One Woman’s Journey in the Construction Field

By: Jessica Chen, Project Executive at Suffolk Construction

After graduating from Florida International University, I began my journey in the construction industry on a condominium tower in Miami where I was tasked with measuring kitchens and bathrooms.  I loved the controlled chaos, beeping equipment, people bustling around me, and the gruff yet kind field superintendent who always made sure I had the right footwear to walk on his jobsite.  My first ride on a buckhoist was both intimidating and exciting.  From that day forward, I knew that I only wanted to work in the field.  I was excited to enter an industry where even still today only three percent of the jobs in the U.S. are held by women.

Now, 22 years later, I am working on one of the most significant projects in Miami, the Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station. It not only demonstrates a transformational project in South Florida’s history, but it also represents a stark contrast to the perception that construction is a male dominated industry. Including myself, our Suffolk Construction project management team is nearly 50 percent female; a drastic difference from my early days in the industry.

Recent events including the presidential election and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team filing for equal pay have made gender equality a hot topic in 2016. However, this is not a new issue. To empower women in our industry, general contractors are investing in education and training, enabling more women to enter and thrive in construction. I observe with great pride the young women on our team as they effortlessly command their rightful place at the meetings and contribute with confidence and great technical expertise. This new generation of women are boldly plowing through and paving the roads of tomorrow without the limitations.

As a woman and 20-year industry vet, what advice would I share with women looking to forge a management career in construction?

Work-Life Balance is Possible

There is often a misconception that full-time working moms have to sacrifice family time in order to be successful at work.  The truth is that the construction industry is not a 9-5 job; we sometimes work on weekends or evenings.  But the result is that we’re well organized, efficient with our time, and able to manage multiple priorities.  And you place the same emphasis on dance recitals, parent teacher conferences, and dentist appointments.  It’s not easy, but believe me, it’s possible and well worth it.

It takes a great deal of communication and support from both my family and my company to achieve this balance; my mother instilled this in me early on, and she’s been supportive every since.   Suffolk afforded me many opportunities to advance my career, but it was very important for me wait until my son was older and more self-sufficient.  Other companies might have given up on me or labeled me as a “career Senior Project Manager”.  But Suffolk supported my decision, and when the time was right for me, I was promoted to Project Executive.

Be Confident

When I first entered the industry, many people on the job site assumed I was brought in to handle administrative duties only.  Over time I learned not to get discouraged, but rather to prove myself through my work.  I was often asked very simple questions about the project.  When I answered them knowledgably, it became obvious that I knew my craft and my expertise could be relied on.

My best advice would be to be confident in your knowledge, but also be inquisitive and learn from your teammates.  It’s important to realize that you never stop learning.  A wise and tenured superintendent taught me that even with 30+ years in the industry, he still learns something new every day.  If you seek to learn more and more, and always exhibit great work ethic and confidence, you will go far.

Focus on Your Own Excellence and Raise Your Own Level Each Time

Many companies have taken proactive steps in order to create an equal salary playing field.  For example, Suffolk Construction completed an internal salary comparison study and found that of 1,400 employees examined, only one position needed to be slightly adjusted, and the adjustment was made right away. Unfortunately, not all companies proactively prioritize equal gender pay, so if there is something in the workplace that is not right, do your research and professionally voice your concerns.

It is also important to remember that the race for excellence is with yourself.  Speaking up when there is an extreme disparity is important; however, I found that I was most successful when I did not compare myself to others.  I was also happiest when I focused on running my own race and reaching for my own goals.  Don’t overanalyze the situation around you; focus instead on being the best version of yourself and your skills will shine through.

You Are Not Alone

Remember that there are other women who have walked in your shoes. Try to seek out a female mentor at your company or within your industry to support and guide you. But don’t limit yourself with only female mentors.  Rather, accept as many mentors as possible, regardless of gender.  Take from each mentor the best attributes and make them your own.

As you progress in your career, look for younger professionals who you can mentor.  Many young people at my current company refer to me as their “Suffolk Mom” because of the support and guidance I’ve provided.  It’s extremely rewarding to know I’ve made a difference in their careers, not to mention all that I’ve learned from them.  As our regional president often says, “We don’t just build buildings, we build people.”

When I was a young girl, I watched my grandparents in Peru work in the construction industry and knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps. There were hurdles, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.  Succeeding in a field that is not necessarily the “norm” for women has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

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Advancing Women

Advancing Women