By now, business leaders are familiar with the labor shortage plaguing the construction industry. In addition, staffs have a gender imbalance: the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) reports that women constitute just 9.9% of the construction workforce. While organizations work to attract students to the industry, Suffolk Construction gained an asset from an unexpected place: the legal field.
Tracy Deal is a former attorney who worked for a firm that specialized in construction. As she got more involved, she found a new path for herself. She entered the construction industry, and now serves as a project manager at Suffolk. Below, Deal reflects on her career trajectory, her role as a project manager, the state of the skilled trades and what it’s like to be a woman in construction.
Tell me about your trajectory from an attorney to a project manager at Suffolk.
My family has been in the South Florida construction industry for many years. Through the encouragement of my father, I pursued an opportunity to practice construction law at a boutique law firm in Fort Lauderdale. While there, I became a member, and eventually president, of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of NAWIC. Suffolk was kind enough to host NAWIC on-site for a Women in Construction (WIC) Week Event at the Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel & Casino renovation and expansion project while it was still under construction. It was during that site visit that I fell in love with the energy of an active jobsite and the passion that everyone at Suffolk had for their work. I was also very excited to see that Suffolk had strong female leaders running critical aspects of the project. It wasn’t very long after that site visit that I reached out to Suffolk and made the switch.
What drew you to the construction industry? Why did you decide to make your career transition?
I love the construction industry because it’s straightforward. There isn’t much room for ambiguity, like there is in the practice of law. There is ample room for creativity and, whatever the problem is, there is always a solution. The main aspect I love about working in construction is the team mentality and the camaraderie built between everyone working on a project.
How did your skills as an attorney serve you in your new role?
The practice of law and project management in construction share many of the same skill sets. Project management is all about being able to read, write and enforce contracts. They also share overlapping skills in client management, time management, critical thinking, planning and risk assessment. The only skills I really had to focus on developing quickly after the switch were learning new software programs and my understanding of the actual construction process.
Tell me about your role as a project manager. What highs and lows have you encountered?
As a project manager, I’m involved in every aspect of my assigned project — from working with our estimating department to buy out trades, to closing trades out at the end of the project. So many of the roles in construction overlap — estimating, field supervision, project management. In order to be really good at any of them, you need to have a solid understanding of all of them. For me, the highs are getting to work with some of the best in the industry on some of the hardest projects South Florida has to offer. The lows are always project close outs, when the work is more mundane, and your teammates are assigned to new projects.
What has surprised you most about moving from an industry-adjacent role to working in the field?
What surprised me most was how fundamental people are at the core of construction. In my opinion, the practice of law can be kind of an independent sport. But in construction, the success of a project is entirely dependent upon the care we give to one another. That includes making sure everyone goes home safely at the end of the day, maintaining positive relationships with our business partners, building strong work families with our team members, and maintaining trusting relationships with our clients.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering a similar career change? What should they know about the construction industry?
I constantly remind myself that the pursuit of happiness is so fundamental that it’s in the Declaration of Independence. My advice is, if you are not happy, do something else. I spent a fortune on my legal education, and it was terrifying to walk away from my career as an attorney. But that education has continued to serve me in so many ways and I have no regrets. Don’t be fooled by my dirty boots and well-worn gloves; the construction industry can be very lucrative. There are also so many different opportunities in the construction industry — legal, marketing, finance, business development, risk management, innovation, people.
What’s the most memorable project you’ve worked on?
Without a doubt, my most memorable and favorite project was the Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel & Casino renovation and expansion project. Not only because it was my first project or because it is known around the world, but because I was able to work with my father, who was working on the owner’s side for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. He has always been my mentor and I was able to learn so much from watching him navigate the challenges of such a complex project.
Have you encountered any challenges as a woman in a male-dominated field? How have you overcome them?
I feel very fortune to say that many of my most staunch advocates in this industry are men. I think that —male or female — your reputation is really what determines how you are treated in this industry and when people see that you are putting in the work, you will be treated with respect.
From your perspective, why is construction a great field for women to get into right now? What roles do you see more women taking on in the field over the next 10 years?
Women are finding success in every facet of the construction industry, from skilled tradespeople to owning and operating their own construction companies. Within the Southeastern region of Suffolk, I am fortunate enough to bear witness to a tremendous group of women growing within the company and steadily making their way into positions that have rarely or never been held by a woman before. With the path having been laid, the construction industry is more welcoming to women than ever.