by Laura Rodley
WESTFORD, MA — Catherine Schoenenberger, president of Stay Safe Traffic Products, Inc., of Westford MA, and National president elect 2016-2017 of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), moderated the Women in Construction Symposium at the Nashoba Valley Technical School in Westford MA on March 7, attended by 116 female HS students from Nashoba and tech schools from Lawrence, Lowell and Waltham during Women in Construction week.
“The reason we are here today is to provide mentors for women in construction. I promise you we did not have that in front of us. Many of us have a male mentor. I was fortunate to have a strong female mentor. Find a mentor by taking the opportunity, always, to find the person to you want to be like and emulate them,” she said. Her strong female mentor was her mother, Beverly Johnson. “She raised 11 children; plus, I grew up a mile from here.” Her parents, Beverly and Bob Johnson owned a construction company, R.W. Johnson Landscaping. They also sold heavy equipment, such as bulldozers. “These were $100,000 machines 35 years ago. Never did my father make a deal if my mother wasn’t in the room with him,” she said.
Speaker Ximena Cruz is project engineer for Bond Brothers, of Medford MA. Her parents are also in the construction business, in Guatemala, and both architects. Her mother, Silvia Aguilar de Cruz, was (and still is) her inspiration. “My mom is also a big dreamer and a big boss lady.” Cruz was born and raised in Guatemala City, where, “You learn construction and design together. I got to go to projects with my father, and learned projects through their design (process) and got to see it completed.” Bilingual, she started learning English at age three. She attended Colegio Interamericano, a bilingual school.
She attained her goals following her mother’s advice: “Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone even when you are not entirely sure of how to get to your goal. If you don’t lose sight of your goals and work hard to obtain them, you will figure out the way.”
First, Cruz wanted to study biology. Then, she moved from Guatemala to Boston, MA to attend Wentworth Institute of Technology (WIT). “It was very challenging. I drank lots of coffee,” she said. The first construction project that she worked on without her parents was a co-op project, quantifying concrete for Consulta General Contractor, back in Guatemala, building a bus station. She saw how much concrete was wasted. Doing a “Study Abroad” project brought her outside her comfort zone. “Even though I loved architecture, I wanted to be in construction; I wanted to be the boss.” At another co-op project at Bond Construction Management and General Contracting Co, she met Rose Conti. She later obtained a job interview, and started working in construction management in 2014. As project engineer manager, she reviews shop drawings, works with contractors and subcontractors and tracks materials to get them on site. She has worked on MIT’s Simons Building, Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Vivarium, and BU’s New Theatre Center. She advised joining NAWIC, and meeting other inspirational women.
Carlie Biron is project manager for G. Greene Construction Co., in Allston, MA. She experienced “a true Cinderella moment,” when she realized she wanted to go to WIT. “My mother said, ‘Prove it.’” So, Carlie took courses at Boston Architectural College and New England School of Design, and entered WIT. “My first piece of advice to you is network early and network often,” she said, always taking opportunities to learn. She took an optional co-op, as it was 2010 when “there were slim pickings in architecture.” While redesigning a very tiny bathroom, she realized she didn’t love architecture, and that she was drawn to construction. “If it’s not working out for you, don’t quit, use the experience.” Not giving up, she moved to Cape Cod to work for J. K. Scanlan, helping to build a health care building. “I worked my butt off. I worked with Tom Brady’s trainer on the building.” She is president Elect of NAWIC’s Boston Chapter and Wentworth Alumni Association director.
Michele Jodar Stein, PE Computing and Engineering Technology Dept. chair, Middlesex Community College (MCC), and mother of three, started out when drafting was done on a board, prior to Autocad. Realizing she liked working outside and didn’t want to be tied down doing a technical job, she applied for scholarships when there were few for women. “I went through Merrimack College; had to work hard to keep up with Math and Sciences. I’m so glad I stuck it out,” graduating with a BA in Civil Engineering (CE).
She studied soil mechanics, dealing with tunnels, dams and landslides. “I got paid to go to grad school. I was always one of the only women; in grad school, I was the only one in my class.” She designed the exit ramps at Logan Airport. She obtained her CE Masters from UMass Lowell with a focus as a Geotechnical Engineer, and a PE license. “As an engineer, have to keep climbing the ladder, taking the exams. Being a PE opens the door for you,” she said. While teaching part time at Merrimack College, she got a call from MCC to apply for a full time engineer teaching position. One of 80 applicants, she got the job and is now department chair of their engineering program. “You can have it all. The only one that limits you is you,” said Stein.
A lasting perk for all is visible results of what they have built.
“Right now, the construction industry employs less than 10 percent women, but the goal of the industry and associations like NAWIC and trade unions is to have 20 percent by 2020. There’s a need and a lot of work to be done, said Schoenenberger.