Lauren Martinez on construction site

Taking Part in Denver’s Building Boom—With New Best Practices

March 9, 2020

Jessica Killian always enjoyed math. Lauren Martinez liked hands-on learning so much she picked up welding and woodworking skills as an undergrad. Jayapradha Madhavan studied architecture in India but later discovered she was more interested in building buildings than designing them. These women ultimately chose to enter the male-dominated field of construction by earning graduate degrees in CU Denver’s Construction Engineering and Management Program (CEM)—which boasts 40% women faculty and 40% women graduates. 

These statistics are impressive. According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), “Women now make up 9.9% of the construction industry in the United States.” CU Denver’s CEM Program is defying these odds. 

two women inside factory
The CEM Program has 40% women graduates and 40% women faculty.

Appeal of Interdisciplinary Emphasis 

Jayapradha Madhavan values the interdisciplinary approach of the program.

The program’s master’s, doctoral, and certificate degrees incorporate flexible academic offerings, interdisciplinary courses, and industry collaboration. Caroline Clevenger, PhD, director of the program and an associate professor who holds degrees in both architecture and engineering, believes there are multiple reasons for CEM’s success: “The demographics of the university and our location are conducive to diversity, and the interdisciplinary program has attracted more women.”

Jayapradha Madhavan MEng ’15 was one of the women the CEM Program appealed to. “The program prepared me to pursue my dream and provided a wide range of job opportunities in the industry, as CEM represents a blend of both disciplines, bridging design and management or project execution,” Jayapradha said.

Program Partners with Industry

The CEM Program is especially noteworthy because of its close associations with industry leaders. “Construction is such an applied field that we need to work with industry in order to prepare students,” Clevenger said. From its inception, the CEM Program collaborated with businesses in the field. Both GE Johnson and Saunders Construction served as initial funding partners.

downtown Denver with cranes; photo by Henry desire via unsplash
According to BuildColorado, the state will need 50,000 new skilled trades professionals by 2027.

This type of real-world experience benefits all graduates, including women. Lauren Martinez, who earned her master’s degree in 2015 at CU Denver’s CEM Program, said her first position after graduating “was a direct result of Clevenger’s connections in the industry.” Now Martinez serves on the program’s Advisory Board: “I have gone full circle and am encouraged by the program’s growth and where it is heading.”

50,000 New Jobs by 2027

Part of the reason local corporations work with the CEM Program relates to Denver’s need for workers in all areas of construction. Associated General Contractors cites an expected industry growth rate of 31% by 2027. Denver is a growing city—just scan downtown’s collection of cranes. “By 2027 over 50,000 new skilled trades professionals are needed in our state,” writes Build Colorado

Jessica Killian went from CEM student to CEM lecturer.

Women can certainly fill some of those expected jobs. NAWIC predicts “women will comprise 25% of the construction workforce by 2020.” Hopefully, more women in construction will change the industry’s misconceptions about gender. Jessica Killian MEng ’18 returned to graduate school after practicing in the industry. “Because of my chosen profession, I’ve always been the minority as a female, so that didn’t surprise me too much,” she said. “What did surprise me when I was just starting out was how little valued or respected my contribution to the project was—people would talk to my male boss or male colleagues rather than me.”

Killian, who is currently a lecturer in the CEM Program, gives her students this advice: “As a woman in construction, you have to be better than your male colleagues, every day.” Despite this shortcoming, one very good benefit is that the gender wage gap is considerably less in construction than in other fields. 

Construction Classified as Essential 

Not only are there a lot of opportunities in the local construction and engineering field, but it is also an industry with a good measure of job security. “Across the large majority of the United States, construction has been classified as essential during the spread of COVID-19,” Clevenger explains. While some states restricted or temporarily banned construction, many continued to define it as an essential business, including Colorado. “At its core, construction is essential to our health and welfare since construction is responsible for the structures and infrastructure of society,” she said.

In some ways, the construction industry was well-prepared to take on the challenge of a pandemic. “Many individuals work outside or in well-ventilated areas, and were already required to wear Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and follow safety protocols,” Clevenger said. Protocols have also been added, such as maintaining a six-foot distance, reducing crew size, and minimizing interactions between work teams. “It is a new world, but companies are committed to instilling new best practices.”

Built Environment Changes Lives

Another plus is that building delivers satisfaction in three dimensions. When she was a young engineer, Clevenger worked as a consultant on the new Boulder Foothills Hospital, which earned Silver Certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). “I vividly remember walking into a room where children were treated for cancer, and I knew that I had played a part in reducing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)—known as carcinogens—in the building,” she said. 

People working in the construction industry see their work taking shape—literally. This means that CEM graduates have the potential to improve people’s lives. “I remember looking around that hospital and being struck by what a privilege and responsibility it is to work in the profession that builds the spaces around us,” Clevenger said.