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Changing Skylines

BY JEANIE J. CLAPP
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, CONSTRUCTOR MAGAZINE

Anyone who has traveled to Nashville, Tenn. in recent years can’t help but notice the building boom the city is undergoing. But one hometown girl, Michaela Coston, sees more than scaffolds, safety cones, cranes and construction sites.

“To be able to build in my hometown has always been the goal,” she says. “The thought of working on something that’s going to last — at least in my lifetime and many lifetimes to come — and being a part of changing the skyline is really exciting.”

But it’s not only the city’s skyline she’s changing. Coston, SPD project manager with Turner Construction Company, is changing the industry’s too. Constructor magazine had the opportunity to speak with Coston regarding her construction path — past, present and future — and her efforts to draw more women into this dynamic and fulfilling industry.

Q: WHAT DREW YOU TO THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY?

A: In high school, I was initially drawn to construction through the ACE program, with an emphasis on architecture. After graduation, I attended Auburn University with the intent to study that discipline, but it took me only two weeks to realize it wasn’t for me. I am more math- and science-brained than I am artistic and creative. I quickly transitioned to Building Science which is Auburn University’s construction program, and there I found my people.

I discovered Turner through a co-operative internship program, which toggles school and work with each semester. In the three internships I completed with Turner, I was involved in preconstruction, a healthcare project and a large-scale industrial project. The company gave me the opportunity to learn what this industry is all about, while it evaluated my skills and affinity for the job. When they extended an offer, I accepted and haven’t looked back.

Q: WHY DO WOMEN AND CONSTRUCTION MAKE A GOOD FIT?

A: Women have such a great skill set for an industry like this. We’re detail-oriented and organized, and have strong communications skills. It’s not about having to understand how to put blocks together. At the end of the day, it’s a relationship business. We are organizing people to meet an end goal and unless you have those people skills, it’s going to be difficult. Women are so important to this industry.

Q: WHAT RECRUITING INITIATIVES ARE YOU INVOLVED WITH THAT ARE SPECIFICALLY GEARED TOWARD WOMEN?

A: Girls Build It! (https://girlsbuildit.com/), a creation of Turner’s Nashville office, is an outreach program aimed at high school students. Exposing these girls to a program like this at a young age is key. During the two-day camp, which is free to participants, each student completes a concrete lamp project. We come up with the prototype, but the girls build the products. We talk about the process, the material, the schedule. They get to be in full PPE, use power tools, mix the concrete, pour and break apart the forms, and then, eventually, activate the lights.

The 2019 Girls Build It! Class takes a site tour of 1200 Broadway, Nashville. The young women love the project tours and getting to wear their PPE.

Through the Girls Build It! program, we show these girls that having a tangible product at the end of a work day is really rewarding. They love it.

Q: WHAT OTHER INITIATIVES ARE YOU INVOLVED WITH?

A: I am co-chair of Universally Empowered, which is part of an overarching resource group for women at Turner. It’s designed to assist with retention, connectivity and professional development for all of our female employees. It’s an ever-evolving program, but through speaker events, workshops, social networking, and peer mentoring, it reminds our coworkers that there is a team behind them. Just because they are struggling with something doesn’t mean they’re alone.

I’ve also been a part of Turner’s School of Construction Management – which is set up in a few different cities – where they onboard smaller, independent businesses especially those that are veteran-, minority- and women owned and help share skill sets so they can grow their businesses in this industry. It’s been rewarding to teach some of these classes and give these smaller businesses a leg up, helping people who are willing to learn. Turner really has taken this initiative to the next level.

I try to get involved — when my schedule allows — in the ACE program. That’s where I got my start. I really believe early introduction to construction is important. If we’re going to ask 17- and 18-year-olds to choose their careers at that age, I want construction to be on the table for them.

Q: WHAT KIND OF CHALLENGES DO YOU HAVE BEING A WOMAN IN A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY?

A: I’ve been very lucky at Turner. At any given time, I may be on a project with 35 guys on-site and not one other woman. But I’ve never had any issues. I respect these guys tremendously. I couldn’t do what they do. I show them that common level of respect and I get it right back. Company-wise, it’s the same story. I have been given a lot of opportunity at Turner. In these past six years of full-time employment, I’ve soared. They’ve allowed me to grow; they’ve helped train me. A big part of that too is being an advocate for myself. Once you start doing that, people listen.

The Universally Empowered Women’s Group volunteered at Thistle Farms, a local nonproft that provides jobs for women in the community.

Q: HOW DO YOU MANAGE A HEALTHY WORK-LIFE BALANCE?

A: I’ve learned to shut work off when I leave at the end of the day. If I’m home, I’m home. My work email is set up on a separate app on my phone so it takes more of an effort for me to check it when I’m off the clock. If it’s that important, someone will pick up the phone and call me. This is something I’ve had to work on professionally and I’ve made good strides with it.

Q: ANY LESSONS LEARNED YOU CARE TO SHARE OR ADVICE YOU CAN GIVE?

A: It is OK to say no. I tend to be a people pleaser and like to make others happy so I tend to say yes often, but recognizing when to say no is a valuable lesson I’ve learned.

And, ask questions. Everyone has a fear of this, especially women because we hold our ideas close to our chests. But I believe it’s always better to ask the question, because that’s how you learn.

Also, don’t sweat the small stuff. Life’s too short.