Meet the Secretary: Omer Osman Reflects on IDOT Journey

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Meet the Secretary: Omer Osman Reflects on IDOT Journey

Secretary Omer Osman speech

It’s been a long road for Omer Osman. A native of Sudan who learned English by watching westerns and soap operas. Graduate of a historically black university in the South. Father of three, ages 19, 17 and 15. Husband to a physician. History buff. Lifelong learner. Champion of diversity.

Now, he’s the 13th person to lead the Illinois Department of Transportation as its Secretary after being confirmed June 1. Osman was appointed to the position in 2019 by Gov. JB Pritzker.

“Being a civil engineer, leading an agency like this is something you aspire to reach,” he said. “After 31 years here, I feel like I’m still learning. I still have the drive to know more. Just to be a part of putting together the overall puzzle is a tremendous honor.”

Osman started at IDOT 31 years ago as a civil engineer trainee in District 4 in Peoria, gradually ascending to become the district’s bureau chief of operations. He moved on to become Region 5 engineer and, later, chief engineer, director of highways and deputy secretary. In his current role, he is the third secretary to spend their entire career with the agency before being appointed by the governor.

Osman is humbled and honored by his latest opportunity, a welcome challenge in a life and career filled with many.

“We are one of the best departments of transportation in the nation,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in the final product of what we provide to the public. There are a lot of challenges, and I like to be challenged.”

Here are some of Osman’s thoughts about his job and life outside of IDOT.

Q. Why did you want to become secretary?

A. We are one of the best departments of transportation in the nation. We take a lot of pride in the final product of what we provide to the public. There are a lot of challenges, and I like to be challenged. Being a civil engineer, leading an agency like this is something you aspire to reach. After 31 years here, I feel like I’m still learning. I still have the drive to know more. Just to be a part of putting together the overall puzzle is a tremendous honor.

Q. What does it mean to you after spending your entire career here?

A. I drive around and still think, ‘How did this happen?’ I pinch myself and say, ‘Is this real?’ I never, ever thought I would be in a position where I was handling some of these issues. When I started, I just thought I would design some bridges and roads. You get to this point and the dynamics are different. The meetings are different, the topics are different. It’s very humbling.

Q. How has the department changed since you first started?

A. From a personnel standpoint, we are down 25% from where we once were. Just by sheer attrition, the headcount dwindled. The number of projects did not. We’ve had to make strides technologically to keep up. What has not changed is the quality of people. In 2019, with Rebuild Illinois, we truly went multimodal. We are focused now on ports, aviation, transit, rail and active transportation. We are still focused on roads, but we are much more holistic than we’ve ever been.

Q. What do you view as the biggest challenges, opportunities going forward?

A. Look at what is going on in the private sector, with Ford, General Motors and others, with technology. What are we doing about autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, platooning? That is just on the vehicular side. What about freight? What about connected trains? Each and every mode of transportation except walking is probably moving more toward the autonomous side. It’s mind boggling. The industry is moving so fast right now, you don’t want to get too far behind.

Q. What are your priorities as secretary?

A. It’s a cliché, but maintaining your existing infrastructure is huge. If what we have is crumbling, it makes it that much more difficult to build new projects. Internally, we have to do more with technology in a holistic manner. We need to do more of it in an integrated way.

One of my top priorities is to diversify the department with a purpose. Diversity works. It brings in different vantage points, different ideas. We want IDOT to look like Illinois. Fairness in contracting is very important to me. Our job is to make sure people have access to what we offer. Not focus so much on who is winning the contract, but making sure people have access and information in a fair way.

Q. Where did you grow up and how did that shape you?

A. I grew up in a very small village called Kerma in north Sudan. My background is steeped in the Kushite Empire, the Black Pharaohs. My little town used to be the capital of that empire. Those are my actual ancestors from 4,000 years ago. We are extremely proud people, very cohesive. We talk to each other to this day and celebrate each other – it’s a little town mentality. I am the type that I try to talk to all people the same way. Titles don’t make people. Treat people right and they’ll treat you right.

My mom never went to school. My dad went through fourth grade but was a genius by any standard. I was one of 11 and he made sure each and every one of us got a college education.

Q. How did you arrive in America?

A. Originally, I was supposed to go to Bulgaria but my dad didn’t want me going to a communist country. He wanted me to go to the U.S.A. I thought it was too far away. I used to watch westerns and “General Hospital” just to get my ear used to hearing English. My dad had a good friend whose job it was to help convince me. We had another family friend in Baton Rouge, La., send me the paperwork to go to school at Southern University and that was all she wrote.

Q. What brought you to IDOT?

A. I was interviewed by someone who graduated a year ahead of me but sent back to recruit. Before I interviewed, I ran to the mall and got the best suit and tie I could for $100. I was told about the different IDOT districts. I had never heard of Peoria but was told that’s where Caterpillar is at. For someone growing up overseas, everyone knows about Caterpillar. I said that’s where I’m going. It felt like a home. Very easygoing. I still live there. IDOT is family, period, and Peoria is home.

Q. You have a free weekend day, what are you doing?

A. I have an acre yard. I love to mow with a push mower, even though I have a riding mower. My kids think I’m nuts, but I like to spend the time by myself and getting the exercise. Family time is very important to me. I love history books. I’m a Civil War, World War II kind of guy. I have books and books all throughout the house. I love being in a quiet zone and reading my books.