Engineer Brenda Alexander has built a remarkable career in construction for one of the nation’s largest general contractors, Portland-based Hoffman Construction Company. Women make up only 9% of the construction workforce in the United States, but that hasn’t stopped Alexander. Having worked her way up from straight-out-of-college project engineer, she’s finding fulfillment leading the company’s busy health care portfolio.
“Construction is a tough industry with long hours,” she tells E100. “It’s important for me to give it my all, but it brings me great pride to work on projects that significantly improve the lives of family, friends and our community.”
– Tia Over, The Engineering 100
E100: What draws you to health care construction work?
BA: My passion for health care projects first came about while I was working on a remodel project at the University of Washington Medical Center for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. On that project I saw the design and construction of the facility could both negatively and positively impact the patients and staff.
E100: What other responsibilities do you have as vice president?
BA: I oversee the ongoing work that our health care construction teams are conducting within Oregon, and I am working with teams to expand our health care project work outside of Oregon, particularly in Seattle and rural areas of Washington state. I also oversee our college recruiting in Oregon. I spend a good deal of my time meeting with engineering students from local universities to help fill the pipeline for jobs like the big projects we’re currently working, where we have hired 65 people in the past year. I also extend my recruiting and outreach efforts to connect with high school students who are trying to find a career path. I have been working with the Saturday Academy program teaching Engineering 101 classes utilizing job sites as a classroom. It’s important to us to get the word out there to students that there are not only engineering opportunities but also opportunities in the trades.
E100: We don’t need to tell you that women make up only 9.3% of the construction workforce and even fewer women hold executive roles. What do you think needs to be done at the higher ed and corporate levels to increase these numbers?
BA: Being a female in the construction industry, I think it’s important to give people a face they can relate to and feel comfortable asking questions of. Whether I am the classroom or when I am on a recruiting trip, I want young women to know who I am, where I came from and the path I took to find to my current role at Hoffman. It is important to be approachable to young people. The most rewarding experiences I have had in my career have been through mentoring young students and our project engineers. In my current role, I have the opportunity to open doors for young people. If they are willing to put in the effort, I want to find them the opportunity to shine. The confidence they develop and their willingness to pay it forward by mentoring others gives me an immense sense of pride.
E100: What experiences in your childhood or high school years led you to pursue a B.S. in construction engineering from Arizona State University?
BA: I grew up in a construction family. Early on, my father would share stories and sometimes take me on tours of the construction sites that he was working on. I started college with a desire to be an architect, but as my exposure to the engineering field expanded, I realized that I was more interested in how the building was constructed than the visual aesthetics of the building. I was able to complete an internship for a large general contractor, and this is where I learned that there was a degree in construction engineering management. This was a natural fit for me. I am a planner at heart, and I love to lead project teams. My background in architecture has enhanced my ability to work collaboratively with my clients and their design teams.
E100: What are some advances in civil engineering that you’re excited about or that you’d like to see adopted more broadly in the industry – perhaps those specifically benefiting construction of health care and medical facilities?
BA: Building Information Modeling (BIM) has transformed the construction industry and our ability to deliver very complex projects, like a hospital, in a shorter timeframe with higher quality and more cost certainty for our clients. Each day I am amazed by the news that I see about advances in 3D, 4D and 5D delivery techniques for construction. The construction industry has lagged the manufacturing sector for decades. We are finally starting to hit our stride and the momentum to integrate lean construction techniques into our pre-construction, fabrication, construction and project turnover phases. This will continue to allow the industry to push ahead to eliminate waste, improve safety, ensure quality and enhance the build environments that we deliver for our clients.