No. 1 Must-Have: "The support of a great team. I thrive best in an environment where I'm working with people who I know value and care about me and do what they can to support me."
It’s no mystery how Jessica Bowlin landed in the construction industry. “I come from a large military family who is pretty inclined to the technical trades,” she said. “My dad has a degree in industrial arts and education, but he never put it to professional use because he joined the Army. And my grandfather was a pipe welder/fitter.” Bowlin’s family often did their own projects around the farm.
A skilled athlete, Bowlin left home to play soccer for a sports academy during high school. She later joined the Auburn University soccer team. “While I was at Auburn, I discovered they had a building science program, and that’s the route that got me into construction professionally,” she said. Upon graduating in 2013, Bowlin began work for Turner Construction’s industrial group, where she realized the stark contrast between the science of construction and the jobsite realities of building. “I got to go out to the shop and hang out with our foremen, and I was out there in the field as well, helping them get everything they needed on-site. I learned what a lot of the equipment was. I learned estimating inches of well — not something we necessarily did going through our project controls class at Auburn. It was just a facet of the industry that most project managers don’t get to experience, and I loved every minute of it.”
One day, Bowlin’s phone rang. It was the career and technical education (CTE) director for Auburn City Schools, looking for an industry professional to start the building construction program at Auburn High School. Bowlin was taken aback and confused: She’d never worked in education. Reluctant but intrigued, Bowlin went to the interview.
Once the director explained CTE and the construction program the school system was hoping to instate, Bowlin was hooked. She was excited by the notion of helping high school students see the viability of the construction trades as a career path, and she accepted the position. Things moved at breakneck pace after that. “I agreed to start the week before school began in 2017. So, I had virtually no time to prepare for the year. They basically said, ‘Here are your keys. Go forth and do great things,’” said Bowlin. Then and there, both a construction program and a teacher were created.
Bowlin knew the basic blueprint of the class she’d like to construct, but with so little time before school began again, the process of realizing such a program was “essentially baptism by fire,” she said. With so little money budgeted for the program, she found herself dumpster diving for scrap wood after hours so that her students would have materials — a setup that would not be feasible in the long term. Bowlin knew that to secure a steady flow of materials, their end use would have to provide a return on investment for the program.
Bowlin wasted no time. She proposed a tiny house project to the director and waited for it to be sent along the chain of command. Once approved, she secured a grant for the project and her students began work on the home that would take them 18 months to complete and not long to sell. Soon after, Bowlin was awarded Alabama Secondary Teacher of the Year Final Four 2020, Alabama Association of Career & Technical Education (ACTE) New Teacher of the Year 2020, Auburn High School Teacher of the Year 2019-2020 and SkillsUSA Quality Chapter of Distinction 2021.
The biggest challenge facing construction in 2022, according to Bowlin? The skills gap. But she’s working hard to close it. Last year, she snagged the Harbor Freight Tools for School Prize for Teaching Excellence and bought a $50,000 CNC machine that can be programmed to precisely cut project materials. Additionally, the successful tiny home project brought in $30,000, as well as many local and industry partners, allowing a diverse range of construction professionals to come through and speak to her students about the viability of construction as a career path. “Now, instead of having a 50-year-old superintendent come and speak to my students, I have young females and prior students come in and explain what they’re doing in the construction industry two years after high school,” she said. The students are impressed with how lucrative construction careers can be, as well as the diversity of the professionals in the industry.
The first year of the program, Bowlin had no female students, and this year she has seven. “I like to say that’s a 700% increase,” laughed Bowlin. And what advice does she offer these young women? “Never grow stagnant. Always remember what your passions are, and constantly evolve. Always try to better yourself day to day.” The future professionals in which Bowlin is fostering a love for the trades have a standout example of that advice in action.