Women in Construction Week: Megan Conrad

Megan Conrad
Megan Conrad

We spoke to Megan Conrad, who is a Virtual Design Coordinator (VDC) at Ryan Companies. Conrad is an agent of change, and she deals firsthand with the disruptive nature of innovation within a tried and true industry. Coming from a construction-focused family, Conrad often references how much her upbringing shaped her to be the professional that she is today. Read more on how Conrad strongly believes in young women’s future capabilities and contributions in the construction industry, and how self-confidence in your talents and skills can take you a long way.

We’ve talked in the past how we share the fact that we both grew up in construction families. How do you think growing up with a father who was also in construction shaped your perspective of the industry?

My father started out in carpentry and worked his way up through the industry as a foreman, then superintendent, and onto field operations, ultimately retiring as VP of Field Operations for a mid-size construction company. I remember during my childhood, while he was a superintendent, we would stop by job sites during our weekend family errands just so he could check up on the site. He would let me hang out in the trailer during “Take Your Daughter to Work” days, which I always loved because it was exciting to see everyone coming and going and talking through the plans. To be able to see 2D building plans transform into incredible physical spaces that you can see and experience for decades is so rewarding. To that, my father and I still say to each other “How cool is that?!

So from an early age, I was able to see the fun, hard work, dedication and pride that goes into construction. My father was instrumental in instilling that curiosity and the desire to problem solve, coupled with a love of architecture and craftsmanship. Even today, after he’s been retired for a few years, we still educate each other and share that excitement about construction and where the industry is heading.

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 at your experiences, tell me a little more about how you got to this point in your career.

I knew I wanted to study architecture & construction management in college, but I didn’t know I’d be graduating and coming into the workforce during the market free fall in 2008. No one was hiring, and architecture and construction was especially hit hard. I was lucky to hear of a receptionist vacancy at Stahl Construction and I jumped at the opportunity to get my foot in the door. I got the position and after only 30 days, I moved into an Assistant Project Manager role. It turned out to be a wonderful educational experience to jump start my career in construction, and I feel very fortunate. After five-and-a-half years as an Assistant Project Manager, and then as a Project Engineer after my relocation to Chicago, I was well-equipped to continue a career path in construction project management.

However, I’ve always had a creative itch and I’m a computer nerd at heart, so when I heard about the field of VDC and that Ryan Companies was looking to hire that role in Chicago, I knew it would be the perfect fit. It has truly been a dream job! Sheryl Sandberg’s reference to careers as a jungle gym is a very appropriate comparison to my experience; I never imagined I could sit in a field somewhere between my two passions of architecture and construction, and that I would start out as a receptionist to ultimately get to this point.

megan conrad autodesk university
Megan Conrad at Autodesk University

You are at a stage in your career where the next generation of girls in STEM are looking to you for professional guidance. What is a piece of advice you give to young women looking to get into the construction industry?

Be curious and be confident! Construction is complex and can be intimidating to those looking to get into the industry. My advice is to be proactive about educating yourself. That curiosity that drives you to start googling about structure types or roofing systems is a great asset to have and ultimately builds confidence in your abilities in construction. And on that note of confidence, it’s important to keep in mind that as a young woman, you are just as capable of becoming a successful professional in construction as your male counterparts. Although construction is still male-dominated, it is changing rapidly and women have proven they are equally successful in the industry. Be confident that you can do it!
Also, don’t be afraid to take on some of field experience; it’s invaluable to learn from superintendents and tradespeople. If you have an opportunity to explore some trade work early on, it’s a great way to get hands-on detailed experience, expanding your construction knowledge right away, and can be stepping stone to other areas of the construction industry.

“It’s important to keep in mind that as a young woman, you are just as capable of becoming a successful professional in construction as your male counterparts.”

Construction Dive’s “10 Construction Industry Trends to Watch in 2017” outlines the industry’s labor shortage. Attracting more women to the industry can obviously make a huge impact on reducing the labor shortage. What do you think it will take to make this happen?

I think many tend to assume construction is just a lot of dirty backbreaking work, and that alone can turn people away before they get to know more about the industry. I think that educating women early on in high school that construction is extremely fun and rewarding is a great start: whether it’s providing some hands-on shadowing experience or having guest speakers from the industry visit the classrooms, or even site tours. Additionally, I think it’s important to highlight how construction is utilizing technology, such as laser scanning, VDC, VR/AR, smart wearables, etc. Construction is becoming ever-smarter and highlighting this evolution can go a long way to attracting smart women who are interested in leveraging technology and smarter processes in the construction industry.

As a VDC coordinator for Ryan Companies, a design-build firm that also acts as a developer, you must have a unique perspective on the value of technology for all stakeholders (designers, contractors, and owners.) Can you tell us more about your thoughts about the value that you’ve seen VDC technology bring to a construction project?

As a full-service real estate solution provider, I find that I need to communicate in different ways with a myriad of stakeholder groups. VDC processes have become a powerful medium from which to communicate. It is our conduit to facilitate the vision and plan intelligently. We have found that the more information we pass through our VDC processes, the more “unknown” factors get converted to “known.” This enables tremendous agility and confidence in decision-making and maintains trust for all parties. We like to state that VDC gives our construction teams “Certainty of Outcomes.”

Your role in VDC exposes you to some of the most interesting technology trends in the industry. What tech are you most excited about for 2017 and beyond?

We have been jumping into Virtual and Augmented Reality quite a bit at Ryan Companies. With more consumers using these technologies, we are seeing a surge in applications within construction. Right now, we’re creating immersive experiences to invoke a positive emotional response into the sales and leasing process. I’m hoping that within the next two to five years, VR and AR will merge further, unlocking even more opportunities within construction. I’d like to see this expand to on-site applications and safety uses with true simulation, and rehearsal of high-risk construction activities where “game-like” scenarios can be practiced and fine-tuned, similar to what is done in the aerospace or military industries.

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