Elvan Childs, a senior civil works project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, says clear and open communication is the key ingredient for successful project management.
Childs cheerfully states that project management is her “dream job”... though it took 24 years and 11 job changes to achieve that dream and come to California, so perseverance is also important.
“I know it used to be said that changing jobs too often showed a lack of loyalty, but I never had any problems when I explained to an employer my reasons for moving on and advancing,” says Childs. “That’s how I built my skill set, working in so many different industries.
“I don’t think Generation X sees job change as negatively as previous generations,” she adds. “Project management with the Corps is the career I have always wanted.”
“When I assumed the project manager position for the Marysville Ring Levee, shortly after arriving in Sacramento District, I made sure to visit with our partners in the Marysville Levee District, the City of Marysville and the Yuba County Water Agency,” says Childs. “I prefer to talk to people in person, whenever possible.”
“Relationships are key to what we do in the Corps, knowing all partner organizations’ goals and strengths,” she says. Currently, her assignments include projects in the Yuba River Basin and Napa, California.
“Civil works projects are seldom simple,” she says. “A project manager’s biggest responsibility is to keep the whole team, federal and non-federal partners, clear and focused -- confusion is the worst enemy.”
Born and raised in western Turkey on the coast of the Aegean Sea, Childs earned her undergraduate degree in industrial engineering in 1991. After graduating, her first three jobs were with a meat-processing facility, a ceramic tile manufacturer and the information technology department for a Turkish banking firm preparing for Y2K.
Those seem like three widely divergent businesses, but Childs says process is the common thread. “Processes are key for an industrial engineer, conducting work studies and time studies to determine how to reduce costs, increase efficiency and optimize processes,” she explains.
Her parents have vacationed in the U.S. for many years, and in 2000 she and her mother visited Manhattan. Flying back to Turkey, they spoke with some enthusiastic Turkish students who were studying in the States.
Childs chose to pursue a master’s degree at Portland State University based on the strength of the engineering management department. She carried 16 credits per term and became a graduate assistant to pay for her degree.
The terror attacks of September 11 occurred as she was completing her masters. “It was difficult to get a job in the U.S. as I was on a student visa,” she says.
Good fortune smiled on her when she applied and was selected in the U.S. Department of State Diversity Visa Lottery (known as the “Green Card Lottery”), a program that awards permanent resident status to some 50,000 applicants each year.
“Some say it’s because my birthday is the Fourth of July,” she jokes.
She was hired in 2003 by the Portland, Oregon, office of CH2M Hill, a global engineering firm.
“I started in project controls, as the right-hand person for a project manager,” she says. “That is a very detail-oriented post.”
She gathered a wealth of construction design experience, a deep understanding of project budgeting, scheduling and a whole lot of travel miles. “I had 48 projects over a span of six years with CH2M, including some in Dubai, Australia, Korea, Hawaii and both the east and west coasts of the U.S.,” says Childs.
She married in 2008. She and her husband John, a civil engineer, met while both worked at CH2M.
She worked with Black & Veatch Corporation in 2009 as a project controls manager in their energy division, becoming familiar with hydropower projects.
“I moved to the Corps in 2010 as a project manager with Portland District, and I felt that was totally my dream job,” she says. “I had two great Corps mentors, both of whom were on the verge of retirement when I arrived and they taught me so very much.
“My projects included a lot of variety: ecosystem restoration, habitat creation, dredging and lots of hydropower work with Bonneville Power Administration,” she says. “It was really, really good for my professional development.”
Later in 2010, her husband was offered a job at the Corps’ Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi. They went to ERDC in October and she accepted a post as a research engineer with the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory at ERDC.
In this ERDC assignment, she got the opportunity to work with Adaptive Hydraulics (computer) Modeling during the time of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The first time I saw an Advanced Hydraulics Model running, mimicking how the oil spill would travel, I realized how valuable this kind of model would be for projects including ecosystem restoration back in Portland District,” she said. She shared this possibility with leadership in Portland, leading to the creation of a Columbia River Model for Portland District.
“I met a lot of great, very well-educated professionals through ERDC,” said Childs. “But we made a decision as a family to return to the Pacific Northwest” and she resumed her project management position in Portland District in 2014.
Finally, in mid-2016, all the stars seemed to align for the couple when she was selected as a civil works project manager in Sacramento District. Husband John, a native Californian, was happy to return to the Golden State and she regained her dream job as a Corps project manager.
Away from work, Childs shares her passion for engineering through workshops with high school and college students.
“I challenge students to find out what kind of day-to-day environment they will work in if they choose a particular branch of engineering,” she says. “One of my personal goals is to help them make very conscious choices in their path so they wind up with an extraordinary career that matches up with their personal values” … and perhaps their dream job.