Ask an expert - It takes a village - AL DIAZ, ASSISTANT VILLAGE ENGINEER

Words from a nun's lips to Al Diaz' ear cast the vision that would guide his professional life.

"I had a high school physics teacher - Sister Ellen, one of the few nuns that taught me at Nazareth Academy - and she pulled me aside and said, 'You know, you're a really good problem solver. Have you ever thought of civil engineering as a career?' " Diaz related.

He thought about it and then pursued it academically at Bradley University, foundational steps on a journey that would lead to Hinsdale, where he became assistant village engineer in 2007.

"Fifteen years - a lot of people do know my face," said the La Grange native, a result of many interactions he's had with residents over the years.

The relational part of his job is among the aspects Diaz enjoys the most, helping homeowners, colleagues and contractors reach workable solutions on sometimes thorny issues around road upgrades, new construction or flooding concerns.

"You have to be able to verbally communicate either the project details or your ideas to any layperson," he explained. "You have to be able to read people so that you know how to talk to them."

At the start of extensive projects, Diaz said he conducts a comprehensive analysis to make sure workers can park, motorists have an alternate route and both can safely co-exist.

"I want to make sure people are getting to where they need to go and not getting caught up in a conflict with our contractors," Diaz said.

He acquired many of those skills in his first job with the Illinois Department of Transportation working on large-scale highway improvements.

"I went to IDOT for 10 years and kind of honed in on what civil engineers really need to know in the field," he said.

Longing for a more interpersonal dimension, he shifted to the municipal realm in Elmhurst and New Lenox. Instead of tackling one massive project, Diaz transitioned to juggling multiple items like water main repair, protecting trees from construction work and stormwater drainage. And making sure residents get their questions, and complaints, addressed.

"One of the biggest things that I learned is customer service: how to deal with people, how to talk with people. It's been educational," he said. "We know that if it gets to the point where you're calling the village, it's something serious."

Diaz has been able to diffuse conflicts between neighbors over property work, and he appreciates the lofty standards the village sets for staff.

"There's high expectations here for the level of service that we provide," he said.

Diaz encouraged residents to send him their home improvement plans beforehand to short-circuit any potential disputes and streamline the permit process.

"When we do go for submitting for permit, I've already looked at it once and I know what the plan is," he said.

The married father of two is proud of the profession he's chosen.

"I love coming to work, I love my job," he said. "This job is never boring."

- by Ken Knutson

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean