I promised to share some career “stories” from my peers in the construction industry. The question I get asked most frequently is “How the heck did you end up in construction?”. It’s a long story, but here’s a quick summary:
I didn’t start out dreaming about working in the civil construction industry, especially underground utilities. I started in computer programming and networking back in the late 1970’s, working with some of the very first micro computers. The technology industry back then had very few women working in software and hardware and I truly fell in love with it. I worked for companies such as Microsoft (yes, I got to talk with Bill Gates back then) and eventually founded and operated one of the largest technology training companies in the Rocky Mountain region.
Fast forward many years and I landed in the construction business in about 2006-2007. My co-owner at OE (my son) convinced me earthwork and underground utilities were where I needed to be, both financially and physically. What I do know, is when I get engaged in a new business, new idea, new anything, I go all in. I can’t imagine working in any other industry, this journey has been the best decision I ever made.
Another female business owner here in Colorado sent me her story (see My Journey as a Commercial Construction Contractor, below). The story illustrates how many of us in construction never intended to to be in this industry, but somehow found opportunities as we finished school or worked in other jobs. We learned everything we could about the industry, surrounded ourselves with good leaders, co-workers, customers and others in construction. We payed attention, we worked hard, we worked smart and we now bring a unique perspective to the construction industry. Women are typically good at building consensus, active listening, collaboration, finding solutions and communicating with others. They say it takes a village, and that is exactly what it takes in construction to build great teams and companies.
My Journey as a Commercial Construction Contractor and Business Owner
When I was in high school, I joined the Manual High School theater club and was instantly attracted to the building aspect of theater. I had roles in costume creation, set design & construction, and production management. I now look back and see that even at the young age of 16, I was destined to be in construction.
For college, I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder to study Structural Engineering. I remember going to an AGC meeting my sophomore year (for the free pizza of course) and said, “Why am I here….I’ll never go into construction!” During the summer after my Sophomore and Junior years, I had a full time Civil Engineering internship. It was during this hands on engineering work that I discovered that I hated engineering! I loved the academic side of engineering; the classes, the problem sets and homework, the projects but I hated the real world application of my future profession.
It was during my Senior year at CU that I went to one of the construction management professors for some advice. We changed my senior classes to include both my required structural engineering courses but added some construction courses like scheduling and estimating. I was in love with CM and took my education to the next level and graduated with a Construction Engineering & Management Masters degree from Stanford University in 2000.
After graduation, I joined a large commercial general contracting company in Denver where I spent 15 years of my career. When I first started out of school, one aspect of construction I had a lot of frustration with was that I couldn’t just go read a book or take a class to learn “construction”. This is a profession where you have to put time in the trenches, get your hand dirty, make mistakes (many of them) and learn from each one on how to be better the next time. It is only after “doing” that you learn construction and that is what fascinates me 20 years later; I still learn something new with every project.
In 2015, I was presented with an opportunity to be a business owner of a subcontractor. This life change has allowed me to mentor other people in our industry, build a company that I am proud of, provide a fun place to work for my teammates, and become a go-to sub for my clients.
So, if you are a young woman looking at construction as your potential career path, take a look around you and connect with programs and resources at your school, and other outside programs. There are great resources such as Transportation and Construction Girl (https://constructiongirl.org/), and Associated General Contractors Construction Careers Now (https://www.buildcolorado.com/).
Ask your family and relatives if anyone they know is in construction. Check out community college programs and college certificate programs (there are many out there) and most importantly don’t give up! There are so many career opportunities in construction, positions from the back office (accounting, administration, engineering, estimating, project management) to the field office (apprentice trade programs, field workers of all types, coordinators, field engineers, surveyors, foreman, superintendent and so on).
Stay tuned for more women in construction stories, this is just the beginning, come back for more.
About the author
Terri Olson is an investor and Vice President with OE Construction Corp., a commercial excavation and underground utility contractor. She has worked in the construction industry for over 13 years and brings over 25 years of experience in building and running technology companies. Running a construction company is a lot like a tech company, nothing is ever the same, every day is a new adventure. Her son, Chris Olson, is the founder of OE Construction Corp. and started working in the construction industry in high school. He founded the company at 19 years old and his passion for the people, the equipment, the work and the challenge to excel has kept him going. Chris has brought in new technology over the years and we are now 100% machine control when building large sites and his expertise in working with GPS and drones has taken us to the next level in earthwork, pretty cutting edge and exciting.