MinnesotaCRE A wealth of talent: Women making a difference at Mortenson Dan Rafter March 27, 2020 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share via email Minneapolis-based Mortenson celebrated Women in Construction week March 3 through 9. The week is designed to showcase the impact women are having on the construction industry. An equally worthwhile goal? To raise awareness of the opportunities available for women in the construction field. Several women hold key positions at Mortenson, whether in the field or at the executive level. In recognition of this, REjournals recently spoke to two women making a difference at the company, Erin Saewert, senior project manager, and Amrita Meher, field engineer. Here’s what these two construction-industry pros had to say about what led them to this industry, what they enjoy most about it and what challenges they face as women in an industry still largely dominated by men. Amrita Meher, Field Engineer Chicago office of Mortenson What led you to a career in the construction industry?Meher: I graduated in 2016. That’s when I joined Mortenson. Before that, I had done some construction management and engineering. My undergraduate degree was in engineering. After I graduated, I was still trying to decide what career path to take. One good path looked like structural engineering. During my final year in school, I had a construction management internship. That was very different from what I had done before, and I really enjoyed it. Growing up, if you gave me a problem, I’d solve it. I’d say, ‘Let me do this myself.’ I thought I’d be very comfortable in this career. I could work on problems, and that was what I always enjoyed.When you go to a project, there are so many tradespeople there. There are so many questions that come up. Along with your technical knowledge, you need good people skills, too. That was something I thought I had always lacked. I thought working in construction would be a good challenge, a good way to improve those people skills. It would allow me to get out of my comfort zone a little. I haven’t regretted my decision at all. Working in this field has helped me grow as a person.What steps did you take to improve those people skills? Meher: The first time I came to a job site, I thought I’d be able to just ask questions and figure things out, that this wouldn’t take much in the way of people skills. But you have to ask the question right and get comfortable talking to people. It’s a bit like being in the classroom and asking questions of the professor, but on a much larger scale. There are just so many people you have to interact with in the field. You are forced to jump into it and see how it goes. For me, getting comfortable meant listening a lot instead of doing the talking. I try to absorb as much as I can from all these people who know more than I do. When you are on a site, you run into so many people who have worked in this field for decades. My goal is to always be a good listener. Once I got good at listening to people and figuring people out on my own, I found my voice. This is the way to do things. This is what we did in the last project. Let’s see if that solution will work here. I became good at listening to people and listening to what the issues were that they faced and then getting to a solution. How important is it to learn from others in this industry?Meher: I have always had a good team to help me. It was very important to find mentors who will help you develop your weaknesses into strengths. I was fortunate to have my mentor there for me. Whenever I had a question, I would talk to him. He was always my first line of defense. What kind of feeling is it when you do make a difference on a job site? Meher: Coming up with a solution, no matter how small or big the problem is, is always very satisfying. People working in the field are always focused on getting the work done and done right. But there are so many parts and pieces to a construction job. One lead foreman can’t catch all the issues. I am like a second set of eyes whenever I do my inspections. Maybe we missed the rebar in a spot. It’s my job to find that. What do you enjoy most about working in construction? Meher: Depending on the project you are working on, you can learn so much. It’s such a good learning experience to discover how much power goes into building a data center and making it functional. Something that feeds an entire town might not be enough to run a data center. You don’t realize the magnitude of it until you work on a project like that. Or maybe you are working on a performance center. You have to focus on the acoustics of the building. You have to learn about how you can’t have rigid connections in these sensitive rooms. That can create huge vibrations and impact the performances in that concert hall. With every building, you learn something new. Do you face any challenges being a woman in an industry still dominated by men? Meher: If you go to a room and there are 15 men in that room and you are the only woman, that can still be challenging. If you are leading the meeting, sometimes you have to think twice if they are taking you seriously enough. The good thing about the industry now, though, is that people really don’t think twice when they see a woman in a position of leadership. Women who have worked in the industry before me have helped develop that mindset. The people in this industry work together and support each other. It might take a woman who is new to the industry a while to realize that these people are here to support them and that they do want you to succeed, despite the gender difference.Do you see more women entering the construction field today?Meher: There are more women in the office side and in leadership roles. But when you go to a job site itself, you still see very few women. Women just aren’t making it out there at the tradespeople level. It has been challenging to get more women on the field side. The goal is to get more women in the trade side. The way do that is just through more communications about the opportunities that are available in the construction industry. We talk to students in Chicago all the time about architecture, construction and engineering. We want to expose them early on about this field. The key is to promote these opportunities. Students need to know that they can have a very satisfying career and earn good money in the trades. Sometimes people don’t realize what a great job opportunity this is.Erin Saewert, senior project managerMilwaukee office of MortensonWhat led you to a career in the construction business? Saewert: In high school, I had always been interested in architecture. Both of my parents are from Chicago, so we went into the city a lot. I admired the buildings and loved taking the riverboat tours. I knew that one day I wanted to design a skyscraper. We all have these dreams of becoming the next Frank Lloyd Wright, which is funny because I can’t draw to save my life. In school, I gravitated more toward math classes than English. A family friend told me that wanting to be an architect is great, but that I should get an engineering degree first. That was around 1999. During school, I interned for a construction company and worked as an estimator. I read drawings. I really started to like getting into the details of the drawings and seeing how things were built. It still related to architecture, but it was different and fascinating to me. I did a few more internships, and that solidified my desire to want to go more into the construction-management route. What do you enjoy about this career?Saewert: It’s certainly been a rewarding career. I get to see something take shape from the ground up. I have kids, and I get to take them to a project and say, ‘This is what I helped build.’ That is really rewarding. No two days are the same. You hear people say that all the time, but it is true. But what’s special about this career has been the people I’ve met. I have formed lifelong friendships. I’ve been to the weddings and baby showers of people I’ve met through this career. It’s inspiring how much pride everyone takes in the work. There is a common goal that everyone has a on a job site, to build this building. It pulls people together. What personality traits do people need to succeed in construction?Saewert: Many people in this career don’t come up through the trades first. I didn’t start as a carpenter and work my way up. You don’t have that experience, then, coming in. You have to understand this and be OK with it. You have to learn that it is OK that you don’t instantly know everything. We all learn by our mistakes, and you need to be comfortable with that.You also have to be a continuous problem-solver, and you have to constantly seek out how things are done. You also have to be an effective communicator, both verbally and while writing. If you are trying to communicate about an issue with an architect, you have to be able to explain what the issue is and what you need to solve it. Finally, you must have an open mind. You have to be receptive to other ways of doing things. There has long been a mentality in the construction field that we always have to do things the way we’ve always done them in the past. That’s not the right mindset. We have to always look for new, innovative ways to do this job. You have to be a forward-thinker. That’s important in an industry like this.Are there any projects you’ve worked on that you particularly enjoyed?Saewert: I transferred here from the Minneapolis office, where I spent the bulk of my career. In 2006, I was a project engineer on a grizzly bear exhibit for the Minnesota Zoo. It wasn’t a very large project, but it was a very complicated one. It featured some unique construction. We hired a team of artists from Tucson, Arizona, for example to carve rocks that looked like they were from the eastern coasts of Russia. I learned so much on that job. When they finally brought the bears into their new habitat, the whole job site stood still to see how they would react. Years later, I brought my kids to see those bears. That was such a rewarding project that I always look back on with fondness. I also worked on the Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis. I was just back from maternity leave after having my second child. This was my first project where I was the lead project manager, the person in charge. We also had a lot of women on this project. There were two female project engineers. The executive overseeing the project was a woman. And when we finished, the clients were so excited and grateful for what we were doing for them. Seeing what this project would mean for the children who would go there was really rewarding. I remember how excited the clients were when we started pouring concrete. You usually don’t get that kind of reaction.Have you faced any challenges being a woman in this field?Saewert: As I have worked to break more into a leadership role, one of the things that I have found challenging is that you almost feel that you have to overcome this stigma of being a woman in construction. There is that assumption sometimes that women aren’t as willing to take on a challenging project like their male counterparts would. There’s that assumption that women aren’t as willing to relocate to take on a more challenging project. Now, I have never had anyone verbalize this to me in this industry. I have never had anyone tell me that they were worried I wouldn’t take on a more challenging project. But there is a vibe out there. You know it is there. How do you break that chain? I have had wonderful mentors who believed in me. The people I have worked with have been very good at not being gender-biased. They have put me in challenging assignments. I have seen a shift in how I view myself and in how others view me. But the lack of women is still a challenge. You look around, especially at the leadership level and there are not enough women. Are you seeing this change? Saewert: When I started, there were very few female engineers. There were not very many project managers. Over the years now, that has changed. One summer, every intern we had was female. That was great. The number of women in this field has definitely increased across the board. At a project-management level, the numbers are up. It’s when you get to the executive level, that the numbers are still far too low. That’s why it is important to have diverse leadership at the executive level. We have someone like Maja Rosenquist, who is a senior vice president for Mortenson. She was the first come up through the ranks through operations to get to that level. You are starting to see more females at that executive level, but it takes time. There is talent in the pipeline. It will take time, five to 10 years, to see the results of that, to see more female executives and directors.