Women in Construction: Interview with Erica Millard
Erica Millard is a Preconstruction Manager at KBE Building Corporation with 13 years of construction industry experience. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Civil Engineering, she joined Balfour Beatty as a Project Engineer. Over the years she has transcended several roles within the industry to become a successful and well-rounded master in her field.
Why did you choose a career in construction?
UVA offered two degree options for me to pursue a career in Construction; one option for the design side in Civil Engineering where the focus lies in site layout of infrastructure, and the second option for Structural Engineering where the focus is on the design of buildings and structural systems. At the time, I had believed that I wanted to pursue the design side of construction, and I chose the Civil Engineering path. However, it wasn’t until my fourth and final year at school when I took the class “Intro to Construction” that I decided that I really wanted to focus on constructing buildings. This class changed my perception and outlook of construction. The class was led by two Executives from Balfour Beatty and they were further supported by an Architectural and Engineering firm. The class consisted of a semester-long group project where we had to develop a concept building that met specific criteria, starting from the design (using AutoCAD) and carried through each phase of the construction process – preconstruction, estimating, scheduling, bidding, and layout of the building’s structural systems. The hands-on project required our team to present a real-world building that was efficient, cost-effective, and buildable. We were given feedback and judged on our final concepts. After the class ended, all of the students were invited back to see how the building was professionally built. When I lived in the area, I drove by the finished project daily on my commute. It was a great learning experience for me, and it changed the path of my career choice. This class gave me exposure to the different facets of construction, outside of just the typical bricks and mortal of construction. It taught me that there are other skills involved in successful construction project including scheduling, estimating, and even participation during the design process.
I began my career as a Project Engineer for Balfour Beatty, and it was this firm that gave me the opportunity to learn hands-on in the field. This was the invaluable learning that I craved and it was a truly rewarding experience career-wise. With the guidance of my mentor, I was able to learn from the experts in the trades, to build relationships with site foreman and project managers. I learned how everyone is interconnected in a way that successfully builds buildings. I learned to not be afraid of asking questions. Sure, there were some minor challenges, like using a port-a-potty, but that is part of what makes working in the field an excellent learning opportunity.
Following my role as a Project Engineer, there were two paths that I had to choose from in order to progress in my field – to pursue a career as a Preconstruction Manager or Project Manager. I knew in my heart that an office would provide more stability for me, so I decided to explore the position of Preconstruction Manager, a position I never knew existed until I was invited by the Procurement Officer at Balfour Beatty to participate in planning sessions and project bids. Through this experience, I was able to experience first-hand the negotiations of bids and contracts, estimating, scheduling, client meetings and more. I had the opportunity to participate in Design-Build meetings where I was able to talk to the people that drove the process and make recommendations based on cost and schedule. This opportunity mirrored my experience with the class project. I loved this role so much that I began to transition to this role after I left Balfour Beatty for KBE.
What advice do you have for other women pursuing a degree in this industry?
Do not shy away from your potential to grow – you can have career and family. The opportunities for women in this field are endless and there’s constant encouragement and support for women to break through the glass ceiling. If you are a woman that performs well, you can break the ceiling in one of the last industries that have a ceiling to break!
What resources helped you the most – a mentor, education, hands-on experience, etc.
I started my career as a Project Engineer. I was assigned a female mentor, a well-respected Project Manager handling a $100M project at the time. Her name was Maria Thompson of Balfour Beatty – and she truly molded me into the person I am today. Maria started as my mentor and then became my boss on a three-year project. She was the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, and she essentially groomed me – she was tough has nails and believed that things should be done properly. When they weren’t done correctly, she took the time to teach and explain to me how they should be done and let me resolve those issues. She didn’t take on my responsibilities, I learned through hands-on experience. She had pushed me to become better in my role and prepared me for a life-long career in this industry.
Having a good relationship with your boss and the site Project Manager is very important. Candid, honest conversations are important and necessary to be sure a job is completed successfully.
What’s the biggest challenge(s) you’ve faced in getting to where you are?Most people assume or expect that as a female in the construction industry – I will encounter obstacles or issues that will block me from my chosen career path. But my experience has been quite the opposite, I honestly have never come across a situation where my opinion or feedback was not valued. There will always be difficult personalities no matter what profession or industry you choose. Sure, I may naturally be the one taking Meeting Minutes…but this may be part of my personality, as I enjoy taking them!
There was a point in my career progression where I had to make certain life decisions…will I get married… do I want children, and how will this affect my career? I knew in my heart that I wanted to continue to ascend the career ladder and to have a family, so I made the conscious decision to find out what my choices were to make it happen. I needed to know my choices for maintaining work/life balance.
Fortunately for me, KBE granted me flexibility such as working from home a few days of the week, which is important when you have young children at home. KBE was able to provide me with options to find balance and in return I am able to continue working hard for the firm and to pursue my career goals. Having open conversations about what my personal needs are and finding that perfect balance with work is something that I didn’t know I could do, until the time came for me to ask. I think most women struggle with these types of conversations; however, you won’t know for sure unless you ask. Don’t just assume that your career progression will be limited because you want a family too. Construction is an industry that has traditionally been male, so no precedent has yet been set because our unique circumstances haven’t been encountered. Give your firm a chance to help you, don’t be afraid to discuss your needs so you can be the best ‘you’ at work and home. I now realize this challenge was easier to overcome than I had ever anticipated.
What impact do you hope to leave on the industry?
I may not be able to make an impact on the industry, however I do believe that I can make a positive impact on young women entering the industry or starting a career at KBE. More often than not, young women begin their careers as Project Engineer, and they progress to an Assistant Project Manager. It’s at this point in their careers where they believe they need to decide between a family or a career. And the option to have both seems intimidating or nearly impossible. This isn’t the case, and I want to be there as support to help guide these decisions and to answer those questions she may have. I’ve been there myself and being able to talk to someone else is invaluable. I want to let young women know that it doesn’t have to be either/or, that there are ways to find balance a family AND a career, if that’s what she wants. I want these women to know that there are several options available to them, and to never be afraid to ask their employer what they need to be successful. It is by no means abnormal to create your own career path that fulfills your needs.
What is your favorite part of your career?
I love that each and every day is completely different. Whether it is figuring out how to make concrete work or how to effectively route an HVAC system. Unique challenges are always presenting themselves on every job I undertake, and it forces me to keep learning. When you aren’t the expert, it’s important to learn from others, and have the willingness to say “I don’t know”. Let the experts teach you.
What has been the most surprising part of being a woman working in construction?
That women in this industry really do support each other! There are so few women in this industry so we genuinely become happy when we encounter one another. For example, I have worked extensively with a woman from an Architectural/Engineering firm on several projects over the years, and she’s been an excellence resource for me as well as a friendly face. These are important relationships to have. There are also many opportunities to join industry organizations where you can meet other women, or mentor young women coming into this industry. I have had commitments at the PWC (Professional Women in Construction) as well as being an ACE mentor. Mentorship is very valuable in this industry for both young men and women.
How has KBE supported you as a woman in construction?
KBE has given me the flexibility I need to align my need to grow and develop career-wise while balancing family life. Flexibility such as attending my children’s school events or caring for a sick child. In return, I am able to travel for work or handle the need for urgent work issues. It’s a symbiotic relationship.