Nomads In Hardhats – Journey Of A Field Engineer

The Perspective Of A Woman Construction Engineer And Parsons’ Opportunities. 

I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, and figuring that out has been an interesting journey. When I was a child, I wanted to sell apples on the side of the highway. Then I found a more normal interest in becoming a veterinarian.

Eventually, I fully embraced my life growing up in a military family and decided that I would be an Air Force officer. I thought that was my destiny until my nut allergies decided otherwise. After five years of ROTC military training, I was now stranded, two months from graduation at the University of Colorado, Boulder, with no internship experience, no resume, but (thank goodness) a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

Now completely off my original life plan of becoming an apple saleswoman, I found myself interviewing with Elie Homsi, Senior Vice President of the Construction Engineering Group and Parsons Fellow, an intelligent, intuitive leader who saw potential in me and became the first of my many role models in Parsons. 

With Elie, I first learned of Parsons’ coordination with Bridges to Prosperity – a non-profit that works with developing countries constructing pedestrian bridges. I immediately wanted to be a part of a company that supported such a wonderful cause. 

I found a company that could make use of my military training, challenge me to be a leader, and gives me a bigger purpose to serve the public. Parsons fit the bill.

Although I’ve only been a Parsons employee for a little more than three years, I’ve experienced a lot. In that short time, I’ve worked on three different projects in different roles and moved four times. When I first joined Parsons, I was told upfront that my life would be a constant move from project to project and I was ecstatic about the idea. I’ve dealt with challenging people, huge unknowns, last-minute changes, and the typical “hurry up and wait” scenario all too often.

I was always told to hang in there for at least the first six months before making any real decision about the position, and I completely support the mentality. In those first six months, you will want to pull your hair out, lock yourself in the bathroom and never leave, cry over ice cream at breakfast – just hang in there, because it always gets better. None of this was easy, but every move has led me closer to where I want to be. I learned how to travel alone comfortably, to make close friendships in little time, and be confident in who I am and want to be. Each project has been an exciting change of pace that has kept me fully engaged in my career.

My first official project was the High-Speed Rail (Fresno, California) – a joint venture project with Tutor Perini. As an engineer fresh off the press, I was visiting sites with towering columns, learning the construction lingo, and making friends with amazing co-workers. I started in change management where I was delving into our project contracts, drawings, and specifications to organize million-dollar change orders with our change management team. At some point, I needed a change from the changes. I really wanted to get out of the office and into the field!

I was lucky enough to fill an open position on the East Link Light Rail (Bellevue, Washington) – a joint venture project with Shimmick Construction – AECOM. This is an awesome 2.5 mile-long section build of the light rail connecting Bellevue to Seattle, including the construction of a cantilevered bridge, housing demolition, long stretches of the trench, water mitigation, and road modifications. I started out in change management engineering and eventually worked my courage up to ask for a position in the field. My courage paid off and I became the project traffic control manager, working with the Washington Department of Transportation, City of Bellevue, Sound Transit, and adjacent contractors. My job was to make people angry – Detours! Highway closures! Traffic cones galore! I was the queen of road rage, but I found joy in working so closely with the construction crews.

While I was working in Washington, I heard about the application for a first-time all-women’s build with Bridges to Prosperity in Rwanda. I had sent in an application the previous year for a bridge-build with no luck, but something told me to try again. When I saw the roster come out with my name on it, I jumped around the office squealing for a good ten minutes – I was finally going to be a part of what had originally brought me into Parsons – in Africa!

I could talk about my experience for hours, but in short:

1. By far, this was the best team ever. Five Parsons women and five Kiewit women. Let me tell you, there was substantially less drama than your typical job site… and more wine, chocolate, and singing after hours.

2. Hard work pays off. We were up at the crack of dawn working hard on the site, exploring the local villages, and attending community events.  Everyone on the team (especially local laborers, which did include men, from the surrounding communities) was putting full effort into this bridge. I worked with all sorts of fun personalities, sweating in the heat as the Safety Deputy, in the “fab yard”, on the deck and fencing crew, and hauling cable and rocks in never-ending lines.

3. I was so inspired by the Rwandan women! One memory that always makes me smile was teaching Claudette, one of the Rwandan girls on site, how to use the power tools. Not only did she love it, but she caught on fast and was very skilled at the task! At one point, one of the older men tried to grab the drill from her and she didn’t even let him think about taking her job.

4. I like to explain the work on-site between our team as a very intense exchange. We exchanged languages – words, phrases, gestures. We also exchanged methods. Although the Parsons/Kiewit women’s team came with shiny tools and bridge engineering, the local builders came with creativity, efficiency, motivation, and endless positive energy. We needed a sawhorse, and in a matter of minutes they had whipped one up with their machetes.  Thousands of pounds of rocks needed to be moved? No problem, a line of friends and loud singing can go a long way.

I floated back to the real world like I came out of a dream. Luckily, I was able to digest the experience, thanks to Parsons allowing me to attend the annual Women in Construction conference. Surrounded by strong, powerful, motivated women who understood the feeling of standing out!

The biggest take-aways I got from attending the conference was that nothing is easy, but it will be worth it. I heard stories from the previous generations of women in construction who have paved the very rough road for me to be where I am.

By far, the coolest project I have and will ever be on is my current project, the Antarctica Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) program.  (Unless Parsons can send me to space, as I’m always available for space construction engineer job openings). In October 2019, I found myself sitting in a massive military cargo plane (C-17), looking out of my tiny circle window at huge glacial mountains and icebergs below. Destination: McMurdo Station. Landing on the Phoenix Field ice strip was like entering another dimension – we were a gaggle of waddling “big red” jackets in our white “bunny boots”. Some of the group had been returning to “ice” for years from all walks of life – coming to service the station as “stewies” in the kitchen, “fuelies” filling equipment with gas, “wasties” organizing trash, and “janos” keeping the station clean or doing amazing research as a scientist in the field.

This was the second season for Parsons on station, but the first time we managed a full-scale crew.  Our first project and first step in the planned remodel of McMurdo Station facilities, Information Technology and Communications (IT&C) was an extension to the existing Science Support Center. This extension will house station data centers and network operations upon completion.

Our Parsons team had to adapt to the ways of the station.  Our team was driven to work efficiently and effectively, but we had multiple logistical hurdles to overcome. On your typical construction project, if you run out of screws, you send the field engineer (me!) to Home Depot, no problem. In Antarctica, there is no Home Depot, so you better start rationing those screws, and if you get too low then expect to wait for one, maybe two months before you can see anything you’ve ordered. Any construction site is on a tight schedule, but in Antarctica, you’re racing the short weather season while juggling material deliveries. I spent a lot of time working with the station cargo department receiving deliveries. When they did come in, I felt like Santa Clause – here’s a new hammer, sharpies galore, that adhesive we were missing finally came in! Our team was a highly motivated, diverse group and we approached each challenge with a determination to do what was best for the project.

I stayed on “ice” for a total of six months with one break. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our construction season had to wrap up early, and I returned to a very different world in mid-April 2020. I was very thankful that Parsons allowed me to journey to the bottom of Earth, and hope at some point to return!

My experience with Parsons hasn’t been very long, but it has been a jam-packed adventure! 

I often don’t know what next month is going to look like, and although it takes patience and flexibility, I’m constantly learning and experiencing.  Parsons has so many avenues, that if something isn’t working for you, there are ten more doors waiting to be opened. The projects are exciting and keep me wanting more!  The Pacific Ocean? Middle East? The Amazon? Who knows where I’ll get to explore next? 

What I do know, is that Parsons will continue to keep me on my toes, allow me to grow professionally and personally, and provide a culture of excellence surrounded by my Parsons family.

About The Author

Sara S. has been a construction project engineer on the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS), where off the job she frolics hand in flipper with penguins and bobsleds down glaciers. Parsons decided to take her in three years ago and continues to feed her with inspiring mentors, engaging teams, and exciting projects. Thanks to the opportunity to work remotely with Parsons, Sara recently moved to Durango, CO after falling in love with the beautiful mountain town upon completion of the 490-mile Colorado Trail.  When she’s not hiking excessively long distances, Sara is white-water rafting, traveling, caving, climbing, and eating great food.

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