Friday in the Field: Women in Construction

Sarah Weidner Camp
Having started my career in the construction industry as an intern over 12 years ago, I have experienced, first-hand, the changing role of women in the construction industry.

I had the recent pleasure of sitting down with Christy Ullo, vice president - marketing & communications, to discuss the current projects I am working on and my career. Our conversation took a turn to the expanding role of women in the industry. 

Christy Ullo: What project are you currently working on?

I'm actually working on several projects for Land O'Lakes at the moment. I'm providing project controls for a laboratory building, supplementing the Faithful+Gould personnel we have working onsite providing construction management services. That project is set to be completed in mid-July. Then, I'm working on another laboratory building, which is currently in the final design phase, with a general contractor/construction manager coming on board a couple of weeks ago.

I've been in the construction industry for about 12 years, all of which have been with Faithful+Gould.

The plan is to start construction at the end of the summer. I'm also working as a cost manager on a new build project at its headquarters here in Minnesota. Faithful+Gould is the owner's representative on this project and I am working closely with Kevin Wiese, vice president, who is the overall project manager as I will be stepping into this role during the project interior fit-out.

CU: Sounds like you have a lot going on!

I do! But I love working this way. With all my projects at different stages in their life cycles I can go from one to another as they overlap without feeling overwhelmed. I've been continuously working with Land O'Lakes for more than two years rolling from one project to the next and have been able to develop a real understanding of the client and their needs.

Even though I'm moving between projects, I get to work with the same core group of people and have developed a rhythm. I'm pleased to be have been able to hone my skills through repeated ventures with Land O'Lakes because I think this kind of client understanding is really important to my work.

CU: Would you call that the key to your success?

It's certainly a big part of it. On a personal basis, I would say my organizational skills are definitely a major element of my success. As a project planner, above all my job is to make my client's life easier. Clients rely on us to be ready and able to handle any issue at a moment's notice. My skills in organization are key to my ability to do this and they tie into my overall key to success, which is my clients' trust in me. This may be the biggest skill for someone working in this industry: learning to be transparent to your client. That's what I've found throughout my career.

CU: How long have you been working in the construction industry?

I've been in the construction industry for about 12 years, all of which have been with Faithful+Gould. When I was still in school, I had an internship with Faithful+Gould between my junior and senior year of college that extended through summer and winter break. I got a job offer soon after that and had my first day on the job in May, right after I graduated.

As a project planner, above all my job is to make my client's life easier.

These days, most people have had multiple jobs with various employers in 12 years. So my career path has provided me with a unique perspective and chance to grow within one organization.

CU: Were you always interested in this kind of work?

I always knew I wanted to work in something either on the technical side, like engineering or architecture, or the business side. When I went to school I initially began studying civil engineering. I couldn't shake the feeling of wanting to combine those two passions, so I eventually switched to construction management. It proved to be the perfect mix for my skill set and I couldn't be happier with my decision all these years later.

CU: So there wasn’t a particular moment that sparked your interest?

Not that I can think of specifically. I was always interested but I will say that it was a great help to be exposed to the industry early on. I have several family members who work in the construction field. My cousin Trina was actually working as a construction project manager for a general contractor right here in the Twin Cities around the time I decided to pursue a construction management degree. I was lucky to have that kind of influence and example before me when I started my path. In my 12 years since, I have tried to do the same for others, as a mentor and guiding example. It definitely gave me the confidence to follow those interests throughout school.

CU: Funny you should say that, today is actually the first day of the Engineering News-Record (ENR) "Groundbreaking Women in Construction (GWIC)" conference in San Francisco. The event itself is meant to encourage that kind of support system among women in the industry.

That is exactly the kind of support which is so crucial for women in construction. Participating in events like GWIC as an organization, as we have in the past, is a great opportunity to promote this kind of collaboration among colleagues and peers in the industry.

CU: I agree, I actually attended GWIC last year in New York when Andrea Shook, Faithful+Gould Lead Project Manager,  was part of a panel discussing working mothers. As a mom of two, it was really inspiring to hear from others on the successes and challenges they've had in the industry. 

Any chance for us to come together and share our expertise, I believe we come out the better for it. Yes, the mentality of construction as a predominantly male industry exists, but I have found that we are chipping away at that. I've definitely seen a trend toward gender neutrality since I started and it’s been so pleasing to watch.

CU: What have you noticed?

I've seen a definite increase of women working in the industry first hand. On my last couple of large projects, the owners' project management teams have had a woman as the lead project manager. I've also seen more and more women working as project engineers in the field, which is kind of how I started out.

I’ve definitely seen a trend toward gender neutrality since I started and it's been so pleasing to watch.

At the start of my career, I worked as an on-site project engineer for almost four years before moving on to full time cost management duties. It is clear that women are making great strides in the industry and with that I think it is our responsibility to continue to encourage and support one another.

CU: What would you say to encourage other women as they enter this field?

Honestly, I would speak to my whole career, which has provided me with so much fulfillment over the years. Working in construction planning has given me the opportunity to travel all over the country – throughout the south, eastern California and the midwest – and I've had such wonderful experiences as a result. Each project brings its own unique team and cultural dynamics and, especially when you add in a new city or state, that makes it really interesting.

One particularly fond memory was my first job on site, working for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after hurricane Katrina. I was in New Orleans for months and fell in love with the area. I was able to enjoy professional success while exposing myself to what has become one of my favorite places to visit. I've had so many opportunities to learn and grow just by putting myself out there head first.

CU: In the spirit of mentoring, if you could go back to your first day on the job, what one piece of advice would you give yourself?

I would encourage myself to continue to be open to new experiences and opportunities to travel. I really believe that the best form of career development is to take yourself out of your comfort zone and try new and challenging things. Make it your own, but don't being afraid to ask for help and advice. Learn by doing. Explore.