Nobles County public works director to travel the road to retirement
Stephen Schnieder to retire July 1 after more than 38 years with Nobles County.
WORTHINGTON — Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder currently holds the title as the longest serving county engineer in Minnesota, but that will come to an end in June, when the county engineer steps off the job and into retirement after 38 years and four months with the county.
All together, Schnieder worked 44 years in county government, getting his start in Blue Earth County before being named Meeker County Engineer at age 27. He spent about a year in that role before returning to his hometown of Worthington after accepting the position here.
Schnieder said he’d actually learned he was going to be offered the job from his parents. His interview was delayed by a day due to a snowstorm, during which he was stranded on a rural Windom farm along U.S. 71. His interview was rescheduled for the following day, a Saturday, and he was called on Monday and offered the job.
“My parents called me on Sunday to congratulate me on getting the job,” he shared. “They heard at church on Sunday. In a small town, there are a lot of secrets that get passed around pretty fast.”
Schnieder graduated from Worthington High School, completed two years at then-Worthington Community College and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in civil engineering. He did a six-month internship with the city of Worthington, and had intended to seek a position as a city engineer. It was a county engineering position that was available, however.
Schnieder is one of five local men to follow the same track — WHS, Worthington Community College, the U of M and an internship with the city of Worthington — to earn degrees in civil engineering. The others include current Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson, retired Worthington City Engineer Duane Haffield, acting Worthington City Engineer Jeff Faragher and Larye Mick, owner of Midwest Engineering in Worthington.
“I started out wanting to be a math teacher or accountant,” Schnieder recalled of his schooling. After completing two years of junior college, he looked at the credits he’d earned in deciding his major.
“I qualified for a degree in pre-engineering,” he said. “It wasn’t what I aspired to be, but because it was what I was interested in, that’s what I went and did.”
Schnieder said he was happy to get an engineering position in his hometown.
“I always thought it was a great community and I always wanted to come back and live here,” he shared. “Even with the changes we’ve seen, the community is always trying to move forward. It’s one of the lucky communities that hasn’t been stagnant or losing population. It shows a lot about Worthington and what it has to offer.”
With more than four decades of civil engineering work, Schnieder has seen many changes, most notably in technology. During his early days, all design work was drawn up by hand. More employees were required because survey crews were needed to measure everything with a chain and rod. There were more engineering technicians and more maintenance workers. With GPS and larger tandem-axle trucks, they can do as much work with fewer employees.
“We could still use one or two more maintenance workers,” Schnieder said, adding that the public has been fairly understanding that it takes longer to get roads opened after a storm with fewer employees in the department.
A long career in the same county has netted Schnieder and his department an impressive list of accomplishments, but the one he is most proud of is teaming up with the city of Worthington to complete a trail system in the community.
“The city put some trails in and the county got some federal and state money,” he said. “We combined it and ran up along the west side of Worthington and hooked up with the Centennial Park trail.”
While there was initial skepticism among some for the project, Schnieder said the trail system is one of the better features of the community — aside from Lake Okabena — that gets used by people of all ages.
As popular as the Worthington trails are, Schnieder said one of his biggest disappointments was declining a state grant for a trail along Nobles County 35 from Worthington to Rock County.
“In hindsight, you hear a lot of people say it would have been good if we had done that,” he shared. “If we had built it, I think we would have seen a lot of use for that.”
In the last two decades, Schnieder oversaw the replacement of approximately two-thirds of the county’s more than 365 bridges. Most bridges were replaced with precast concrete structures, which last longer, have decreased potential for problems and are installed without the bridge railings that can restrict passage by today’s larger agricultural implements.
The county often worked in partnership with townships, the city of Worthington and other small cities in Nobles County, which Schnieder said was a benefit to the public.
Retirement means working less
While Schnieder’s retirement is effective July 1, he anticipates returning to work — at least on a part-time basis — in engineering. Realizing the city of Worthington still hasn’t filled its vacant city engineer position, he’s leaving his options open to return to county work if needed.
“I’ve already told the city and county administrators that I’d certainly be willing to sit down and talk if they’d like to hire me part-time,” he said.
Finding the right time to retire is something that has been on Schnieder’s mind for a while. He met the Rule of 90 (age plus years as a public employee) a decade ago, but kept putting off retirement because he had kids in high school. When the youngest graduated in 2020, the world was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You can’t go anywhere and you can’t do anything, especially with all of the unknowns, so I decided to work another year,” Schnieder said. “Now, a year later, things are opening up and there’s more opportunities to go out and do things.”
Schnieder and his wife, Lori, hope to do some traveling to visit extended family throughout the U.S. Here at home, both of their mothers still live in their own homes at ages 102 and 90, and they frequently stop in to visit with them.
Schnieder also intends to remain active in the community. He has completed 21 years on the ISD 518 Board of Education and 12 years as its representative on the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative board of directors, 38 years with Noon Kiwanis, is a member of the Worthington Optimists and was recently appointed to the Southwest Regional Development Commission.
The Schnieders raised three children in rural Worthington. Their daughter Sarah now resides in Okoboji, Iowa, and works remotely in cybersecurity. Son Scott will graduate this year with a degree in mechanical engineering, and son Michael recently completed his first year at Minnesota West Community & Technical College in Worthington and is considering a major in the area of environmental studies.