Jacqueline Patterson: On the right track

June 2014 » Exclusive
After years in the field of rail design and engineering, Patterson has established herself and J.L. Patterson & Associates as one of the best in the field with no plans of slowing down.
Maureen Foody

J.L. Patterson & Associates

Established: 1990

Headquarters: Orange, Calif.

Size: More than 100 employees in four offices

Ownership: Private, S-Corporation

Website: www.jlpatterson.com

Primary services: Engineering design, construction management, and environmental services

At a time in their lives when most engineering students were simply beginning to learn the foundation of their education, Jacqueline Patterson was already well versed in the subject matter. The only problem was she couldn’t speak it in the new language. At age 19, Patterson was forced to flee her home country of Nicaragua after civil unrest threatened her and her family. She was already in the midst of studying engineering at the local university, but her mother encouraged her to set out for a new home and avoid the potential danger of remaining behind. 

“I applied everywhere I could think of that would allow me to continue engineering and I got accepted into Concordia University in Montreal,” said Patterson. This relief was short lived as she soon realized another problem: Everyone in Montreal spoke either English or French and as a native Spanish speaker, her English skills were barely suitable for conversation. She had to play catch up and dedicated one semester to immersing herself in the languages just to be able to communicate and understand the technical terminology required by a demanding major. After absorbing all she could in an impressively brief time, she quickly jumped back into her studies, achieving her Bachelor’s Degree in 1982 when she was awarded the Civil Engineering Medal, a coveted prize given to the individual with the highest GPA in the graduating class; and then obtained her Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering in 1983.

“Upon graduating, the job market for civil engineers was very challenging. My brother Rene said they were thinking about building a metro system in Los Angeles and suggested I try to find something in that field,” Patterson said.

She was soon hired by a national firm — Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall (DMJM), which is now part of AECOM — to work on the initial segment of LA’s Metro system. “It was fantastic being able to see the program from the very beginning,” Patterson said. “It was an exciting time as Metro had a tremendous amount of opportunities since they were starting a 20-year plan of bringing back passenger rail systems to LA.” 

Jacqueline Patterson, P.E., and two members of the J.L. Patterson & Associates team in 1999 perform construction management on a project that later became the Metrolink system.

Beginning as a junior track engineer, Patterson was able to combine her civil engineering studies and dedicated work ethic to learn everything she could about rail engineering. “It was really the luck of the draw that they were hiring, but from there I did the best that I could and I just fell in love with rail projects,” Patterson said.

Patterson soon noticed how the goals for diversity within the programs were high. “I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘I am a woman, a Hispanic, and I’m an engineer and there is a need for me to put myself out there.’ No major contract could be awarded without the participation of minority contractors.” 

Thanks to her experience and positive relationship with DMJM, Patterson set off with their blessing and eventually formed her own firm in 1990, J.L. Patterson & Associates. “At first, they didn’t want me to leave, but they said if you go and that’s your decision, then we’ll definitely consider you as a subconsultant. That’s how I got the stomach to finally take the risk of starting on my own,” joked Patterson. 

The first contract Patterson received was to work on the construction of the Metro Blue Line from Long Beach, Calif., into Los Angeles. At the company’s inception, the greatest challenges were definitely financial, but also in finding the right mix of people to join the company and help it continue to grow. Patterson elaborated: “Even today, 24 years later, it’s still the same challenge, but at a different level. Finding qualified staff to work in our firm, which is now over 100 employees, is still a very involved process. We have to make sure they have the skills to help us and keep our clients satisfied.” 

Patterson is also a guest lecturer at the Sonny Astani School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Southern California. “I was approached by Professor James Moore, who asked if I would consider sharing some of my railroad engineering experience with the students. I know how much railroad engineering awareness is required and how that subject is not widely taught at universities so not many students consider it. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to expose students to the field,” explained Patterson. 

Jacqueline Patterson, P.E., early in her career, stands at the City of Orange, Calif., Metrolink Station where the firm did design and construction inspection.

She has been teaching classes now for four years; her class began as an elective for the Master’s in Civil Engineering Curriculum at USC. “Now I see students working in the field and even get to team up with them sometimes. It’s wonderful to be rewarded by sharing that knowledge and seeing students fall in love with the subject, then pursue it themselves. I truly believe we have a responsibility in training our replacements and exposing the next generation of engineers to different ideas; show them the opportunities out there that they may be unaware of,” she said.

“We as engineers have a tremendous responsibility for creating and maintaining the infrastructure of the world. Railroad engineering is a rewarding side of that profession, but we’re competing for talent with the computer and technology markets as well as other facets of engineering that perhaps can be a little bit more glamorous than civil engineering. Yet, we’re the ones who take care of the foundation of society,” said Patterson. “I’ve been in love with it since I was a little girl and I think it’s a wonderful and honorable responsibility to be able to share that with students as an option.” 

Patterson always exhibited a penchant for math and physics while growing up, and a tremendous high school teacher, Diana Soza, suggested civil engineering as a possible field for Patterson. “If I can be just a little bit of Diana Soza to the next generation and show them the possibilities in this field, it would make me very happy,” Patterson said.

Patterson is a big proponent of spreading the awareness that civil engineering consists of diverse fields and paths within it. J.L. Patterson & Associates stands as proof of how one can find success with discovering a unique niche. “If you don’t know something exists, then how can you choose it? If we’re not out there interacting with kids and showing them that it is a wonderful way to earn a living, then we’re not in competition for that talent,” Patterson said. 

Jacqueline Patterson, P.E., and other members of the firm received Bentley Systems’ 2013 Be Inspired Award for Innovation in Point Cloud Processing and Management.

Particularly in the rail engineering business, Patterson is noticing a large gap between those with experience and those just entering the field. “For so many years, our industry was not hiring younger workers so there are a lot of seasoned professionals retiring and many people brand new to the field. The middle layer is almost nonexistent. We’re taking half a generation just to get up to speed. It’s a challenge and an opportunity to replace experience like that,” said Patterson, who works to show the potential of the field to young students and those who work at her firm. “There are so many transit projects in this country and the freight railroads have a lot of work. With all the talk about high-speed rail, not only here but in Europe, rail is experiencing a huge renaissance.” 

“My advice to those starting out or even considering engineering, is that the field can be very diverse. If you want to design buildings, you have a place. If you want to design a highway, there is a place. Our infrastructure is in need,” Patterson advised. Furthermore, if one is considering starting their own company, Patterson advised to offer something unique, “Many times, you see general engineering firms that don’t claim a specialty. I saw the opportunity in rail after my own experiences. You have to have that laser focus, but also become proficient and better than anyone else. Then you start creating your client base and you tend to that base so it remains steadfast and keeps growing. Nurture your clients and they’ll stay with you for years to come.” 

From being granted diversity awards to being named as one of the best firms to work for, J.L Patterson & Associates has been in the spotlight for offering exemplary service to its clients while expanding from the initial opening office in Orange, Calif., to branches in Washington, Idaho, and Florida. Two particular awards rang out to Patterson as proof of having such a dedicated and hardworking staff. First was the Rosa Parks Diversity Leadership award from the Orange County Chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), which honored the diversity within J.L. Patterson. The office has employees from more than 25 countries and strives to make everyone in the office heard. Second, in November 2013, the firm was awarded first place at Bentley Systems’ Be Inspired Awards for Innovation in Point Cloud Processing and Management. “With firms from all over the world participating, it was so exciting to hear our name announced and be recognized for the hard work everyone puts forth,” said Patterson (see “TITLE” on page xx).

When not in her roles as professor or CEO/president, Patterson enjoys traveling with her family, including her daughter Janelle (age 25) who is pursuing a law degree and son Kyle (age 26), a licensed professional engineer who also works at J.L. Patterson & Associates. 


Some employees of J.L. Patterson & Associates pose outside the firm’s office.

“Two weeks out of the year we still travel as a family and we’ve been all over the world. It’s almost a bug that you catch, so every year you wonder where else you can go. And every time I go anywhere, if there’s a new rail line, you bet I’m going to take it to visit places but also see it working,” Patterson said.

Patterson also enjoys running long distances, which she said not only keeps her healthy physically but helps clear her head after a long day at the office. “I really love to hit the trail and I’ve done two marathons and six half-marathons so far. I’m currently training for my seventh,” she said. 

But mostly, Patterson enjoys spending time with her long-term partner, Marc, and children. “Now they’re not just my kids, but they’re my friends and they’re great adults — not only with their own professions but who they are as people,” she said. “They carry their own weight, which is such a great thing to see.”

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at maureen.t.f@gmail.com.


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