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By Erica Sweeney
August 21, 2017
Susan Eacott Comer’s sense of humor has served her well. It has been indispensable from her first construction job in the 1970s to her rise through the ranks of Bloomfield, Connecticut-based Bartlett Brainard Eacott, where she now serves as executive project manager. Up until a few years ago, Comer was managing projects ranging from $5 million to $23 million. These days, she’s taking on a different kind of role: keeping her team up-to-date on the latest technology.
“I’m kind of on the down side of my career,” she says. “I started to get out of the business about 10 years ago but I missed it and got back in. Now, I'm more doing training and organizing the office as we're growing and embracing technology.”
Comer has always been ahead of the curve in construction. Early on, she recognized the value of technology. Since she started her career when few women were in construction, she has been dedicated to making her mark and never letting anything stand in her way of success.
Comer never expected to go into construction. One summer in college, she worked for her family’s construction company helping to build the Westfarms shopping center in West Hartford, Connecticut. Soon afterwards, she switched majors and became the first woman to graduate from what is now Central Connecticut State University, with a degree in industrial technology, in the option of construction.
“I went out on the jobsite and was working there, and I just loved it,” she says. “I loved watching how everything was being put together, and I loved the coordination. I found that I was very good at understanding drawings and how things had to be sequenced—and communicating.”
In 1959, Comer’s father and grandfather purchased The Bartlett Brainard Company, founded 1921, and the company became Bartlett Brainard Eacott. She says her dad had always envisioned that his two sons would take over the business, while he had more traditional expectations for his daughter. Initially, he didn’t think construction was the right path for Comer, so she says she had to prove herself.
“He certainly became one of my big supporters when he could see what I was able to accomplish,” she explains. “And, actually, his attitude towards me was really a big help to me because it challenged me to do what I did on my own.”
After college, Comer started with the company as an assistant field manager, working on the jobsite assisting the superintendent. The vast gender pay gap led her to join the local carpenters union to get on more equal footing with her co-workers.
“I actually worked with my tools for three or four years which was probably the best education that I ever got,” she remembers. “I certainly wasn't the best carpenter but I tried very hard. I think that's where I learned a lot about construction. Although I had a degree in construction, I knew everything by the book, but I didn't have the experience.”
Being the only woman on the jobsite came with some challenges, but also many lessons that Comer has carried throughout her career.
“I will certainly say I was the butt of many practical jokes but I could certainly give out just as well as I got,” she says. “To be honest, starting in construction, the hardest thing I had to deal with was not so much being a female; it was the nepotism. People thought, ‘Oh, she goes home at night and tells her father everything,’ which was the furthest from the truth. It took a while before people understood that.
“Certainly being a female out on the job—and this was long before you had advocates—there were things that I did experience that were pretty outrageous that I had to handle on my own and work through them.”
Embracing technology for the next chapter
On-site experience is crucial to a successful construction career, Comer suggests. The lack of experienced tradespeople is one of the biggest issues the industry faces today.
“We've all kind of raised our kids to be white-collar and be more into technology and not to physically do the work,” she says. “There's not quite the respect for tradespeople there should be. Many of the people working in the trade are phenomenal as far as what they do and what they know.”
While an educated workforce is important, some lessons can’t be learned in the classroom. Respect for people working in trades, camaraderie, loyalty, and a sense of pride in the build can only be learned on the jobsite, Comer notes.
“The book part of it was great, but the actual physical experience of working out on the jobsite with my tools was worth its weight in gold,” she says. “It’s something that many people nowadays don't do. We are really suffering because of that. There aren't enough people working in the trades we need coming up through the ranks.”
Along with real-life jobsite experience, staying up on technology is paramount in any construction career today, and Comer is ensuring that her team has those tools. Even though she’s cut back on her hours, she still visits jobsites to educate workers and subcontractors on how to use iPads, project management software, and other technology.
“I love seeing the light bulb go off,” she says. “When you go out there and you’re talking to a construction worker that’s 55 years old, who’s got the fattest fingers in the world, and you’re showing him how to use the [software] on the iPad, they get all excited and starting calling you up and saying: ‘Look, it can do this or that.’ They start teaching me. That's probably the most rewarding. And that's who I see really embrace the changes: the people that are physically using it out on the jobsite.”
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