Last October, Laura Skellie was elected president of the Coastal Georgia Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), a group where she previously served as a chapter and committee chair. It was another step forward for the 11-year industry veteran, who currently serves as Superintendent at JE Dunn Construction. Her diverse construction career includes roles as project engineer with a general contractor and an architectural designer at an architectural firm, both located in Birmingham. Active in community service, Skellie also donates her time via photography, running her neighborhood’s community page, organizing clothing drives and helping with historic renovations. We sat down with her to get her thoughts on what it takes for women to keep climbing the ladder and what the future holds post-pandemic.
Give us a snapshot of the construction market today? What are you seeing out there?
Though some vertical market sectors were hit harder than others, generally speaking, construction is continuing on many of the projects that were underway ahead of the pandemic. Deemed an essential business for most of the US, the construction market has suffered some downsizing, but stands stronger today than most. Of course, our practices look somewhat different as we operate to protect our workers, flex to accommodate fluctuations in the labor force and monitor materials shortages.
How did you get started in the industry? What’s your story?
Early in my career, I planned to be an architect, receiving both my bachelor’s and master’s in architecture and pursuing a career in that field while applying extra effort to become licensed. During that time, I was placed in a position that allowed me to work as an on-site representative for my A&E firm, where I was exposed to the everyday life of construction. It gave me a fresh new perspective on the building process. I was drawn into the relationships created by the general contractor with the owner and trade partners. Now, I serve as a superintendent for JE Dunn Construction.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen over the past few years?
Truthfully, it is the acceptance of women in leadership positions through-out the construction industry. However, more firms are now embracing diversity and inclusion within the industry, and are developing programs to widely support the growth of females and minorities within their field of study.
The opportunities for women are endless. Identifying a career starts with understanding your skill set and interests.
Name some of the opportunities available for women in the industry?
The opportunities for women are endless. Identifying a career starts with understanding your skill set and interests. Women are master multi-taskers as well as superior organizers (most of the time) and that can be used at all levels in the industry. If you have an interest in the budget and financial side, the project management track is the way to go. If you want to work with your hands, you may consider carpentry or the superintendent track.
If being on a jobsite does not appeal to you, there are many opportunities within the support services roles as well. There are amazing resources available for women who are exploring a career in construction. Reach out to your local NAWIC chapter to learn about some of the opportunities.
What challenges remain?
The challenge is no longer acceptance of women into the construction industry. The challenge now is how to educate women on the opportunities that exist, empower them to feel confident with their skills and encourage them to consider an opportunity in a prominently male-dominated field. Firms like JE Dunn are working tirelessly to break down any perceived barriers, and recruit and train talented professionals, both men and women, into the industry nationwide.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Trust but verify. This is a piece of advice that I use every day in my role as superintendent.
What’s the advice you would share with women coming up in the industry?
Hold your head high and walk with purpose like you belong—because you do.
What’s the biggest lesson the past few months have taught you?
That almost all people you encounter have widely different communication styles. While this seems almost obvious, training with JE Dunn has allowed me to expand my knowledge in this area and learn more about the different ways to communicate. I have learned how to read my team better, and thus making it easier to communicate and have crucial conversations.
What’s the biggest item on your to-do list?
Spend some time with my husband and daughter. It is always No. 1 on my to-do list, and always my No. 1 priority.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do when everything gets back to normal?
Once the pandemic is over, we want to have a huge BBQ and pool party. We chose our house for the entertaining we could do, and we miss that.”
What’s one of the biggest lessons you learned over the past year?
Be kind. You never know what someone is going through. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it is that everyone needs a little compassion.