Why Work in Construction? “People Are Going to See What You’ve Built Every Day”

Project engineer Shelby Kohalmy talks to Bluebeam about why she got into the industry—and why other women should, too
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Shelby Kohalmy is a project engineer. She manages and tracks project approval coordination, construction documentation, quality assurance, construction management and project close-out, among other responsibilities.

Kohalmy, who was a Bluebeam XCON award winner in 2018, is currently working on a 23-story mixed-use development project in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood that will be completed in 2021.

Bluebeam interviewed Kohalmy about why she got into construction, if the industry can better market itself to young people, and how other women aspiring to work in construction can follow in her footsteps.

Edited excerpts follow:

What about construction is inspiring to you?

Kohalmy: When I first started this project, we basically had a dirt pit in the ground. I think it is kind of incredible to watch it just grow out of nothing. I’m a civil engineer by trade, but I’m actually the mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) project engineer on this particular project. Not only do I see the structure going up, but I’m also now involved in the entire internal system that goes into that building.

Is there anything that’s surprised you about working in construction that you didn’t anticipate?

Kohalmy: One of the biggest is actually how much decision-making there really is and how much input you have. Everything is detailed, and in this regard, there’s a lot of responsibility really soon—and not in a bad way. I don’t ever feel like I’ve been left to flounder or anything like that, but I do have a lot of things that I take charge of and I take responsibility of. That is incredibly rewarding at this stage in my career. I’ve only been working for five years and I have a lot of responsibility on this job.

What do you think construction has to do to improve the way it markets the industry to young job candidates?

Kohalmy: I don’t know if I have an answer to that question. It’s a hard industry, definitely for women in construction. It’s a brash industry. I don’t know if that’s ever going to change. And so, I don’t know if it’s marketable. It’s a personality trait that I think you have to have to work in construction.

Shelby Kohalmy
Shelby Kohalmy

But I think the inclusion of tech is a big deal. I think it’s important to have people who are working in tech and construction kind of working collaboratively or having people who know how to work with both, but I’m not sure how to market that. I don’t know what kinds of things really draw people in. I was attracted to construction because I like working with my hands.

Do you think the emergence of construction technology has helped diversify the potential pool of job candidates?

Kohalmy: I don’t necessarily. I find that the field is still very heavily male dominated. My office is fairly diverse. We have four women who work full-time in the office with our regional safety manager also being a woman. So, five people on occasion in the office that are female. But the staff itself is about 25 people. When you put that in a percentage, it’s just not that high.

I don’t know if it’s just a lack of interest from women. It’s hard to say, but you go out on the jobsite and the workers themselves are still mostly all men. I think there’s maybe three women on the entire construction site doing manual labor. I don’t know what determines that.

How do you adapt and navigate that male-dominated environment and be successful?

Kohalmy: That’s an interesting one, and it’s one that I struggle with a little bit. There are things in conversations that I don’t always like to be a part of in the office, just because of the personality and the type and style that a construction office has. And I think a lot of it is you have to decide that you like the work enough to kind of ignore those conversations or learn to adapt to the conversation.

What advice would you give younger women who are exploring their careers and considering following a similar path as you?

Kohalmy: I think most importantly is that it’s worth it, but that you have to be motivated. It has to be something you really want, because they’re just not going to hand it to you. And it’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding. In the construction world, people are going to drive by this building every day and it’s one of those things that you’re going to feel accomplished that you helped put up.

Take a look inside Suffolk’s L.A. “CoLab,” where the company uses emerging technology to plan its construction projects.