Women in Construction Week: Jennifer Suerth

Jennifer Suerth is what you would call a “champion of change” – whether she’s adding to her distinct professional skill set, or she’s incorporating new technologies and processes onto her construction projects. Jennifer is Vice President of Technical Services at Pepper Construction, and we received an inside view on how she uses a very distinct and highly-integrated approach to provide strategic direction in regards to BIM & VDC. She adds tremendous value to her team at Pepper by being able to “speak the language” – relating to both architects and structural engineers while working for the contractor. Discover how Jennifer thinks using more technology in construction can make job sites more safe and efficient, and also learn what she believes is a straightforward way to get more women into the construction industry.

Sheryl Sandberg said in her acclaimed book ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’ that “careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder,” referencing the more atypical route most people’s career paths are taking. Looking back at your professional experiences, tell me a little more how you got to this point in your career.

Jennifer Suerth
Jennifer Suerth

What Sheryl is referring to is the fact that people are not necessarily staying at their same companies their entire career anymore and moving up the ladder at one place like they used to. Now, people are jumping to other companies to look for growth. That could mean they may want to make a lateral move in a different type of position, or in many cases, they want upward movement and that position isn’t available at their organization.

Leaving my first job as a structural engineer at Arup was one of the hardest decisions of my life. I picked that company because it was a place I could see myself spending my entire career at and still consider them one of the most sophisticated engineering firms in the world. I was fortunate to work on some amazing projects there with a brilliant group of people, one which brought me to New York to work as the on-site engineer at the Delta Terminal expansion at JFK that I helped design.

I knew I was stronger in the more technical side of the industry, but my heart has always loved the design side as well. After working on-site and spending a lot of time during construction on a few projects, I realized my skills and experience aligned more with construction. Lucky for me, right when I was contemplating joining the construction industry and returned back from New York, a large general contractor approached me about an opportunity in their company’s Virtual Design and Construction group. I still to this day feel construction is taking the most advantage of technology, and I knew I could push it further on this side of the AEC industry.

Nine months ago, I was approached with an opportunity to join Pepper Construction. It was a decision I did not take lightly as I wasn’t looking for a new job. I looked hard at what I wanted personally and professionally. I spent much of my career working on projects all over the world and was currently working at a company that didn’t do a lot of work in Chicago. I really wanted to make a bigger impact on the city I live in and love. (Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy working on projects outside of Chicago too.)

Pepper Construction’s reputation, culture, and diverse project history is exceptional, and the implementation of technology is supported from the very top. I am extremely excited to see what the future holds at Pepper, and I am really enjoying it. In the short nine months I’ve been here, we’re already expanding our services and integrating more than we have before.

I guess what people can learn from my experience is, you don’t always know where your path will take you. We can try to plan our future (trust me, I am a type-A planner), and we may think we know where we want to go, but sometimes we take a different path. I have no regrets about my choices, and I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t had the experiences or taken on the opportunities I did. It’s remarkable how many people at Pepper have worked here 20 or 30 years, as you don’t see that as much anymore at other companies. I respect that.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2017, only 7% of construction management jobs are held by women. What do you see as some ways to increase this number in the future?

There’s a part in Sandberg’s book that talks about how women are actually the biggest barrier on other women, not men. It’s something that really stuck with me, and I’ve made a conscious effort to make more time to engage with other women in the industry. I touch on it above, but I think the best way to increase the numbers is for all women to be more visible. We shouldn’t try to blend in. We should be proud, and be ourselves. Being visible can also mean many things from mentoring other women, speaking at industry events, promoting women when the opportunity is right, showing up to company events, and just being available to talk with other women when they need it. The more we see other passionate women around us, the more other women will be excited and feel comfortable to join our industry.

I’ve read that as women move up the ladder, they shouldn’t pull the ladder up behind them. Honestly, a huge factor why I took my position at Pepper is that there are not many women in Vice President positions in Construction. I wanted to show other women they can do it too. Even if I only inspire one woman from that decision, it’s one more than yesterday, and that makes me very happy.

“The more we see other passionate women around us, the more other women will be excited and feel comfortable to join our industry.”

I’m impressed by your ability to spot new technology and bring it into your workflow to add value to your projects, including everything from 4D BIM to Virtual Reality. What do you see as some of the next new, exciting trends to hit the construction industry?

Jen Suerth VR Demo
Jennifer during a VR demo

2016 was a big year for technology in the construction industry. As technology implementation grows, the amount of data increases along with it. Data management and analytics will play a more vital role in our projects and operations this year, and there is definitely room for improvement, especially since “information overload” is a real concern in our industry. Not only being able to access information easily from any location, but also how to utilize that information.

In my opinion, the biggest opportunity is predictive analytics. Predictive analytics can be directly tied to safety and quality: an aspect of construction that is the most important, yet many other virtual design and construction groups are still struggling to improve in those areas. Pepper’s Integrated Services team, which includes VDC, safety, and quality, is working together with the help of some major universities and software companies to improve our operations and projects. Sure, hardware and software will continue to grow and evolve, but the data and analytics part that people aren’t taking full advantage of yet is the exciting trend hitting our industry now.

I always think it’s interesting to look to other industries for inspiration, especially when it comes to new technologies or other processes. Is there anything you are seeing in other industries that excites you as a possibility for construction?

I see more consumer devices like the Tile coming to our industry. There is so much waste in material handling and transporting trucks that I imagine some of these devices will start popping up in construction. Imagine always knowing where your materials are on a large construction site where multiple deliveries are coming in a day. Or, realize that when you study the data collected from one of these devices in a hard hat, you realize that if you changed the location of your lay down area or equipment storage, your workers will save a large percentage of time in their day due to not having to walk as far. There are so many opportunities! Construction isn’t using this technology enough since many workers feel like “big brother” is watching every move, but really, it’s to help make the job site more efficient and safer.

As VP of Technical Services at Pepper, you are a leader and inspiration to so many women in the industry. What advice would you give today’s young women who are seeking a career in construction?

Construction is such an amazing field to be in. Every single day is different, and you get to work with so many different types of people and projects. Many of the strongest colleagues I’ve worked with have been women, and we need to continue to encourage more to join the field. I would advise women entering construction to talk with other women in the industry, build relationships with them, and work on finding a female mentor you relate to. I guarantee that any of the thoughts, concerns, or struggles you are facing, every woman has encountered as well, no matter their age or level. I can tell you that I still have old female colleagues reach out to me for career advice, and sometimes even young students that I barely know. I always try to make time to talk with them. I know many other women who feel the same. These young women are our future, and it’s important we invest in them.


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