Leaders, mentors and innovators bring more women into construction

March 6, 2019

This paid piece is sponsored by Journey Group.

Not that long ago, Andrea Miller stood in front of a class at her alma mater, South Dakota State University, and delivered the kind of message that can change an industry.

She knew what it was like, she said, to be the only female mechanical engineering major in her class.

She also knew what it was like to be one of few women working in construction management.

Her message essentially was: Do it anyway.

“Statistics show that women are only 9.1 percent of all the workers in the construction industry, and less than 60 percent of that small amount are in operations and management. Being a minority in any career provides a lot more opportunity to prove ourselves,” said Miller, a pre-construction manager at Journey Group.

“I’ve gotten a lot of practice in it, but it’s only made me hone my skills. We need more diversity, both ethnically and with women in construction. There’s a great opportunity to help our industry fill our workforce gap.”

While female engineers are increasing in number, those same women often never consider construction management, Miller said.

She originally hadn’t.

But a special projects role in the Army introduced her to a commercial construction company, which she later joined as a project engineer. The role brought her home to Sioux Falls in 2012, where she helped oversee construction of the Denny Sanford Premier Center.

“There are very few careers that you get to really see the impact of your work grow out of the ground and then you can sit in it,” she tells female college students.

“You’re really affecting the way people live and work and play in a tangible way. There’s nothing holding women from it, absolutely nothing keeping us from being part of that fun.”

It is fun, she emphasizes.

To prove it to girls as young as fifth grade, Miller and Journey Group host Girls Breaker Day, an event that encourages girls to take apart electronics and build projects.

“We’re going to take that model to the next level in the next year and figure out a way to get power tools in the hands of young girls and inspire them that they can build,” she said.

These are approaches and conversations happening more intentionally and more often than they did even a few short years ago.

“We definitely are focusing our efforts on the female workforce,” said Jolene Smith, director of human resources at Journey Group.

“We are fortunate to have very solid female employees. Unfortunately, many women still don’t consider a career in construction, and we want them to change their thinking because there’s a lot of opportunity to work for us.”

Journey employs a significant number of talented women on the office side of the business, from finance to HR and administrative roles. Finding women to work in field positions is harder, Smith said.

“Women may think it’s too physically demanding, so they steer away,” she said. “And yes, you will walk a lot and bend and twist and push and pull, but we aren’t asking you to lift 200 pounds. There are a lot of myths out there, and we’re working to combat that. If you’re a woman with interest in this field, we want to talk with you and see if we can find a fit.”

Journey has several women working in the field who find it a rewarding career, she added.

“It’s a good match for someone who is confident, enjoys working outside and with their hands, and who enjoys being able to see the fruits of their labor,” she said. “And that’s not gender-specific. We look for people who want to drive by a building or a bridge and say they were part of it. They want to have something tangible to show what they did with their hands and their mind.”

As for Miller, her journey at Journey and in Sioux Falls keeps evolving. She recently was named the Influential Woman of the Year by the Sioux Falls chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction.

“I was really floored,” she said. “I was humbled that people at Koch Hazard (Architects) and Journey would take the time to put in an application on my behalf.”

And in a fitting full-circle Sioux Falls moment, Miller was named to a 13-member city panel that will study options for future development around the campus that includes the Denny Sanford Premier Center she helped build.

“I think it’s really exciting we’re going to capitalize on the opportunity of the events center campus,” she said. “We have a lot of forward-thinking progressive leaders in Sioux Falls who made great investments, and I think this can advance it even more.”

She credits visionary leaders and mentors.

“I might have raised my hand to volunteer for the city, but it was visionary leaders like Mayor (Paul) TenHaken and our CEO, Randy Knecht, that provided me the opportunity to contribute. I want to provide great professional pre-construction services, but it takes leaders and mentors like Darin Hage at Journey that make room for new ways of doing work for the organization.”

That’s a top-down approach at Journey, Smith added. The company has focused on cultivating a culture that supports a positive work environment for all.

“A great place to work is a great place to work, whether you’re a man or a woman,” she said. “We impress upon our team that if anyone is less than accepting of others, it’s going to be addressed right away. We’re going to make sure we create the best environment possible.”

It’s a timely message this week, designated as Women in Construction Week industrywide, and a commitment Journey will continue to strengthen.

“It takes leaders in power that have opportunities to give and them making the decision to give them to people that do not look like them,” Miller said. “Then, it takes these leaders becoming mentors to these individuals to teach them all the skills that cannot be transferred in books or classrooms to ensure success. Visionary leaders become fearless mentors that recognize that the future of successful organizations do not look like the organizations of today.”

To learn more about opportunities at Journey Group, click here.

Leaders, mentors and innovators bring more women into construction

“You’re really affecting the way people live and work and play in a tangible way. There’s nothing holding women from it, absolutely nothing keeping us from being part of that fun.” It’s a week to celebrate women in construction – and to hopefully encourage others to consider it.

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