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Skanska takes a unique approach to fill field engineer positions while boosting diversity, inclusion

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sara Moore, left, and Rebecca Doc Kenney, right, recently moved from the trades into management-trainee positions as field engineers on a Skanska USA Building project in Hillsboro. The unique hiring approach was spearheaded by Katie Coulson, a vice president account manager with the general contractor.

When it came time to fill field engineer positions on a large project for a hi-tech client in Hillsboro, Skanska USA Building's Katie Coulson decided to try a different approach.

Coulson, a vice president account manager, saw the field engineers positions - which prepare employees to eventually move into superintendent roles - as a way for the general contractor to boost the number of minorities and women on the project.

So, in addition to posting the position through regular channels, Coulson turned to Oregon Tradeswomen to send out a call for women journeymen out in the field interested in moving into the management roles. The Portland-based group provides pre-apprenticeship training along with support and advocacy for women in alternative industries such as construction.

"We just decided we were going to recruit and hire in a different way… We decided to take different tactics," Coulson said. "We also hired some people who didn't have construction experience but had project management experience in some capacity in other industries."

Although the project is confidential, Coulson is able to identify that the unique approach to filling field engineer positions has allowed Skanska to reach 40% diversity in its overall employment on the project.

In addition to hiring several men of color for the field engineer positions, the outreach with Oregon Tradeswomen resulted in two tradeswomen being hired, helping Skanska achieve 27% overall participation by women on the Hillsboro project.

The right stuff

For Sara Moore, one of the two women hired for the available field engineer positions, the chance to move her construction career in a new direction came at a time when she was ready for a change. Moore had been involved in the construction industry since 2005, when she began the pre-apprenticeship program with Oregon Tradeswomen. One year later she began an apprenticeship as a laborer.

"It was a good fit," Moore said. "I liked the idea of being involved in all aspects of construction."

On her way to earning her journeyman license she mainly focused on massive dirt and mass excavation work along with bridge and tunnel work, racking up an impressive list of project experience. She worked from start to finish on both the city of Portland eastside combined sewer overflow project and the construction of the Sellwood Bridge.

Moore took pride in her work, especially when she had the opportunity to point out the projects she was involved in to her three children. But as she moved toward a decade in the field, she also found herself tiring of some aspects of the trade. It was more than just the exhaustion at the end of a hard day and the occasional injuries.

"I loved what I was doing, (but) I was beginning to feel pretty stagnant in the position I was in," Moore said.

She had been given opportunities on projects to take lead roles when superintendents and foremen went on vacation. She not only enjoyed the responsibility, she found she was good at it. So, when she saw the posting from Oregon Tradeswomen about the field engineer positions, she decided to submit her name.

Field versus office

She was hired for one of the positions and started with Skanska in September of last year. She soon faced with new challenges on a daily basis. The main role of field engineers on Skanska's Hillsboro project is to assist project superintendents, according to Coulson. While field engineers spend the better part of their day out in the field - answering questions and handling issues as they arise and making sure work stays on schedule - they also need to have a grasp on administrative skills, such as juggling emails and running meetings with different trade groups.

Moore found managing the trade crews in the field to be one of the easiest parts of her new role as a field engineer.

"I've worked with several of the crews (here) on other jobs out in the field, and (it) was kind of fun to be able to walk in and stand at the head of the table," she said. "I've gotten some pretty awesome feedback because they've watched me transition from that 24-year old (on her first project) making up names for different tools and operations."

Training time

The administrative side posed a steeper learning curve for Moore, from struggling to keep up with a flood of daily emails to fighting the urge to doze off sitting in back-to-back meetings.

She relied on persistence and brainstorming innovative solutions – holding stand-up meetings, for example, helped her stay alert– to gain a grip on some challenges. She and the other field engineers also found help in Skanska's willingness to change the way it operates in some areas. When the company realized most of their new field engineers had limited experience with software program like Excel, for example, the company provided training.

"We're trying to find different ways to hire people and bring them on our team, but then we need to make some adjustments as well," Coulson said. "As we change and try to do new things, then we need to make sure we're adapting as well to help people get the skills that they need as quickly as they can."

For Moore, that made a big difference in being able to transition more smoothly into her new role. She knew how to open and read an Excel spreadsheet before she began at Skanska. Now, though, she's learned how to build one.

"I used my laptop at home (previously) to video stream, but now I'm on it all the time," Moore said. "It has been an excellent resource to make that change successful. It has been very cool."

Full circle

For Rebecca "Doc" Kenney, the second women hired by Skanska as a field engineer for the Hillsboro project, the juggling of field and administrative roles is a perfect fit, allowing her to combine a lifetime of career experience.

Kenney was 14 when she first entered the trades, working in the steel fabricating company her father owned in the area that is now called Portland's South Waterfront District.

"It was extremely unusual, but I bugged my dad enough that he let me, and back then, which was in the '70s, I started as a steel fabricator," she said. "I learned to weld … and to drive forklifts. I got to put my hand on all those tools and learn what they were."

By the time she reached her 20s, she was working for a mason as a hod carrier, hauling 100-pound bags of sand, lime and Portland cement. She then grabbed an opportunity to shift to carpentry, learning the trade from an industry veteran she describes as a "gnarly little old guy who hadn't made it past the first or third grade, yet he was brilliant."

Eventually Kenney decided to try a new career path. She enrolled in college and earned a degree in English, graduating with honors. Her unique combination of strong communication skills and a background in the trades helped her snag a job with Seattle City Light as training and education coordinator for apprenticeship programs. After moving to Portland a few years later to care for her mother, who had terminal cancer, she secured a job with Mount Hood Community College to help build training programs with local trade group partners. She eventually moved on to administrative positions with community colleges and other educational institutions in other parts of the country, earning a master's degree and doctorate along the way.

Full circle

In her early 20s, entering the construction industry had helped Kenney overcome a chronic addiction to alcohol. As she neared middle age, she hit another rough patch in her life. She and her wife moved back to Portland and as Kenney worked on her recovery, she decided to return to her construction roots.

On a visit to the ironworkers' union hall, she came across a card with information about the Oregon Tradeswomen's pre-apprenticeship program. A few weeks later she was enrolled in the program and the Monday after finishing, she cold-called a general contractor and was offered a job. Her first project was an Oregon Health & Science University building on the same land where, 40 years earlier, she had begun her foray into the trades at her father's steel fabrication plant.

Kenney enjoyed the return to carpentry. But now in her late 50s, she also found the work was more exhausting than it had been 20 years earlier. So, when someone from Oregon Tradeswomen suggested the field engineer opportunity with Skanska might be a good fit, she decided to apply

Like Moore, she realized her background made her a good fit for the job, but she also had a concern.

"I was scared I would be stereotyped as too old," Kenney said.

The Skanska management team member who conducted her second interview didn't agree. He offered her job on the spot.

Even though Kenney has experience in the field and the office, she finds the position of field engineer still offers plenty of challenges. The opportunity to learn new things and innovate on a daily basis has refueled that passion for the industry that she first discovered decades ago.

"These are positions that are new (for Skanska), so we're kind of in these design-build positions, it's a perfect transitional stepping stone into a superintendent role," Kenney said. "The cool thing is I get to use every single thing I've learned … to do the work I do (every day on this project)."

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