When Nancy Novak was a young girl, she would often accompany her father, a construction superintendent, to his job sites. Those visits sparked her interest in pursuing a career in the field where she has now spent over 25 years and supervised the delivery of $3.5 billion in projects.
“Construction has always been a part of my life,” says Novak, who is one of the world’s experts on data center construction. She has become widely respected as a leader on the issue of women in STEM.
STEM stands for science (including computer science), technology, engineering (and surveying) and mathematics. With nearly every aspect of life now dominated by some form of digital technology, STEM skills are increasingly in demand and can open doors to more attractive job opportunities in the industry.
Unlike Novak, many girls and women often don’t get early exposure to construction as a career option. Now, she’s on a mission to change that. Novak is committed to getting more girls and women interested in construction-related STEM careers, as they hold the potential to bridge the gender equality gap, while alleviating labor shortages at the same time.
Novak joined Dallas-based Compass Datacenters last year. As she took up the office of the Senior Vice President of Construction, the company also announced another important role she would have. In an unusual move, the Compass Datacenters announcement highlighted that “In addition to her role leading construction for the company, Novak will continue to put major focus on advancing opportunities and support for women in construction and technology.”
“One problem is that when most people think of STEM jobs, they don’t think of construction. They think of lab coats and scientists."
Throughout her career, she’s been involved with numerous organizations committed to increasing opportunities for women in the workplace, including Above Glass Ceilings (AGC)—a nationwide initiative that is advancing women in STEM through partnerships with Fortune 500 companies. Novak admits that construction has a big challenge to overcome in attracting the next generation of STEM-skilled employees.
“One problem is that when most people think of STEM jobs, they don’t think of construction. They think of lab coats and scientists,” she says. “We need more promotion of STEM opportunities in construction, such as design, architecture, engineering, scheduling. We’re trying to figure out how to make construction exciting.”
Novak believes that cutting-edge technology in virtual reality, robotics, exoskeletons, and 3D printing will broaden the appeal to girls and women to pursue STEM skills and careers. It’ll also help them find increased job opportunities and higher wages.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the number of STEM jobs grew by 24 percent over the past 10 years compared to only 4 percent growth in non-STEM jobs. Workers in STEM jobs earned 29 percent more in wages versus non-STEM workers in 2015.
Women continue to remain underrepresented in STEM jobs and STEM degree holders, the Commerce Department reports. While women make up 47 percent of all workers in the U.S., only 24 percent of those women are employed in STEM careers. However, women in STEM positions are taking home bigger paychecks. They earned 35 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs and 40 percent more than men in non-STEM jobs.
Novak thinks it will be essential to reach out to students and workers outside of the traditional STEM track to successfully boost the STEM talent pool in the construction industry.
"The more we can spread the word about how those skills can be applied in construction, the better off the industry will be.”
In a recent blog for CIO.com, Novak wrote that STEM talent isn’t always found in a company’s IT department or a computer science class. She cites the example of a data center firm that specifically targeted liberal arts majors for its system engineering program. The company believed that liberal arts graduates, with their broad-based educational background, had the interpersonal skills essential to succeed at the company. The company gathered the students would be capable of learning the technical skills that they needed for the job. This approach enabled the company to expand their talent pool and open up career possibilities for students who otherwise would have never even considered STEM careers.
“Artists, designers, photographers, journalists, even makeup artists are all using STEM technology,” Novak says. “You can’t avoid STEM no matter what you do. The more we can spread the word about how those skills can be applied in construction, the better off the industry will be.”
To hear more about how Nancy Novak and other industry leaders are shaping the future of construction, be sure to sign up for Groundbreak, this year's most influential construction conference. You can register here.