Women In Tunneling features an exemplary female representative of the tunneling industry each month in order to amplify their experiences in the underground field. This month we introduce you to Rebecca Pooker, Sr. Estimator, Alberici Constructors.
- What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?
I am currently a senior estimator with Alberici Constructors pursuing complex heavy civil and industrial construction projects. These projects involve a variety of challenging work, including underground excavation, controlled blasting, ground support and specialty geotechnical construction. My typical responsibilities include reviewing design documents, preparing detailed technical and cost proposals, coordinating subcontractor and supplier solicitations, and developing CPM construction schedules.
- How were you introduced to the tunnel industry, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?
My final internship in college was with a national tunneling contractor on a NATM project. As a civil engineering student interested in both construction management and geotechnical engineering, that internship was an incredible opportunity to see the two fields mesh together to construct critical infrastructure. The variety of experience gained during those few months made me realize that tunneling would provide me with a diverse construction knowledge base and an abundance of opportunities in my career.
- People outside of the industry don’t tend to understand exactly what the job entails. What is it like to work as an engineer on underground projects?
It’s a very exciting and challenging industry. While underground projects involve similar types of work as surface projects, geological conditions affect everything from design to production to logistics. We are constantly problem solving to construct these highly technical projects with little margin for error and it’s very exciting to be involved in that process.
- What professional achievement are you most proud of?
Throughout my career I have worked on a wide variety of heavy construction projects. Some of my proudest achievements have been in understanding how to apply lessons learned from my underground construction experience to other types of heavy construction. One example of this was working closely with design engineers to find a solution to widespread voids in the large concrete intake structure of a new hydroelectric plant. I was able to apply my grouting and shotcrete experience from tunneling projects paired with connections to the right specialty contractors to deliver a solution for this underwater environment that will increase the lifecycle of the plant. My underground experience provides a unique perspective in constructability and project management that has been an integral part of problem solving on projects ranging from slope stabilization, power generation, marine foundations, and dam safety modifications.
- Even though the number of women has been increasing over the years, the tunneling industry is still considered a male oriented environment. What do you think are some of the factors or obstacles—either societal or sometimes even self-imposed— that deter women from entering the underground career force? And what can we do as an industry or as a society to encourage more women to join?
Mentorship is one aspect of the industry that falls short for most women, particularly on the contracting side of the underground industry. With so few women in underground construction that are spread across many companies, it can be very difficult to make those professional connections and have that mentorship available on a regular basis. The founding of WIT provides an incredible network of women tunneling professionals. I look forward to seeing how this group will continue to pave the way for women in the industry and foster those connections that are vital for retaining women in the industry.
- How do you tap into your inner leader? What advice would you give on having the courage to honor your voice and to speak out and contribute your influence?
Developing into a leader has been challenging during my career. I have been lucky to have been surrounded by many supervisors and peers who have seen my potential and helped me find my personal leadership style. With the support of those supervisors and peers, I found my unique personality style and was able to gain confidence to speak out more often. Exercising the self-confidence helped me develop the skills to negate some of my self-doubt and self-limiting behaviors. I’d encourage up and coming leaders to understand that leadership styles are different and there is no right way to lead, so copying a successful role model is not as effective as finding your authentic voice.
- Looking back, what two pieces of advice do you have for your younger self?
Be your own advocate. Realize that no one can read your mind or understand your long-term visions, so speak up to get involved in the aspects of projects that are interesting to you. Ask for help when you need it and ask for more responsibility when you’re ready. A manager or leader might not be able to see your ambition or the hurdles you’re facing, so being your own advocate will reduce a lot of communication error and overall stress.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. At the beginning of my career, I was so worried about making mistakes that I didn’t speak in meetings. This led to people making incorrect assumptions about my capabilities. I waited until I was certain that I was right or that the task was completed perfectly before I shared my perspectives. I realize now that my instinct to make a good impression is somewhat still accurate but knowing that mistakes are okay is a valuable lesson to learn.
- What do you hope the future holds for yourself, for the industry, and/or for other women who will be a part of tunneling & underground construction?
I hope to see the industry evolve into a career path that is attainable for women to balance both their personal and professional aspirations. Most conversations I’ve had about career choices with fellow women in tunneling involve an underlying theme of sacrifice that I don’t think many of our male peers have to consider. I hope that the tunneling industry trends toward a more sustainable work/life balance so that more women will participate, but also so that the entire industry will benefit from more fulfilled employees. By modifying the old expectations of workaholic schedules, we can avoid burnout and unhealthy work environments rife with stress.