This is this first article in our series on emerging professionals in construction.
Emerging professionals have long been an enigma for senior leadership, as they balance the need to train the next generation of management with the inherent differences in workplace expectations among the different groups.
As the industry grapples with a skilled labor shortage rooted in a lack of technical training and support opportunities for would-be emerging professionals, we want to know: What do young professionals in construction today think about the field?
So, we asked them.
Meet the first young pro in our Future of the Field series: Kristy Thompson. At 23, she is a construction superintendent for custom homebuilder Addison Homes, in Greer, SC. There, Kristy juggles a handful of custom projects with a strong sustainability bent, including the use of advanced framing techniques, foamboard insulation and water-efficient fixtures. Kristy came to Addison after earning her bachelor’s degree in construction science and management with a minor in business administration from Clemson University and interning with national homebuilder D.R. Horton, regional homebuilder Bonterra Builders, in Charlotte, NC, and supplier Huttig Building Products.
We talked with Kristy about why she chose a career construction, how she manages the perception of emerging professionals and women in the field, and much more.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
With a degree in construction management and internships at homebuilders and suppliers, you seem to have taken a very targeted approach to your career. Why did you choose to go that path in college?
THOMPSON: I’ve always known that I wanted to be a part of the industry, but I didn’t quite know where I wanted to fit in. I started out at Clemson as an architecture major but transferred into the construction management program after one semester. I wanted to be closer to the process. Clemson’s program is very applied, so it’s one of those degrees that actually helps you in the real world. Another thing about the degree that I liked is that it gives you a focused expertise but doesn’t limit you to one career path.
You interned at a small homebuilder and a national one. What did you learn there?
THOMPSON: I did that on purpose. The first homebuilder I worked with was a custom, regional builder in the Charlotte area. It was my first internship, so I just stood back and learned and absorbed everything. For my second internship, I decided to go with the largest homebuilder in the country, D.R. Horton, in one of their busy markets, Charlotte. I learned a ton there because I already had some experience in the field and could dive in a little more. They’re a lot faster paced, so I got to see houses from start to finish in just a summer. It was pretty cool to see how different it is and how less focused on design they are and more on efficiency and production. I learned what I liked and didn’t like about it.
Did you have anyone advising you on how to structure an early career path?
THOMPSON: Clemson’s construction program offers great guidance and mentorship. All of our professors have been part of the industry at one point in time, which I feel is unique to the college experience. The department administrative assistant, Deborah Anthony, has been with the program for years. It was unique to have her tell me what other people had done and help me on my path. I think it really helped me get where I am now, so early after college.
Let’s talk about your current job. What’s a typical day like for you?
THOMPSON: My main responsibilities are creating the construction schedule and keeping it running through the project — scheduling materials drop-offs so I can coordinate with the people doing the work, and then looking ahead at lead times to make sure I can keep the schedule running. We have four or five houses going at a time.
I’m also the main point of contact for the homeowners during the construction process, keeping them in the loop and their stress levels down and making sure that they’re making the right selections to keep the project on schedule. The biggest thing, though, is being the main point of contact for the subcontractors. I’m on site probably 80% of the time. It’s a variable environment, so every project is different and issues come up with each one. I’m there to make the call whenever the subcontractor is asking what to do.
What has been your experience joining the industry as a young professional, and specifically as a young woman?
THOMPSON: The residential sector, I feel, is a bit more behind [commercial] as far as welcoming women into the field. Some of my friends that I graduated with and graduated a couple of years before me and went into commercial or larger-scale construction say it’s a little bit more open. With Addison Homes, since we introduce newer, more efficient techniques in construction, not only am I half [subcontractors'] age and a woman telling them what to do, I’m telling them to do it different than they’ve done it for the last 40 years, so it’s a challenge sometimes. I have to be even more on top of my game so that they don’t take advantage of thinking that I don’t know as much.
Do you have specific strategies for those kind of situations?
THOMPSON: I study up on [the process] so I can be able to explain it to them, but I also try to bring material with me, like printing out spec sheets. Whenever they’re like, "Well, we’re not going to do that," it’s a tight [labor] market right now, so I try not to be too rough, but at some point I do have to say "Well, then we’ll find somebody that will." By that point, we usually figure it out.
What about opportunities for mentoring as an emerging professional. Is that available to you?
THOMPSON: It’s really important to have guidance when you’re new to the field, and that’s something I’ve found really helpful — having someone to provide me structure on the front end. [Todd Usher], the owner, has lots of processes, procedures and checklists in place, and that helps guide me while I’m by myself in the field. I can just pull it up and figure it out.
What can companies do differently to mentor emerging professionals in the field?
THOMPSON: With my current job and other construction management roles, they train you, but it’s a very independent job so at some point you are kind of released to the wolves. With Addison being small, it has been a little bit more of a challenge. Todd is busy, too, and although he tries to help me out as much as he can, I’m by myself most of the time. I wish that I could have shadowed someone a little bit more, but the industry is so fast-paced and everyone’s so busy right now that it’s kind of hard for builders to do that. You have to have the personality and initiative to figure it out for yourself most of the time.
You’re in the first year on the job. How do you think you’ve handled that pace so far?
THOMPSON: I handle stress fairly well. I just step back if I get really overwhelmed and I’ll call Todd and explain the situation in as much detail as I can and get his input and then step back into the situation and deal with it. It’s being able to handle the stress and not crack under it.
Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
THOMPSON: Over the next five years, I plan to keep closely observing my mentors like Todd and the people that I work with in the field, absorbing everything that I can about the industry and the way that the business works. One of the reasons I decided to go with a small builder is because I can see how the business works — the financials, design, construction, everything — versus a bigger builder where I would have just seen my job as a superintendent.
Then I’ll start exploring my specific interest and see where that will take me in the next five years after that. When I started with Addison I knew that I was interested in sustainable building and high-performance homes. I’m also interested in the actual product that goes into the houses, so I’d like to eventually start researching and maybe being a part of what it takes to develop these energy-efficient products that come into the market.