewing, did they ask you technical questions? Did you feel even because of the aviation courses, that there was enough relevance there that it applied to what you were discussing in traffic, or were you remembering the work that you had done before your career break when you were having those conversations?

Arlene Willis: The courses in aviation really helped to bring me back to center in terms of just professional language. They were not per se transportation engineering type courses, they were just to get me back into the professional world. Because you can just picture it, a person who takes a thirteen year break, a parent, male or female, you're home and you're dealing with kids, you're really interacting with the parents of your childrens’ friends and classmates, their teachers, the school administration, and maybe the counselor at the school. You're not really necessarily speaking to these people for the purpose of career, or for the purpose of profession. It was important to get back in speaking to other professionals.

So, in my interview, was I asked questions in aviation? Absolutely not. Did it matter that I had aviation? Yes, it did. Why? Because, I was being hired for a position in integration management, and one of the things that's happening right now is that we're having an onslaught of new technology in the transportation industry. We do have vehicles talking to infrastructure on the roads. We do have vehicles talking to each other in terms of connected vehicles. We are on the cutting edge of seeing the testing of electric vehicles, I know vehicles that are autonomous. And so yes, everything that I did before was relevant. One of the key things that was really relevant, though, for those thirteen years is the resilience that I think I bring to the table.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And we'll talk about resilience in a minute. I'm curious though, something that you just said made me wonder, was there actual proprietary software or software developments that had happened that you had to learn like in a crash course once you were on the job? And, how did you manage that process?

Arlene Willis: Thanks for asking. There have been many, because as you can imagine, a lot of things changed, everything, all the applications changed. The way tasks were conducted changed. What used to take four days could take ten minutes. So yes, I had to learn quickly and definitely onboard quickly.

Fortunately, the department does have a good training program. There are mandatory training courses, but aside from that, there are job related training courses that you need to take. So, I have taken quite a few of those.

Carol Fishman Cohen: It also sounds to me that there's so much innovation and technological innovation that's going on in transportation engineering, where you're just talking about electric vehicles and vehicles talking to each other, that maybe people who are even on the job already, who didn't take career breaks, are constantly getting training to learn new systems because they're being introduced for the very first time. Is that part of the business?

Arlene Willis: Yes, that is correct. That is part of the mix. That is, it is vital to stay "sharpening the saw," I think Stephen Covey is the one that coined that phrase. And yes, you're constantly learning and constantly evolving in the industry. And it is that dynamic nature of the transportation industry that attracted me to begin with very early on when I was younger, and even till today.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I want to just skip back now to the comment you made about resilience, and I wanted to know if you can talk to us a little bit more about that. It's complex and it also involves confidence building, and just wondering, how did you approach that? Do you feel like you're inherently resilient, or it's something you've built over time, or specifically it came into play during the relaunch?

Arlene Willis: Carol, all my life I feel like I've been evolving and evolving on relaunching and relaunching, because I am an immigrant to the United States. I am originally from Jamaica and all my life it's been a change from one stage to the other, whether it was from high school to college, which meant literally moving from one country to the other. And I did it in extremes from one climate to another. I went to school in New Jersey where it snowed. I'd never seen snow. I'd never lived in snow before. So, you better believe that having arrived there in August, by the middle of September, you had better change what you wear or you're going to freeze your bones off!

Carol Fishman Cohen: For sure.

Arlene Willis: So, I had to change, and it requires a certain amount of resilience to do that, to then wear pounds of clothes just to stay warm and do what you normally do. And with maturity, with just the geography of it all, and then with the knowledge, when you change from thinking of yourself as a child to know you're an adult, you have to take care of yourself and you don't have any family around you and you just move from one country to the other. So you have to find your bearings all over again and figure out where you fit.

I feel like I have been maybe just forced by the regular passage of life to be resilient. One of the things I do know is that I have a very strong conviction that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I am a Christian, I practice Christianity. And for me, Christianity is a practical everyday way of life.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I also want to skip back to one point that you mentioned, before we wrap up, that I realized I didn't question you in more detail about, and that was when your former colleague told you about that opening that was online and you applied pretty much through regular channels. Were you surprised that your resume was able to make it through their systems and you were selected because you had, despite having a career break in there, or do you think the focus was more on your past experience plus that the part-time role that you had in the coursework?

Arlene Willis: I believe right now that when my background was vetted for that position, that there was only good to be heard, because I had made quite a number of achievements in my career prior. And so the years of break where I kept my foot in the door made an impression that, "Wait a minute, she hasn't quite just let go the rope. She's actually staying in the game." And I have never asked that question to my employer, I probably should. I was interviewed by a panel. So I don't really know exactly who made the final decision that I would make it, make the cut to the interviews. But I have to tell you that I, I think I really scored highly.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You must have, you had a panel interview, and your resume, you had achievements that obviously made you stand out, even though you had a career break on your resume and you're in this very complex role right now. Actually, I had a question about that in terms of the level of role that you went back into, was that commensurate with where you left or did you feel like you had to come in at a more junior level post career break?

Arlene Willis: I did have to come in at the more junior level. I have come in at the more junior level and yes, there is an income gap, and there's also time on the job gap. So, there are some reminders that you really weren't here for all that time, because if you were here for all those thirteen years, you'd be so much further along.

However, I think if I had to do it again and make the decision for the family that I did, I would make the same decision to take care of my family, because I believe families are priority and they come first. What I have been doing since I've gotten back in the game is that I have done over and above what I've been required to do, and that I constantly stay in the learning process. I have had to unlearn old ways of being, relearn new ways of being and be open and receptive to learning new systems, learning the FDOT way, and just staying educated, I say, for the next step or the next opportunity.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great advice. Arlene, I'm curious, you're two years in now, you've relaunched, you're established in your role. And I'm wondering if you look back, do you still consider yourself a relauncher and identify as a relauncher?

Arlene Willis: Right now I am taking a course, a certification of course in project management. It's associate project management. So I think, yes, I do consider myself a lifetime relauncher, because when you're in a position and you need to go to another level, that's taking a lot of relaunching effort again.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Exactly. We need to wind up now and I want to ask you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something we've already talked about?

Arlene Willis: Carol, there's so much. I would start off by saying, believe in yourself, believe in your creator, and then make a decision on what you're going to do next. And when you make that decision, be willing to shift gears, find your tribe again, and be open and receptive to refresh. Unlearn some things and learn again and keep learning.

And then reach out to your network. Because at one time you came out of the game, the onus is on you now to get back in the game. And so, you're the one that is going to need to do the heavy lifting in terms of reaching out to colleagues and rebuilding your network. Those are what I would share with our listeners.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Excellent, excellent advice and an excellent recap of some of the top strategies, and what an example you've been of every one of those. Arlene, thank you so much for joining us today.

Arlene Willis: Thank you, Carol, for having me. Thank you very much.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break.

I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to

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