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Women breaking through glass ceiling at PSS

From left, Marge DellaVecchia, Jarka Vonder and Kris McCool of PS&S.-(LUKE GONG)

Engineering, planning and surveying are three professions that historically have been male-dominated.But PS&S, an architecture, engineering and environmental consulting firm based in Warren, is out to change all that with the recent senior-level promotions of Kris McCool, Jarka Vonder and Marge DellaVecchia, each now principals and vice presidents at the company.

PS&S’s Chief Executive Officer John Sartor said a culture of inclusion and diversity has been a part of the company since it started in 1962.

“It’s something that’s been in the company and, quite frankly, that’s always been the culture,” Sartor said. “My dad and his partners—that’s the way they always operated—and that inclusion has been maintained from back then. When I joined it was already there.”

McCool, an engineer who heads up PS&S’ Energy Services Group and oversees many of the company’s energy and utility projects, has been with the firm since 1997.

“I’ve had a very circuitous path,” McCool said, noting years spent on the environmental side of engineering, then heading a large design firm in Philadelphia, with time as a stay-at-home mom mixed in. “I can honestly tell you that I never knew where I was going to be every step of my career. Now I’m kind of going full circle. I’m going back to my tree-hugging roots.”

Although McCool said she has, for the most part, had a clear path in a male-dominated industry, there have been times when she was reminded of just how rare females in the engineering field can be.

“Sometimes when I’ve gone to professional events people are surprised that I’m an engineer,” McCool said. “I think that by and large PS&S is color blind to color or sex when it comes to promoting people. I’m very pleased with the number of women I’m seeing. STEM has been turning a slow tide. I try to keep my door open to women and to mentor them.”

Vonder, who joined PS&S in 1987, is the director of surveying and responsible for the execution and supervision of surveying projects.

“PS&S didn’t have surveyors then and it was a very exciting time for me to join the company,” Vonder said. “I obviously saw opportunities for growth in the company. Thirty years later, I’m still here. It’s been quite a journey. I’m living the dream.”

Vonder notes the pride she feels in having taken part in much of the development at formerly abandoned sites spanning from Jersey City to the George Washington Bridge.

“It’s amazing that these properties used to be abandoned,” Vonder said. “We’ve turned these abandoned areas into thriving areas. It’s still amazing that this is part of what I’ve done. We did the surveying when these were abandoned railroad yards and now they are communities with people who enjoy living there, so my journey was really very exciting and rewarding.”

Vonder attributes much of her success to the mentorship and support she has received from the company.

“I got to this place because I had tremendous senior management to help me along and mentoring me,” Vonder said. “It’s the policy of open doors from top management. Anytime there are issues, they say the door is open. You can thrive in an environment like this, there are many opportunities. Being a woman, particularly a surveyor, is not quite common, but I was given the opportunity and I took it. I learned leadership from the mentors in the company.”

DellaVecchia, a senior director and planner with PS&S since 2016, worked in government and the casino and construction industries prior to joining the company.

“I never really mapped out a career path with a clear, final goal,” DellaVecchia said. “When I went into government it was just a natural affiliation for me. I had a wonderful mentor who afforded me an opportunity as a woman to have a seat at the table.”

DellaVecchia recalls male colleagues in her previous career doing the same job she was and getting paid twice as much.

“I think PS&S recognizes capability,” she said. “They listen, they’re open to new ideas. Our firm will step out of the box.”

DellaVecchia said more women are still needed in fields like engineering.

“Engineering still has a ways to go,” she said. “There’s no line at the women’s room at engineering events. It’s still a balancing act for women in this field.”

Sartor said the company partners with several colleges on internship programs and is committed to mentoring new generations of young professionals.

“We work very closely with colleges and with undergraduates,” Sartor said. “Fostering this workforce starts in college. Eight percent of our workforce are interns. You need to have generational relationships. I’m positioning this company for growth in New Jersey and the region.”

Elana Knopp
Elana Knopp covers all things real estate for NJBIZ.

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