By Amy J. Barry
Women project managers in the construction industry have always been a rarity, and even today, nationwide, women only hold 8 percent of these jobs.
The good news is that Central is playing a major role in Connecticut to increase those numbers. It is the only university to offer BS and MS degrees in Construction Management that are fully accredited by the American Counsel for Construction Education.
Three recent Central graduates — Kim Uzwiak ’17, Christina Thomas-Walker’16, and Katie Gardner ’17 — are full project managers overseeing multimillion-dollar commercial building projects at FIP Construction in Farmington. They are the first-ever women project managers employed at the company, which was founded in 1963.
The three women arrived at the same place via different paths, but they agree they were drawn to the hands-on aspects of a career in construction management.
Thomas-Walker says she planned to go into forensic science in her freshman year at Western Connecticut State University but found that Biology wasn’t her strong suit. She initially transferred to Central to attend a school within commuting distance and says she was struck by the description of the Construction Management program when selecting a major. She went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Construction Management.
“I took a stab at it, took a few classes, and really enjoyed them and stayed with it,” she says.
Uzwiak also earned her Bachelor of Science in Construction Management at Central.
She says, “I’ve always more or less known I wanted to work in construction. My dad was a project superintendent and manager as I was growing up and later opened his own construction company. I specifically wanted to work in construction management, and Central is the only school in the state that offers the program.”
Gardner majored in Civil Engineering, but when she graduated, she found that there weren’t a lot of jobs in her preferred area of structural engineering. When she learned of an opening in construction management at FIP, she decided to expand her scope and apply.
“Instead of being on the designing end, by being on the construction management side, I’m overseeing everything I would have been engineering,” she explains.
Gardner’s first job upon graduation was as a project engineer at FIP. Thomas-Walker and Uzwiak worked as project engineers at other Connecticut firms before coming to FIP. All three women were promoted to full project managers within the first two-plus years of their employment. They all are managing large-scale construction projects for both Hartford Healthcare and Yale New Haven Health, as well as at numerous Connecticut universities and private schools.
All three women are all seeing slow but steady positive changes in an industry that’s been hesitant to hire women on the management side.
“It was a little intimidating when I was in a class at Central with 20 males and only two women,” Thomas-Walker says. “But now when we participate in the career fair at Central, more women are coming up to us and engaging us, asking questions.”
“I think the industry in general still seems to be a little daunted by women’s capabilities,” Gardner says. “There is definitely a timeframe for proving yourself, but you just need to have the confidence and strong-headedness about whatever comments come your way.”
Uzwiak points out that it’s the day-to-day learning process that keeps them engaged and builds confidence.
“There’s always something new, never a day that’s mundane. You never know what you’re going to get thrown your way,” she says.
Thomas-Walker and Gardner have had the added challenge of giving birth while rising in the ranks in their jobs. Thomas-Walker has two young children, and Gardner has one and another on the way. They both acknowledge that in households with two working parents, having family nearby to help with childcare has been a big factor in their career growth. But they also attribute FIP with making it easier.
“I had concerns about balancing home and work life, but so far it’s been great,” Thomas-Walker says. “FIP makes sure a lot of weekends on our jobs are covered by superintendents, so we can spend them home with our family and kids.”
“They understand that kids get sick a lot and we may need to miss an hour or two for doctor appointments,” Gardner says. “They know that family is important, and you have to put family first.”
A leg-up in construction
“One of the best parts of the program at Central is that a lot of the professors have industry experience,” says Uzwiak. “Adjunct faculty is specifically there to teach us what they do for a living.”
Thomas-Walker found the requirement to complete an internship before graduation invaluable.
“You really understand what you’ve been learning and get real-world education,” she says. “It was a great opportunity to get our feet wet.”
Uzwiak and Thomas-Walker say their academic advisor, Dr. Namhun Lee, helped pave the way for them by connecting them with companies with relevant job openings.
“He was there since day one making sure I stayed on track and took the right classes,” Uzwiak says. “He saw the potential in me and that by taking an extra class one semester, it allowed me to graduate early and start my career six months earlier.”
“Dr. Lee actually taught a class to me individually that was only offered at a time I couldn’t attend,” Thomas-Walker says.
Lee, who has a master’s and doctorate in Construction Management from the University of Washington, Seattle, has been a full-time professor in the Manufacturing & Construction Management program at Central since 2013.
“Christina and Kim were my advisees, and I was supervising their internships,” Lee recalls. “Students are required to complete 400 hours. Both did a great job and their supervisors made excellent comments to them and wanted to keep them on in their companies.”
Lee has seen a tangible increase in women entering the Central Construction Management program.
“Six years ago, when Kim and Christina were here, there were zero to two female students in my classes. This semester I have five female students out of 18.”
He attributes this to several things, including working with Diversity Construction Group, an organization that offers scholarships for anyone who is pursuing a degree in Construction Management, Construction Engineering, or Civil Engineering.
“We also encourage female graduates in the construction industry to serve as mentors for aspiring students and invite them to class as guest lecturers and to come to the Construction Management Club meetings and job fairs.”
Coincidentally, since his arrival at Central, Dr. Lee has been doing research specifically on how to increase female student populations in construction management programs.
“Based on about 15 to 20 surveys I’ve completed so far with women in construction, many of them have said their biggest concerns are about finding flexible work arrangements within the industry that will accommodate diverse needs, including those of working mothers,” he notes.
Lee stresses that changes need to be made in the overall construction industry to be more flexible and to advocate for policy changes that promote gender equity. At a company level, he says, awareness campaigns should be launched to challenge stereotypes related to gender roles in construction.
Lee says he is very happy to hear of the women’s successes.
“I’m so proud of them,” he says. “All the faculty work hard to prepare them and give them career opportunities.”