Women in Construction week is a week when the construction industry recognizes women in construction. This year I attended an event at Penn State’s Lehigh Valley campus on the day of groundbreaking for an addition. The event was part of their Launch Box Ladies group that meets regularly. The focus of this weeks gathering was women in construction in the Lehigh Valley. There was an panel of three women all from the different areas of the construction industry.
There were three women on the panel who have differing roles. While the focus was on more commercial construction, it was general enough in nature to get the point across. There aren’t a lot of women in the construction industry. Especially on the front line…meaning in trades such as plumbing, electric, framing etc. These panelists were asked a series of questions, including ‘Did you see yourself in a career in the construction industry?’ They all answered no.
Being a woman in the construction industry myself, I thought I would answer too. The long and short of it is that I didn’t think I had pictured myself here, yet, I’m not sure why not. Looking back to my high school self, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do for work. Out of everything I remember for those years, I remember my dad telling me about an interior designer they were working with on a commercial project. At the time he owned his own business as a general contractor in the commercial construction field.
I had no idea what an interior designer actually did but decided, why not?
My dad ran his general contracting business out of our basement from the time I was 3 years old, until he got his first office outside of our house, some time during my elementary school years. There was one room he had set up as an office. It had a few desks, and large drafting table that was always covered in blue prints. I would sit outside his office on the stairs, put my feet through the open back creating a desk for myself and use his adding machine and pink ‘While you were Out’ note pad to play office. I never played designer, contractor or project manager.
I spent my childhood listening to shop talk and reading the notes my dad wrote on our kitchen counter with his whittled to a point pencil during a phone call. I watched him build things in our home, I watched him direct his employees. I watched him hire estimators and learned how to do a take off of a print for lumber. But I never thought ‘this is what I want to do when I grow up’. I never thought I’d be in the construction industry. Even when I decided I’d give interior design a chance, I had no idea I would waist deep in the construction industry.
I’m not even sure what I thought I would learn in trade school, but I quickly learned it was a lot of construction. I quickly fell in love with the construction end of interior design. I also quickly learned my advantage over the rest of the class. I not only had an understanding of basic construction, I knew the industry as a whole. I knew the process. I knew specs, and bids and how to read a blue print (wishing they were still blue here!). I knew the lingo and basic concepts in lighting, electrical and plumbing. I knew about codes and accessibility. I knew what a subcontractor was, I was comfortable on a job site.
When I worked for commercial based architectural firms, I did the space planning, specifications and construction documents, and reviewed bid for all the interiors projects. I also jumped from job site to job site overseeing my section of the project, working with subs in the field. This has always been my favorite part of the project. While I love a fun styling job, it’s the technical end of the project I love the most, next to the people. It’s the stepping onto a job site, trouble shooting on-site and leaving with sheet-rock and saw dust on my shoes that I love.
I love having the opportunity to be a woman in the construction industry. I love the challenge of project managing, budgeting, and making my clients’ dreams become a reality. I love working with my trades professionals and having a collaborative work environment. And I love calling my dad for advice.
The last question at the Women in Construction in the Lehigh Valley event I attended was, “how do you think we get more women into the construction industry?” The first thing that popped into my mind was, we can’t even get men into the construction industry right now. Reality is that there is a huge shortage of skilled trade professionals across the country. And I’m not even talking about the ones swinging the hammers. Even construction managers and estimators, the industry as a whole is hurting. I am thankful to be surrounded by a group of professionals who are willing to fight to bring awareness to the amazing professions that surround the construction industry for both women and men. I’m so excited to see a movement by local contractors to bring young passionate students under their wings and help them learn the industry, and their specific trade. There are so many different parts and careers within each sector of the construction industry. It’s time to strip back the stigma that surrounds it, which includes educating parents as well.
I am thankful I have the opportunity and respect of the contractors and trade professionals I work with on a regular basis. There have been many times I have not, even recently. I’ve grown my team over several years of quality, respectful professionals who are more interested in collaborating than making a fast dollar. I believe I have been able to make a mark as a woman in the construction industry, and will continue to strive to do so for those who wish to join me, both women and men alike.