CONSTRUCTION: NOT JUST MEN AT WORK

Area women are building careers in planning, preconstruction and administration
By Trish Amundson
Photography by AB-photography.us

The warm weather is gone until spring, but the hard work of construction tradespeople continues year-round.  Across the city, residential and commercial construction is booming, and many men—and women—are busy building the city, from architects and business development professionals to engineers and hard-hat crews. Rochester Women Magazine interviewed three women who play crucial roles in initiating construction projects throughout the community and promoting change to eliminate inequalities throughout the industry. 

ADVOCATING FOR CHANGE
“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time,“ said late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who advocated for women’s rights. Her legacy inspires women to continue the fight, including those who hold roles that are untraditional. Ginsburg and other trailblazers have fought for women’s equality, resulting in change that is happening one step at a time. Women workers are growing in the construction sector and adding value to the workforce in new ways.

The National Association of Women in Construction notes that, as of 2018, women working in construction account for 1.5% of the entire U.S. workforce. Females comprise only about 10% of the construction workforce, with approximately 9.7 million men compared to 971,000 women. Of all females in construction, 87% work in office positions and nearly 3% serve as tradespeople.

Women are underrepresented in construction for reasons including discrimination and lack of advancement and support. The American Institute of Architects states that half of U.S. architectural students are women, but females only account for 17% of registered architects. Similarly, only 14% of civil engineers in the workforce are women, but 40% of females with engineering degrees never enter the workforce or drop out. Clearly, bigger steps are needed to support and encourage women in construction careers to be successful and close the gender gap.

Alyssa Fordham Vagt
Principal, Design Director,
CRW architecture + design group

Background: I went to John Marshall High School and, ultimately, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee to follow architecture. I have a wonderful and supportive husband, Brandon, who is also from Rochester, and two beautiful children—a 6-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.

Career inspiration: I provide design input on many different building types, while also leading our single-family residential projects and many multi-family and mixed-use residential developments. I enjoy the strategic compilation of space and form, thinking through the details of how the building and space will be perceived, what the occupant will experience and how to influence that experience for the better, in a way that helps reduce the negative impact on the environment and world around us.

Overcoming challenges: Stereotypes are associated with construction. There’s still room for improvement and a need for more women in the profession. The greater variety of perspectives and experiences influencing our buildings, spaces and communities, the richer, more thoughtful and inclusive those buildings and spaces become.

Motivation and support: The direct interaction with my clients is where I find the most satisfaction and reward. Mentorship programs and organizations like National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) offer education, support and networking to help women grow their careers and increase their chances for longevity and success.

Encouraging others: Construction can be a very rewarding industry. My advice for entering the industry is something my dad has always told me: “If you pursue a career that you love, you will never work a day in your life.”

Julie Herrera-Lemler
Project Assistant/Business Development Coordinator
Braun Intertec Corporation

Background: I grew up in San Jose, California, and moved to Rochester in 1998, where I now live with my husband, Brent, and my son Jayson. My son Julian lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Rachel, and my two grandcats.  

Career inspiration: My construction career started when a neighbor encouraged me to apply for a job at the electricians’ union. Within the first month of working there, I felt at home. I have met a lot of very talented people: geotechnical engineers, field technicians, project managers, drillers and more. 

Overcoming challenges: There is occasional dismissal for women—or in my case a “double minority” for being Latina. But once you get to talking with people, they see you add value to the job, and they come around.

Motivation and support: The local NAWIC chapter is a bright spot in my career. It’s a group of ladies coming together, encouraging one another, raising money for scholarships, supporting other women in our community and encouraging kids to learn about the trades. Rochester Area Builders also is a huge supporter of tradeswomen.

Encouraging others: More people are learning that women bring a different perspective to the job. Employers are more willing to hire females for a variety of positions without the thought of “can she do the job like the guys can?” Of course, she can!

Don’t let the low female-to-male ratio intimidate you. There is a reason that there are women on jobsites. Women are natural leaders, and there are many who would love to share their stories with you.

Vanessa Hines
Civil Engineer
Widseth

Background: I was born and raised in the greater Seattle area, in Maple Valley. I attended Seattle University where I received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. My husband, Nate, and I moved to Minnesota in 2013. We live in Rochester with our Bullador (lab-bulldog mix), Griffey.

I was in undergraduate during the recession. I took a free internship with the city of Tacoma because I wanted the experience. I was offered a full-time position after I graduated and worked as a water quality engineer with the city until I moved to Minnesota.

Career inspiration: I work closely with architects to design aspects of a project that reside outside the walls of a building. This includes things like utilities, sidewalks, parking lots and roads. I carefully consider how pedestrians and vehicles navigate a site, manage storm water and make sure everything meets local and state regulations.

My dad is an engineer and always encouraged me to think critically about the world around me. I’ve always been curious about understanding how things work and completely thinking through a problem before deciding on a solution.

Overcoming challenges: I am fortunate enough to grow up in a generation that celebrates and challenges women to pursue a career path that has typically been male-dominated. In fact, I have the pleasure of working with some incredible women in this industry that have built me up and supported my goals.

Motivation and support: There are more women getting into this industry every year. I’m eager to see how the industry changes over my career.

There have been times when I have been talked down to or spoken over because I wasn’t forceful enough. Over the years I’ve learned to stand up for my ideas and push back when someone tries to compromise a design decision.

Encouraging others: There have been great efforts to reach out to younger girls to educate them about the opportunities in the construction industry, with the hope that they will pursue a career in construction.

There is so much opportunity to craft a career in the direction of your choosing. There are also so many wonderful people who just want to collaborate and come up with the best project possible. Everyone in this industry has the same goal—to build great projects, no matter the size or budget. 

This article is part of a series about women working in the construction trade and covering different phases of the construction process. Next issue: Women who work in the early stages of residential construction.