Chaitra Ziebarth readily acknowledges she fell into her career as a project engineer, a profession that oversees construction of a building or complex or other structure from start to finish.
After relocating to Columbus upon the advice of some military-related friends in 2005, "Che (Shay)," as she is called, immediately headed to a temporary staffing agency. Quickly landing a job with Clark Construction, that led to a stint with another contractor before her fateful move -- becoming an administrative assistant with Batson-Cook, a West Point, Ga.-based contractor that has done plenty of work in Columbus through the years.
But Ziebarth's first project was a doozy -- working on the site of military shrine of sorts -- the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center on the edge of Fort Benning. Though she was an administrative staffer, others on the construction site mentored her, showing her the ropes on reading blueprints, dealing with subcontractors and keeping a close eye on the flow of money.
All the while, Ziebarth, 28, pursued a bachelor's degree in business administration from Troy University. She then moved into a project engineer position with the $8.5 million, 104-room Hampton Inn that is nearly complete near the National Infantry Museum.
The bottom line: The Florida native had fallen in love with her career and the Columbus-Phenix City area. A chance move had turned into a dream profession.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Ziebarth recently to get a feel for her job, the skills it takes, and why she enjoys it.
Is an administrative job and business administration degree the typical path for a project engineer?
No. Auburn has a building science program, but that wasn't really an option for me. I worked fulltime and had to go to school fulltime here in Columbus. So I went the business route. A lot of project management is understanding the business side of construction, and that's where I would like to end up.
How did you land in Columbus?
I had some friends that moved here as the result of being stationed here and we were very close. When they realized that they were going to become a family, they thought it would be a neat move for me to get away from home and come up here and see if I liked it. I eventually did and I started working in construction and really fell in love with it. That's what's kept me here.
Don't get me wrong. I love the beach and miss my family, but I really felt like (the Columbus area) is a good place for me. It's a little bit of a nicer pace.
Working on a huge project such as the National Infantry Museum had to be a great experience?
I learned a lot. My project manager and the superintendent -- my two bosses -- made a real effort in training me and helping me to understand the whole process. It's everything from how subcontractors work to how paperwork gets written. But my superintendent also took me out once or twice a week in my boots and my hard hat and tried to show me how things were going together on the project. That way I would have a real good understanding instead of just sitting in a trailer taking phone calls. I was really lucky there.
That had to be a cool project to start with?
It was very cool. It's one of the projects that you move on from, but you never forget about. I go over there all of the time and I still have a really good relationship with the foundation members. It was a very, very cool first project at Batson-Cook.
So you kind of just fell
into this profession?
Yeah, I definitely did. I had no previous experience, no desire for it, and it just happened to be that the first temp job offer that I got was (construction-related) and I loved it immediately. There's something about watching something change. And you're not doing the same thing everyday, ever.
If not this, what would you be doing today?
I have no idea. (laughs)
Just what does a project engineer do?
If you were to look at a project manager for a construction company, I'm basically in training for that. That's my goal. There are different pathways to go in our industry. You can be a project engineer and then eventually become a superintendent, or become a project manager. My goal is the project management side, which is more about studying the drawings and understanding how it affects the company contract-wise and financially and all of that.
A project manager is the primary person over a construction site?
In our company, the superintendents and project managers work together on each project. You have one of each, with the superintendent spending the most time out in the field directing the subcontractors on what to do physically. A project manager directs the subcontractors on finances and how much their contract is going to be, and how much each task they're doing is going to cost and be discounted, and how the money all rolls together. It's a team effort, so I wouldn't ever say that a project manager is in charge. They work in conjunction.
Do you enjoy reading floor plans and diagrams?
When I was still an administrative assistant, I asked my boss at the time if I could take a blueprint-reading class and he told me that would be a great thing for me to do. So I learned a little bit through that class, and then a lot more out on this (Hampton Inn) project each day, standing over the drawings and trying to understand what goes where.
What's an average day like for you?
Depending on the day, I might need to take care of some meetings. But normally I try to address making sure that we're receiving all of the invoices and bills from our subcontractors and then putting that information together to bill the owner. I go out on the job site at least once or twice a day to see where we are with certain activities. Like today, somebody asked if the projection screens had been installed yet, so I went out and looked at that. Each day is definitely a little different.
Are you hoping for larger projects in the future, anything in particular, dreaming a bit?
I really enjoyed the Infantry Museum just because it's special and different. It's not something that you see everyday. So the projects that I hope come to me in the future will be things like museums or theaters, places that are not necessarily something that you see or do routinely in construction.
It's a male-dominated field. Have you experienced gender resistance or skepticism at all?
No. I belong to a group called the National Association of Women in Construction. We've got a chapter here in Columbus that I'm the vice president of, so I've got a group of women that I can talk to and learn from. There's a woman in the group who owns her own hardware store and is in her 70s, and all of the way down to me. So you've got a lot of advice coming your way.
I've been really lucky. Batson-Cook has been very supportive. And I think our industry as a whole, and Batson-Cook especially, has been really trying to open its doors for more women in positions that are not clerical. I think we've got a lot to offer, and I think most organizations are beginning to see that. But I personally have not encountered any gender bias or resistance. If anything, (being a woman) can help the rapport that you have with some people. They feel like they can talk to you.
How large is your women's construction group?
Our local chapter has 18 members. We're trying to grow that and are constantly looking for opportunities to welcome more women into our chapter. When I joined about five years ago, our membership was about 30. But with the economy, a lot of our members had to forgo their memberships. This year we're hosting our regional forum, which would be for all of the chapters in the Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee area. They'll be coming to Columbus in April.
What are the most prominent skills needed for a project engineer?
I think trying to learn and understand the drawings and specifications that you get from an architect is going to be really important. But I think the most important skill for me is not being afraid to go out onto the job site everyday in your boots and your hard hat and making sure that you're learning something and asking questions ... That helps you understand how the whole building is going to come together.
Does Batson-Cook already have a new project picked out for you?
They haven't told me what my next project will be. Typically, they don't want to tell you while we're winding down your current project, and rightfully so. I would like to focus all of my energy on finishing this project.