This article is one in a series of conversations with women leaders in the construction industry. Click here for past discussions.
Julie Garcia has worked 18 years — her entire career — in construction.
The vice president of preconstruction at Phoenix-based Kitchell Contractors is responsible for projects in Arizona, California and Texas. Precon is her favorite part of the building process because it affords the opportunity to have the biggest impact on a job in a relatively short amount of time, she said.
“Really simply, I balance owner and design team expectations with the budget available for a project to make sure everyone is happy when we start building it,” she said.
Here, Garcia talks with Construction Dive about her career choices, her favorite projects and why details matter.
The article has been edited for brevity and clarity.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: What led you to choose construction as your career?
JULIE GARCIA: My dad was in the Army Corps of Engineers for 21 years before becoming a professor at Arizona State University’s Del E. Webb School of Construction, so I had quiet but consistent construction influences as a child and teenager.
I took one construction class — Construction Management 101: The History of Construction — at Arizona State University to appease my dad … and I was hooked! I’ve recently had the opportunity to teach that same class as an Adjunct Professor at ASU — what a joy to be able to give back to the same program that taught me!
How did you get involved in preconstruction?
I graduated with a construction management degree and a business management minor and was hired at Kitchell as a project engineer to work in the Custom Homes Division. Unexpectedly, my first project assignment was working on a hospital bed tower in Phoenix and I found a great sense of purpose and joy in building healthcare.
After coming back from maternity leave after my first child, I was given the choice to go into preconstruction or to our Custom Homes Division. I was advised that the hours in the Preconstruction Department were more predictable than working on a jobsite, and as a new mama with daycare timeline pickup restrictions, I chose that route.
Nevertheless, I was fully expecting to hate preconstruction because the only construction class I did not like in school was Precon. I thought all people did in preconstruction was count things … and then price them ... and then count them again. Boy, was I wrong!
I fell in love with having the ability to affect change and to exceed expectations. I get frustrated when I can’t fix a problem, and so often problems can be rectified if they’re caught early. Working in preconstruction provides me with the opportunity to be part of the solution before a problem becomes a problem in the field.
What are a few of the projects you’ve most enjoyed working on and why?
I really enjoy our higher ed jobs, especially research related. When the space you’re building is focused on changing the way we do something — research, teaching, etc. — it pushes the entire team, including the contractor, to re-imagine the way we design and build, including materials and space configurations. We’re right there with the design team making that vision come to life.
The Health Sciences Innovation Building at the University of Arizona is a super cool project because the mission of the building was to change the way UA delivered education to its health sciences people such as doctors, nurses and public health workers. Besides this, HSIB functions in a very unique way, it’s just a particularly beautiful building. Anytime we’re on these campuses, it’s just so inspiring because the people we are building for are trying to re-think the world — like how particles bounce in a molecule.
I have a true love for healthcare projects too because they play such an important role in our communities. Right now, we’re building Valleywise Health Medical Center. It will be so rewarding that the staff and the patients of Maricopa County finally have a state-of-the-art facility that is so desperately needed.
Phoenix Children’s Hospital and all the work we have done on their campuses is also very close to my heart. It’s incredibly special and rewarding to build an environment where kids who are hurting can heal.
How did your background as a project engineer shape your work today?
Starting as a PE helped me understand how our jobsites work. There are challenges you face on a jobsite that you can’t appreciate when you are working in the main office. Every little detail matters in the field. Every submittal matters. If something is ordered and arrives a half-inch off, the entire job could come to a standstill.
Learning from my superintendents was instrumental to my continued success in this industry. I had plenty of book knowledge, but I walked into my first job trailer still knowing relatively little about construction. I had to be humble enough to recognize that and I relied on my superintendents and project managers to teach me.
They taught me to really examine the details, and that experience helps me teach my teams to identify potential problems so they don’t become issues once construction begins.
What advice would you give to young women considering construction as a career?
Find a superintendent who is willing to teach you and learn as much as you can. I feel like women can really add value and bring a unique perspective. We bring different energy, and we ask different questions.
There will be moments when you’re intimidated. Shake it off. Don’t be afraid to ask what you don’t know. Make sure you understand the answer so you will know it the next time.