In honor of Women In Construction Week, we sat down with Felicia Buck in Birmingham, AL who is doing great things in the industry through her work with the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College, as well as her involvement with the Birmingham chapters of the United States Green Building Council and the National Association of Women in Construction.
Learn more about Felicia’s experience and her advice for young women who are interested in joining the skilled trades.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Albertville and raised in McCalla and Springville.
What did your parents do for a living?
I have all entrepreneurs in my family. My mom was a photographer and my stepfather owns a trucking company. My father owns commercial real estate, but currently lives in Poland. I manage his shopping center for him. Many of my aunts and uncles own their own business too.
How did you first become interested in skilled trades?
It’s actually a funny story. My dad bought some land in Springville, about 190 acres, past Homestead Hollow, up on the mountain. And his father bet him that he couldn’t build a house without power tools. It all started with “You can’t do like we did back in the day,” and my dad was like “Yes I can!” So every weekend growing up, I spent my days in overalls. My dad would start the nails, and my sister and I would follow behind and finish the nails on the floor. And we built that house. It took a long time, because we only worked on it on the weekends, but we helped him build that house using an old-fashioned handsaw and hammers. Originally we used oil lamps, solar panels, composting toilets, we had the works. But then my teenage years approached and I insisted on having power. It seems that a teenage girl cannot go without her hairdryer. I think it’s a fun story to tell people. It was an unforgettable, hands-on, unique childhood experience.
Do you remember how many years it took to build the house?
We probably didn’t start until I was about 10 or 11, and he was still doing last-minute touches when I graduated high school.
Speaking of high school, when you were researching college programs, what made you confident that this field might be a good fit for you?
I knew I wanted to go into sustainability because that’s where the future’s headed, but I knew that there aren’t many degree options here for that field so I designed my own major. Then being introduced to the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and the people involved, their passion-driven efforts and national recognition are what got me into the construction aspect of sustainability. Green building and efficiency. Then I met the National Association of Women In Construction (NAWIC) through the USGBC.
“People hear ‘construction’ and they think of hard hats, road work, heavy machinery, etc. They don’t imagine all the different possibilities that are available.”
Tell us more about how you got involved with USGBC.
I assisted the Alabama Environmental Council in facilitating the initial meeting that helped bring back glass recycling in Birmingham. Stakeholders and community leaders were invited, Kathleen Kirkpatrick being one of them, and she is the community director of USGBC in Alabama. I saw the USGBC logo and that triggered something, and I knew right away that I needed to know her. So I emailed her, and we met for coffee and hit it off. She offered me an internship that I received class credit for. She goes above and beyond as my mentor. I’m currently on the board, and will continue to volunteer as often as I can.
You mentioned the NAWIC. What’s your current involvement with them?
Kathleen introduced me to them and we went to a meeting together. The women are extremely supportive of each other and always cheering each other on. We’re minorities in this field, and it doesn’t have to be that way. People hear “construction” and they think of hard hats, road work, heavy machinery, etc. They don’t imagine all the different possibilities that are available. Women interested in construction can and should pursue whichever construction career path they desire.
How did you get involved with the Southern Environmental Center (SEC)?
I was starting to job hunt—I hadn’t quite graduated yet—and I heard Roald Hazelhoff, our director, was the man who knew anybody with environmental anything. I knew I wanted to work for an environmental focused nonprofit out of college, so I contacted him to see if he knew any organizations around that could possibly be hiring, maybe ones I didn’t know about, kind of just to set myself on his radar. He offered to meet with me to talk and then he brought me on. It was an unexpected and very welcomed opportunity. I am thankful that I get to do what I love every single day.
What is your day-to-day role here at the SEC?
I do special projects management right now. We have a campaign called the Growing Impact Campaign for a couple of big projects we have going on. One is to redo the planetarium here—it was built in 1964, hasn’t been used since 2009. So we’re revitalizing it and renovating it into a geodome, which will do 4K projection educational videos. They’ll be fun videos, such as the life of steel, from the production in Birmingham and its uses to how it is recycled and given new life. We will also have drones video remote wilderness locations throughout Alabama. This will provide such a unique experience for many, to learn about the abundance of biodiversity and beauty that Alabama has to offer. The landscape will also be redone using native plants and areas to catch the rain. We also co-manage Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and have big plans for it as well. Right now, my focus is to help gain sponsorships from and establish partnerships with businesses located throughout the Birmingham area. The support provided will help us accomplish our goals and create positive impacts throughout the community.
You mention these projects and events. What else is involved in the mission of the SEC?
The SEC is about demonstrating practical sustainability use. We host field trips and tours of the interactive museum. Visitors get to learn little things they can do in their home and their neighborhood that will make a big difference. The learning experience utilizes the three Rs of “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
“There’s untapped potential and construction isn’t going anywhere; we’re always going to be building. Our population is increasing rapidly, so our building needs will increase as well.”
You mentioned that construction is a male-dominated field. How has your experience been trying to balance that out?
I think even today, even though there’s so much progress, women are still a minority in most fields. I know there’s still a gender pay gap, so having that and then adding construction to it, it’s definitely challenging. Before I went to college, I worked for a company where there were about four or five women there, and it was a pretty big company. It was hard to be given anything of significance to work on. And I feel like part of that was “Oh, she’s a woman, she won’t be able to do that.” I do feel like it’s getting better. And the NAWIC is doing a great job of helping spread that awareness.
You mentioned having a lot of support from the NAWIC. How have they been supportive?
They are very engaged. There is consistent communication and when I started working at the SEC, they said, “Hey, why don’t you do a presentation on where you work and for the campaign?” This gave me an opportunity to reach out to multiple respectable companies at once! When I thanked the ladies, they said, “That’s what we’re here for—we’re here to support each other.” It’s a really cool opportunity for me. They try to hold events often—not just professional meetings, but we also get together for lunches and celebrations. We are about to celebrate NAWIC’s 50th anniversary here in Birmingham! They have also provided mentor/mentee committees so if we’re interested, they’ve connected us with experienced people in the profession. They’re definitely encouraging and make you feel like you can take on the world.
With these challenges in mind, why would you encourage young women to join the construction industry?
There’s untapped potential and construction isn’t going anywhere; we’re always going to be building. Our population is increasing rapidly, so our building needs will increase as well. I chose to focus on sustainability because it is absolutely where the future is headed. A lot of the construction companies already have sustainability departments to help them achieve their goals. As a woman in the construction industry, there are opportunities to really stand out from the crowd, make your presence known and do something amazing!