N.J. Industry Leaders Blaze Trail for Women in Construction

Mon January 08, 2007 - Northeast Edition
Christine Nelson

It is not difficult to imagine why construction is considered to be a man’s world. After all, in the construction industry, which employs more people and contributes more to America’s gross national product than any other single industry, women account for only 12 percent of the workforce, according to Labor Statistics.

These numbers should be changing significantly over the next several years due to the increased efforts of many promotional and awareness campaigns developed to educate women all about the endless opportunities available in the construction industry. Whether reaching out to the young women who are making decisions about what they want to do upon graduation or attracting women who are unfulfilled in their present positions, the world of construction has much to offer.

All across the country, national women’s organizations such as the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), the Professional Women in Construction (PWC) and the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) are all working toward a common goal — to increase the number of women entering the construction workforce. The message also is clear. Careers in construction offer tremendous opportunities for women including competitive salaries and benefit packages, excellent training, professional growth, advancement and the potential to start your own business plus many other incentives that are most appealing when considering a career.

Along with the national organizations promoting merits of construction, personal success stories also are available from the women who have been working in this non-traditional career for years.

Judith Flynn, president and CEO of Kevco Electrical in Middlesex, N.J., started her company in 1987 with her husband Kevin. With Kevin responsible for the technical and operational side of the business, Judy concentrated on the marketing and sales, focusing her energies on establishing the Kevco Electrical name with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), local municipalities and general contractors.

In the beginning, there were occasional challenges related to gender. Judy reflected there were times when working with new customer requests would be made to “talk to the real boss.” Judy just shrugged and admitted that it only increased her determination to accomplish the goal of growing the business.

Twenty years later, Kevco Electrical has more than $26 million in revenue and more than 100 employees. And all of this was accomplished while raising a family and attending night school.

“I believe that to be successful, it takes fortitude, risk and lots of hard work,” offered Judy. “It also is about dedication to relationships with your customers and your employees.”

As the company became more secure, Judy began to direct her attention to helping other women get their businesses and careers off the ground. Mentoring became, and still is, her passion. She became involved with the New York & New Jersey Mentor Protege Program, which provides leadership to small, minority and women-owned construction businesses. The mentors help these individual women owners develop business strategies and improve their competitive capacities to succeed in the construction industry. To acknowledge her strong sense of commitment to the program, Judy has received several awards from the Port Authority. There are many other awards and honors that she has accepted, most recently the NJ BIZ Best 50 Women in Business.

Mentoring young women also is important to Judy and working with her last summer was Jane Chen, a senior civil engineering student at Rutgers and a CIAP of NJ (Construction Industry Advancement Program) scholarship recipient. The internship was Chen’s first experience in working with a construction firm.

“I can really appreciate how tangible this experience has been. I know that I will continue in the field of civil engineering,” commented Chen. “I became interested in civil engineering after reading a book entitled The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand my junior year in high school. Adding in my interest in math and science, civil engineering became my focus.”

Following the internship at Kevco Electrical, Chen intends to look for a position in the construction business following graduation next May.

Denise Cruz-Serpico offered these words of wisdom: “Enjoying what you do is the key to finding the right job.”

Following her own advice, Cruz-Serpico is pursuing her aspirations of owning her company. She is founder and president of Cruz Enterprises in Holmdel, N.J., a heavy highway firm specializing in highway, water, sewer and microtunneling infrastructure projects.

The decision to follow a career path into construction seemed quite natural due to the connection between her skills in math and being raised in a family where construction has been the family business for several generations. Over the past 20 years, she has been responsible for managing many multi-million dollar heavy construction projects in New Jersey and New York.

As she was moving up the ladder of success, Cruz-Serpico also found that membership and involvement in the professional organizations linked to the industry served as a great vehicle for establishing and building relationships with peers and contacts. Among her affiliations, she has held leadership positions with the UTCA including president, recipient of the William Feather Award and currently sits on its board of directors. Cruz-Serpico also represents UTCA on the CIAP of NJ Board of Trustees.

She also has served as chairperson of the Professional Engineers in Construction (PEC) and still remains on its board. This organization each year awards a $10,000 scholarship to a civil engineering student who is excelling in his/her studies and also gaining practical experience. According to Cruz-Serpico, there has been a female recipient for the past five years. Perhaps, this is an indicator that indeed the times are changing.

Still, there is definite need for the awareness campaigns that are blazing across the country designed to entice young women to regard a career in construction. So often, it is not even considered as a possibility. Ironically, even women who have been surrounded by construction-owned family business head off in an entirely different direction.

For example, take Ashlee Binder, director of marketing of Binder Machinery in South Plainfield, N.J. Upon graduation from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., Binder’s plan was to pursue her interests in advertising. She certainly did not envision a career with Binder Machinery. The company was founded by her grandfather in 1957 and currently is under the leadership of her father, Robert Binder. She added that for her brothers, there was always a natural connection to become a part of the family business. She had worked for the company during her college summers, so she was familiar with the business operations.

Upon graduation, she thought she was spending her last summer working at Binder. However, a change of heart took place and she decided to stay and develop a niche for herself within the business. She was working at the time in the credit department focusing on customer service for new and existing customers. She spent three years in this area, but her passion for marketing and advertising continued to grow — only this time directly related to Binder Machinery. In 2003, Ashlee stepped into the role of marketing director and took on the responsibilities associated with this area.

“It was certainly exciting to develop in my new position. I believe the experience I gained while working with our customers had such a positive impact on me and how I would bring that experience into the marketing area,” said Ashlee.

She added that the construction industry is wide open for females.

“Women are often stereotyped into certain industries and are rarely associated with the construction industry. What is overlooked is the excitement associated with engineering and construction of large-scale projects.”

For two other very successful women owners of construction businesses in New Jersey, their entrance into the industry came while working in other industries. In fact, for Linda Gardner-Vollers, she was not even living in the state when her father Dick Gardner approached her with the proposal to join the family business, Brent Materials, a construction materials company founded by her grandfather Larry Gardner in 1936.

Gardner-Vollers returned to New Jersey and the world of construction. She has been instrumental in the company’s many expansions and continued success.

“Construction has much to offer and especially to anyone that may have the desire to own their business,” she said.

She is active in many of the associations and organizations that support the industry. And although the majority of the population at these events is male, no one seems to be interested in those percentages.

Chris Colabella, on the other hand, was working in finance when her father Don Colabella, who had been working in construction for more than 28 years, came to her with the idea of developing a company that would provide construction bids for the industry.

While the large task of collecting all the public, private, federal and county information was daunting to Colabella, who at the time was in her early 20s, the idea of starting a business was most exciting.

“If not for my father, the construction industry would not have even been on my radar scene,” she admitted.

Fifteen years later, she is now president of Customer Information Systems (CIS) located in Kinnelon, N.J. As president, she is responsible for the operations of the business while her father focuses on the technology and programming side of the business.

When asked about the challenges of being female in this male-oriented industry, Colabella said that while it may sound intimidating to young women there are many benefits associated with working in the industry.

In closing, she added, “The construction industry is full of hard-working, sharp, talented people. More females need to be aware of what the industry can offer.”

About CIAP

The Construction Industry Advancement Program of NJ (CIAP) is a non-profit trusteeship established in 1977 by the Associated General Contractors of New Jersey (AGC), the New Jersey Asphalt Pavement Association (NJAPA) and the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey (UTCA).

CIAP is dedicated to promoting the New Jersey construction industry and construction careers, to enhance the public image and to provide and support a spectrum of construction-related educational activities.

For more information, call 732/738-8636 or visit www.ciapofnj.org.

(Christine Nelson is a public relations specialist of CIAP of NJ).

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