Education: two Women's Experiences

Staff | September 28, 2010

Sheri McQuality is a project manager with 15 years of experience. She works for J.H. Findorff & Son, Inc., Madison, Wis., and is currently managing construction of the $35-million Capitol West Condominiums project in the heart of downtown Madison.

Kristin Van Hout is a project engineer for Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer & Associates, Green Bay, Wis. She has three-and-a-half years of experience as a degreed engineer and is part of the team building the $22-million Claude Allouez Bridge and related infrastructure improvements in De Pere, Wis.

Though Sheri and Kristin passed through the educational system and began working in construction more than a decade apart, both have found that our educational system does not encourage females strongly enough to take the path to a career in construction engineering.

But their experiences show that a female with talent and desire can find that path for herself. They also illustrate how much mentors can mean to someone's success.

Sheri McQuality:

During high school, I was torn on the direction to take for a career. I was drawn to three different paths — architecture, engineering and aeronautics.

My high school did not offer any programs, guidance or encouragement for women — or men, for that matter — interested in construction careers.

The push from guidance counselors in the mid 1980s was to enter the mechanical engineering field, something that just did not pique my interest.

I shocked my guidance counselor and peers when I decided not to enter college right out of high school but to pursue a career in real estate. At 18, I passed the real-estate broker's exam. After four years of real estate and a wealth of knowledge and real-life experience, I returned to school.

I found what appeared to be a perfect fit: a school that offered a bachelor of science degree in architectural engineering. Even though I didn't have a clue what an architectural engineering program would provide to me, I was intrigued that it addressed two of my career goals — architecture and engineering (and an underlying interest in construction that stemmed from my dad).

I entered the architectural engineering program in 1990 when only about 5 percent of the program consisted of women. Four strenuous years later, I graduated from the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

My greatest mentor came during my first year out of college, a gentleman named Charles Opferman. Although I had declined his first offer of employment and had joined a mid-sized construction company that promoted women and minorities in the construction field, I returned a year later and began working with him for a national company.

Charlie believed in my potential as a leader in the construction industry. He provided opportunities that a typical organization would never provide to a young female entering a construction career.

I worked on numerous projects with him, and when the opportunity to build a $25-million high school in southeastern Wisconsin came along, I requested and was granted the position of project superintendent. There was a look of amazement on a dozen men's faces when I stepped on the project job site for the first time and advised them that I was the project superintendent. I knew I had nothing to lose and a lot to gain by proving that I was indeed the right person for the job. It did not take long to gain the respect of every man on the project.

Have construction careers for women changed over the past 15 years? It really depends on where you look. National firms are leading the way to promote women in the construction industry. They tend to offer intense training programs to put all employees on the right track to success. Subcontractors are hiring more and more women to oversee their scopes of work. But sadly other companies are missing the boat when it comes to actively seeking out women in the construction industry. For some it is still a good old boys club.

In addition, high schools are lagging behind on promoting construction careers not only for women but for men as well.

Construction is no longer seen as an underpaid job for a blue-collar worker.

Men and women are making successful careers out of both the hands-on, physical aspect of the industry and the engineering and management aspect. Any man or woman that works in the construction industry is proud to quickly point out their accomplishments on the skylines of our cities.

Kristin Van Hout:

From little on, I've enjoyed the outdoors. I've always hunted with my father and brothers, and done other things not traditionally considered female pursuits.

In high school, I was good at math and science, so teachers and guidance counselors encouraged me to pursue a career in nursing or teaching. When I mentioned engineering, they suggested electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and even that I teach engineering — but they never brought up civil engineering or a construction-related career. Let's say that the educational system "under encouraged" me in considering a career in construction.

Fortunately, my uncle and cousin who were engineers encouraged my interest in their field. They were my first mentors. My uncle, who managed an engineering department at Kimberly Clark, arranged for me to job-shadow both him and the one female engineer working in his department — a well-respected project manager. She told me that she was the same as any other engineer in the department: skill and expertise mattered; gender didn't.

When I graduated from high school in 1998, I received a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin — Green Bay (UWGB). UWGB had recently begun promoting a dual-degree program for environmental science and civil engineering with the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee (UWM).

Typically a student would take prerequisites and intro to engineering courses at UWGB and then finish the studies at UWM, graduating with two degrees in a total of six years. I pushed myself with heavy credit loads and independent study courses to graduate early.

After completing four years at UWGB, I received a bachelor of science degree. Then I spent a year and a half at UWM, earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering.

Even at the college level, relatively few students were pursuing construction-related degrees, and only a small percentage of them were female.

At UWGB, I found another role model in a female professor of engineering, who also consulted on chemical and wastewater treatment projects. Her professional success and gentle-but-assured manner affirmed that a non-aggressive female could succeed as a construction-related engineer.

Two summer jobs while I was in college reinforced my liking for civil engineering work. One summer, I helped survey for the city of Green Bay, and another I worked in development and design for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT).

During my final year of college, I began working for consulting engineer Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer & Associates, Inc. I really loved it — still do.

I've been fortunate that all the people I work with at Graef and at WisDOT are receptive to my abilities and encourage me to pursue my career in project management. I have the opportunity to work with some wonderful people, and I thank them for the valuable construction experience they share with me.

Here I am, less than four years out of college and helping manage a large construction project like the Claude Allouez Bridge. Soon, I'll have accumulated four years of experience and will take the test to become a registered professional engineer. This is definitely the career for me. I truly enjoy and take pride in providing a safe, efficient transportation system for the public.

Although the educational system and our culture in general are becoming better about encouraging women to pursue non-traditional and construction-related careers, we still have long way to go.

That makes me all the more thankful that I have had great mentors and role models.

I've just been asked to be job-shadowee for a female engineering student from the University of Minnesota.

It will be my pleasure.