Sereno Finds Working as a Blue Collar Mechanic Was Good Preparation for a Career as Civil Engineer

December 20, 2013
Before becoming Director of Program Management with the Port of Long Beach’s Program Management Division, Douglas J. Sereno, P.E., ENV-SP, M.ASCE, worked over 15 years as a mechanic. Photo credit: Douglas J. Sereno
Before becoming Director of Program Management with the Port of Long Beach’s Program Management Division, Douglas J. Sereno, P.E., ENV-SP, M.ASCE, worked over 15 years as a mechanic. Photo credit: Douglas J. Sereno

In 1975, when the Ford tractor dealership in Southern California needed a master mechanic to maintain and repair its  fleet of backhoe loaders, skip loaders, Bobcats, trenchers, or Caterpillars, they hired a young man who had over 15 years’ experience getting his hands dirty running heavy equipment.

“My job,” recalled Douglas J. Sereno, P.E., ENV-SP, M.ASCE, “was basically to rebuild tractor engines, running the boring bar to bore out the cylinders, installing new pistons and crankshafts and things like that. It was very satisfying work because of the skills and craftsmanship involved. I liked what I was doing.”

“I had just started with the company when my boss introduced me to a young lady named Mariellen, who would later become my wife. We dated for three and a half years and it became evident that she did not like the smell of diesel oil on my hands. So she encouraged me to attend junior college and get a degree.”

Today, Sereno is director of Program Management with the Port of Long Beach. Each year, trade valued at more than $140 billion moves through the Port, supporting more than 316,000 Southern California jobs. Under Sereno’s management, the Port recently completed the later phases of the Middle Harbor Terminal Redevelopment Project, the early phases of the Pier G Avenue redevelopment, the Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement, and the Ocean Boulevard–Terminal Island Freeway Interchange.

“These are big programs,” he says, “ranging from a few hundred million up to $1.3 billion. We manage the project design, the permitting, budgets, schedules, etc. – the entire scope of the project. We then hand over the actual construction contract to our construction managers.”

Unlike those who knew in high school what they wanted to become in life, Sereno’s is the story of man who worked his teenage and young adult life as a mechanic and a blue collar worker. It was not until later in his life, at age 38, that he would graduate from Brigham Young University (BYU) with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree to finally begin his career as a civil engineer.

Looking back, he says, “I always knew that I could do more and my grades were extremely good [in high school], I had just gotten misdirected for a period in my life.

“But, having worked in the field of construction, and having to maintain the kinds of things that engineers design, [my background as a mechanic] gave me an appreciation and an understanding beyond the typical engineer. It helps me understand the value of good design and, in fact, it places parameters on what a good design is.”

This is the story of how Sereno went from being an ordinary hardworking mechanic to managing some of the nation’s biggest port-related infrastructure projects in the U.S. and becoming a champion of sustainability.

Running the Maintenance Shop as a Mechanic

Sereno and Wife


“I had just started with [the Ford tractor dealership] when my boss introduced me to a young lady named Mariellen who would later become my wife…she was sure that I could do much better than I was. So she encouraged me to attend junior college and get a degree.” Photo credit: Douglas J. Sereno

After about 10 years working for the Boise Cascade Company, in Hawaii, as a mechanic, Sereno began to seriously think about his future. His mother, who was living in Southern California at the time, was ill with cancer and he thought about moving to the mainland to take care of her. One day, he drove his jeep to the top of Mauna Kea, which overlooked the whole Island of Hawaii, to think things over.

“I was looking over this beautiful island, and I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do?’” says Sereno. “I’ve got to go take care of my mom but beyond that, I was not sure of what my future held. I was 28 at the time, I was a good mechanic, but was this really what I want to do?”

“As I looked out over the island, I said, ‘I love this; I love the environment, I love the people, I love this natural world.’ And I thought maybe I should somehow get involved in environmental engineering. Combining my mechanical aptitude to solve problems with my love for the environment and the natural world, I thought, maybe there is some way it can all come together.”

Born and raised in Hawaii, Sereno attended the University of Hawaii for a year before his father passed away unexpectedly. Wanting to help his mother, Sereno left college and cared for her until she moved to California with other family members. The Boise Cascade Company on the Island of Hawaii (Big Island) offered him a job as a mechanic on a mixed-used development project. The Waikoloa Resort, which included a hotel/resort, residential housing, and a golf course, would employ Sereno for over 10 years.

“I ran the maintenance shop,” says Sereno. “My job was to keep all of our own fleet of equipment up and running. We had a fleet of pick-up trucks, several Caterpillar [bull]dozers, road graders, front-end loaders and some skip loaders, rollers, and even a restored 1940 V-12 flathead fire engine. One of my most unusual jobs was to operate deep-well water pumps powered by dual Jimmy diesels [slang for a two-cycle diesel engine manufactured by General Motors] until those were converted to electrical power.

“This was a part of the resort’s water system for which we installed several water wells and all the pipeline work as well. We’d put in the distribution system and the contractors would install the deep-well pumps.  I then got to operate the system. We also had a package plant for wastewater, which I would keep up and running.”

Boise Cascade made Sereno a nice offer to stay with the company as a mechanic, but after discovering that his mother had cancer, he decided to move to Southern California. It was here that he went to work as a master mechanic for the Ford tractor dealership and also where he met his future wife, Mariellen.

“She was a nurse and she encouraged me to go back to school and get my associate’s degree in general studies, so I took math and chemistry not knowing what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “When the time came to make the choice, I first thought about being a mechanical engineer but I began to think about what kind of lifestyle I wanted. I always enjoyed caring for the environment – which I felt passionate about, living in Hawaii – so it was then [that] I decided to become a civil engineer.”

The Salad Years

Doug Sereno3

“During this period in my life I was just kind of making my way, realizing that as an engineer you had to wear a necktie and not have grease all over my fingers,” says Sereno. Photo credit: Douglas J. Sereno

 Both Sereno and his wife enrolled in BYU in the winter of 1982/83, he majoring in water resources and Mariellen in health care. He thought it would take him only 2 years to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees; however, it would not be until the spring of 1987 that he would finally graduate and accept a job with James M. Montgomery Consulting Engineers (today part of MWH Global).

“It was an interesting job, mainly to help the City of Los Angeles run their Hyperion Treatment Plant, the largest wastewater treatment plant in the city,” says Sereno, whose position was slightly above entry level. “James M. Montgomery was contracted by the city to develop the solids handling capabilities of the full secondary treatment upgrade. [My employers] knew that I had the maintenance background so I believe they wanted to hire me for that rather than as an engineer. And they wanted me to help out with the computerized maintenance management system, and that is what I did for three years.”

“During this period in my life,” he laughed, “I was just kind of making my way, realizing that as an engineer you had to wear a necktie and not have grease all over your fingers.”

Recognizing his ability to supervise, Sereno accepted several promotions fairly quickly, moving up the company ladder from staff engineer to vice president, until 2002 when he left the company to work for the Port of Long Beach.

Finding a Disciplined Way of Solving a Problem 

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“The valuable lesson Sereno learned as a mechanic was getting the owner or manager to provide the pertinent information needed to make an informed diagnosis.” says Sereno. Photo credit: Douglas J. Sereno

“One of the things I feel very strongly about is that the 15 years or so I spent as a blue collar mechanic was in fact pretty good preparation for the kind of work that I am doing now [with the Port of Long Beach]. Maybe not in the actual technical sense but certainly in the problem solving and the discipline that I have to follow,” he explained. “When I approach a problem or a project, I have a pretty disciplined way of looking at how we go about finding the best solution – knowing what the process is that we have to go through, and making it very logical and clear.”

He went on to elucidate, “When I was a mechanic and a problem would come in, the hardest thing I would have to do was sit with the owner and ask them to describe the problem, not what they thought I needed to do. They would come in and say, ‘Well, I need a new hydraulic pump’ and I would say, ‘Well, okay, can you tell me exactly why you think you need this? What is the tractor doing? Is it leaking? Has it lost lifting power or does the bucket not lift at all?’”

The valuable lesson Sereno learned as a mechanic was getting the owner or manager to provide the pertinent information needed to make an informed diagnosis. He also learned the importance of repairs taking the least amount of maintenance downtime or offering the maximum cost savings.

“I learned this lesson early on at the Hyperion Treatment Plant when we were designing pump arrays for the wastewater plant,” Sereno states. “Oftentimes we would have five or six pumps in an array and an engineer would design these arrays so that the mechanic would have to take out pump one, two, and three to replace pump four.

“I tried to let people know that you have to think about the operations and maintenance of these facilities when you design them on paper and there are other considerations that you have to think about. Without that background of turning a wrench or a pipe wrench on a fitting, some engineers just don’t have a sense of it.”

Champion of Sustainability

Sereno Training Forum

“I have come to realize that there is a huge benefit to society, if we as civil engineers can in fact influence how we build facilities and make them more sustainable,” says Sereno. Photo credit: Douglas J. Sereno

Three years after Sereno assumed his present job with the Port of Long Beach in 2002, its Board of Directors instituted what became known as the Green Port Policy: protect the community from harmful environmental impacts of port operations, distinguish the port as a leader in environmental stewardship and compliance, promote sustainability, employ best available technology to avoid or reduce environmental impacts, and engage and educate the community.“I realized this was an important principle,” says Sereno, who today is the local committee chair for ASCE’s International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure, November 6-8, 2014. “Although the Port can recycle paper, batteries, printer cartridges, etc., instituting the Green Port Policy can probably affect 85 percent of the dollars that this port spends on capital improvement and things like that.

“I became the chairman of the Ports Sustainability Task Force for about the first two and half years of the program.”

Involved with ASCE and COPRI (Coast, Oceans, Ports, and Rivers Institute), Sereno went on to chair COPRI’s Sustainability Committee before joining ASCE’s Committee on Sustainability. He has been a member of the COPRI Ports and Harbors Committee; Policy Committee; and Education, Mentoring, Student, and Younger Members Committee. He has also been a member of the Los Angeles Section’s Sustainability Committee as well as serving as its secretary.

“I have come to realize that there is a huge benefit to society if we as civil engineers can in fact influence how we build facilities and make them more sustainable,” says Sereno, who was also involved in the development of the ISI Envision Rating Tool. “The more I got involved with sustainability, the more I got involved with ASCE. The fact that I work for the Port of Long Beach gives me more of an opportunity, perhaps, than other engineers to put these principles of designing sustainable facilities to practical use.”

Sereno summed up his career by saying, “A good civil engineer can design a bridge or a treatment plant, but learning the operation, construction, and maintenance of a facility allows me to understand that people and organizations are going to have to build this, maintain it, and operate it. And, that communities and society are going to be affected by its performance and its impacts. I think it gives me a little bit of different perspective where I can talk easily with the maintenance and operations guys as well as the engineers and all involved stakeholders when we are developing, designing, and constructing our projects.”

1 Comment
  • Doug,

    First off I applaud you for going back to school and doing something in life that you have love and passion for. Also a inspiring article on a man who’s also a approachable humble positive leader as well.

    Thank you,

    Jim Barton

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