The Eleven Percent: Meet Belick Pha, Senior Construction Supervisor
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Action films inspired Belick Pha toward a dream career in construction, where she's gone from engineer to supervisor.
This FH series introduces readers to a few of the women who make up 11 percent of the construction workforce in the U.S., spotlighting stories of their careers in the field. Know someone we should feature? Email us here.
Ever since she was a teenager in St. Paul, Minnesota, Belick Pha wanted to be an engineer. “I saw Iron Man and Batman, and I wanted to design really cool stuff,” she says.
Because of her talent and motivation, a high school advisor recommended she apply for an internship with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s “Seeds” program. Seeds — a concept, not an acronym — encourages minority, female and economically disadvantaged students into career tracks in transportation and construction.
“I just wanted to have a job, so I said, ‘Why not?’ ” Pha says.
She stayed with the program throughout high school and into college. Then in her junior year, she switched her degree track from mechanical engineering to geotechnical engineering because she realized it would get her out in the field more.
“I thought, ‘I can’t sit behind a desk and design all day,’ ” she says. “I’m a high energy kid and I really enjoy being outside. You get half and half with being an engineer in construction.”
Today she’s nearly 15 years into a diverse career, moving through various jobs in public and private construction — engineering technician, staff engineer, project manager and deputy quality assurance manager. Pha says she’s thrilled to have found her niche in the construction industry.
In 2022 she started a new job with Cargill, managing day-to-day operations on work sites. She oversees safety and keeps everything running smoothly for teams of electricians, pipefitters, concrete layers and earth workers.
We asked Pha for her thoughts on the state of the construction industry.
Q: What’s it like being a woman in construction management?
A: It was really rough as an entry-level worker. It’s not so much now. I’m small, and from around age 17 to 28, I would walk on site and people would be like, “Oh, are you the intern?” And even when I got promoted and was training people in the field, I’d still get asked that, or people would talk to the person I’m training because they were much bigger than me.
I had to claw myself out of that. I’m not that outspoken, so I really had to learn how to assert myself, how to work with people and pick my battles. It was a tough first decade, but it was worth it.
Q: Describe a key aspect of construction supervision.
A: In my previous job, I’d lead the first 30 minutes of our weekly meetings with safety discussions. We’d go over topics and hazards or near-misses. We had a good job site safety culture, and I was really proud of that.
It made everyone comfortable to come and talk, because there’s a stereotype with construction workers like, “Just get the work done.” And I think if it was up to a lot of people, they would just continue working to the point of injury.
So making it a topic makes it stick in their minds, versus just saying, “Hey, good luck, guys. Work hard. See you at the end of the day.” It’s more important to say, “We want you to work hard, but our foremost goal is to have everyone go home with everything that they came with.” I’m hoping to continue that with this job.
Q: How has your industry evolved over the pandemic?
A: I was surprised at how busy we got during the pandemic. It also made us more reliant on technology, especially with communications and data storage, which I think is going to be key to construction and in general business going forward.
Then, as far as the people piece goes, it’s been tough retaining good talent. It’s hard to see a good co-worker go, especially if they’re female, because I don’t have a lot of female cohorts. But at the same time, COVID has made everyone recognize what their work is worth, and that they should have what they deserve.
Q: What changes have you seen in commercial construction during last 10 years?
A: Increased attention to safety is a big one. There’s a culture that’s so different from even five years ago. A lot of folks who are spearheading this are women, but we also have a good conglomerate of people advocating for safe work environments, whether that’s physically safe or emotionally and mentally safe. I just I love where the trend is going.
I’m also seeing more women in construction and in leadership roles. More and more counties in Minnesota are doing a good job of getting female project engineers. And they’re not getting hired because they’re female, but because they’re very smart women. I absolutely love that, too.
Q: What changes do you hope to see in the coming years?
A: I would love to see more women and minorities in construction.
There aren’t enough Latino and Black engineers. I see a lot of Latino construction workers, but engineers, project managers, even site supervisors tend to not be Latino. But the industry is changing rapidly, and so many construction diversity and inclusion groups have started that I’m hopeful in five or 10 years it’s going to be completely different.
Q: What advice to you have for industry managers to help foster a more diverse workforce?
A: I’ve had a lot of spectacular male bosses and managers who’ve supported me attending women’s and diversity seminars, but not a lot of them actually attend themselves. I’ve always found that disheartening.
I don’t fault them for it, I think it’s just a tangential topic for them. Of course they want to diversify, but it would make so much of a difference to see them attend and advocate for the company.
Q: Any words of wisdom for young women looking to get into your field?
A: Be assertive and make connections. Those are the biggest two things. Don’t be afraid to be loud, and learn how to say no.
At entry level, you’re taught to always say yes, but as a woman saying yes too many times, you can really screw yourself over. You also need to stick in there and show that you can do the work, so you can earn the respect. So find a balance there. It might take a few years to figure it out. Like I said, it took me years.
Also, there are a lot of people who appreciate talent regardless of how you look, so you can find allies wherever you go. Recognize them and they’ll help foster you. So many vice presidents and senior engineers have really helped me. Professional groups like Women in Transportation (and the Minnesota chapter) are also really good resources for networking.
Q: What are your pro-specific tools?
A: Because I mostly manage now, I don’t have too many physical tools anymore, unfortunately. I used to have shovels, buckets, chains and what have you, but now my car is emptier than it used to be.
But in my bag, I do have my tape measure, flashlights, multiple company-provided safety gloves, pocket knife, multi tool and waterproof field notebook. As for apps and programs, we use a SharePoint and the AutoCAD program NavisWorks for reviewing projects that engineers send us.
Belick Pha Bio
Belick Pha’s introduction to construction started as a teenager when she enrolled in the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) program at Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. At first only interested in engineering, on the recommendation of her ACE advisor she was accepted into a student worker position with the Seeds program with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), which put her on her career path.
She earned a GeoEngineering degree from the University of Minnesota, then continued as an engineering technician, testing construction materials in the field and the lab. She later transitioned into geotechnical engineering and project management. Pha is currently a senior construction supervisor for Cargill.
Writer Karuna Eberl Bio
Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to FamilyHandyman.com. She spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, telling stories of people, nature, travel, science and history. Eberl has won numerous awards for her writing, her Florida Keys Travel Guide and her documentary The Guerrero Project.