Women in construction: Why Brittany Gentilhomme is building a career in the field
By Jenny LescohierMarch 08, 2022
Brittany Gentilhomme grew up around construction. Occasionally, she’d even play hooky from school to go to work with her dad, but she never thought she’d have a career in the industry.
Instead, she did what her parents and her teachers expected, which was get a college degree and work in the white-collar world of communications.
Only it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. Her post-graduate jobs in data entry and social media weren’t horrible, she said, but it wasn’t long before Gentilhomme realized she wanted something else.
Today, the 26-year-old New Hampshire native is in her second role as assistant superintendent; her first was with Colantonio Inc., a Boston-area general contractor, and now she’s with R.C. Mathews Contractor out of Nashville.
Through her professional journey in construction, Gentilhomme wants others from her generation to see what she overlooked for many years: just how satisfying – and lucrative – a career in construction can be.
We talked with Gentilhomme about the winding road that led her to her current position and her hopes for the future. In honor of Women in Construction Week 2022, March 6-12, here’s an excerpt from that conversation.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: Walk us through your career as it’s led you to construction.
Gentilhomme: My dad has been in construction my whole life, and I grew up around job sites. I’ve seen the work he does, and it’s always been fascinating, but he never thought of it as a career path for me. He was always telling me to ‘go to school and get a good job so you don’t have to work in construction.’
So I went to college – in North Carolina at High Point University – because I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I wanted to get out on my own and have that college experience. I wanted to go into something related to writing. I’ve always loved writing, especially creatively.
After taking a few classes and hearing from professionals who worked in communications, I chose that as my major. I wanted to get into public relations or internal communications at a big company – that was my goal. I rushed through college and graduated a year early to save some money, but I didn’t have a job lined up when I got out.
I ended up moving back home with my parents and started looking for work. I did data entry for a year, and had a social media internship but got so sick of looking at a computer. When I got home every day from work, I would go straight outside. I have a small vegetable garden and there are quite a few flower beds around my parents house, but honestly, even mowing the lawn is enjoyable.
My dad is also interested in gardening, so when he got home from work, it was something we did together. That’s really my happy place, so I decided to get a job in landscaping for the summer – and I absolutely loved it.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What did you like about working in landscaping?
Gentilhomme: There’s a lot that’s satisfying about that type of work. There’s the immediate reward when you can turn around and see what you’ve accomplished. It’s hard for me to get the same feeling from a computer screen or an Excel spreadsheet.
And being physically tired at the end of the day is a good feeling. Falling asleep used to take me a while, my brain would just keep going and my body would have energy, but once I started working in landscaping, I couldn’t keep my eyes open past 9 p.m. It’s nice to be able to sleep deeply like that and wake up feeling fully rested.
And I felt physically strong from the work I was doing. I was always athletic growing up, so when I was no longer in school to play organized sports, work is what kept me in shape, even better shape than before.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: Why didn’t you stay in that field?
Gentilhomme: I worked for a large landscaping company for a year, it was the first time I thought about a future with a company. But I still had this huge student debt hanging over me, and I was getting a little anxious that the longer I went without using my degree, the less relevant it would become. I started applying to jobs and got an interview which led to an offer with a children’s clothing brand in what I was told was a marketing-adjacent position, which was close to my major so I accepted.
I worked for an e-commerce brand that also produced several catalogs per year. We did a few big photo shoots to populate the catalogs with all the seasonal lines for the upcoming year. I liked the diversity of the work, but there wasn’t a lot of growth opportunity at the company, and fashion wasn’t where my passion was. Once again I started looking for my next job and that’s when my dad came to me and said Colantonio was looking for assistant supers, and did I want to interview?
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: Were you surprised at his suggestion?
Gentilhomme: I think once my dad saw how well I did with landscaping, and how much I liked it, he accepted that I could hold my own in construction if I was interested in it. Prior to that, I would always joke with him and say: ‘Can you just get me a job? I’ll be a laborer, I’ll be whatever.’ He would tell me I could make so much money in Boston working construction, but it had never been a serious offer until then.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What does your dad think now about the path you’ve chosen?
Gentilhomme: [Scott Gentilhomme] works for Colantonio as a superintendent, and he’s really proud of me. He loves being able to come home and talk shop with me.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What about working in construction inspires you?
Gentilhomme: I like the necessity of it. We’re building the world. A lot of people overlook how much it takes to make something beautiful, or stable, or strong, or useful, and I really enjoy that part of it. There’s a certain level of pressure there, too, with things like safety and schedule. But I see value in making sure nobody’s walking underneath the crane and all the doors open and close the way they should at the end of the day, and we’re hitting important milestones and deadlines.
In landscaping we had our tasks, we knew what they were, and we executed them. I miss the physical side of the job sometimes. But in construction there is a lot more going on, more puzzle pieces to line up to see the final picture. The managing side of my job now is a lot more mental; it’s just a different kind of tired at the end of the day. But I can still turn around and see the progress in the work being done.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: You’re a young woman and construction is heavily male-dominated. What’s been your experience with that?
Gentilhomme: I feel lucky. The guys I’ve worked with, and all the subcontractors, have been really great. I haven’t had any issues. If anything, more than being a woman, age has been the biggest hurdle.
The best way to deal with it is knowledge and confidence, know what you’re talking about and believe you are capable. It can be tough if someone’s not taking you seriously, but the other part of it is just showing everyone you’re willing to work hard and you’re willing to step up when you need to.
Listening is another way to get an edge in this industry. It’s a really underrated skill that can help solve problems a lot faster.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What are your long-term goals?
Gentilhomme: I’m definitely going to continue building my career in construction. I want to get to the point where I can run my own work and become a superintendent.
I’m also interested in getting more young people in the industry. We need to find a way to drive more interest and participation in the trades and construction in general. Our site crew are saying we could make so much money this summer, but we just don’t have the people to take on all the work we’re being offered.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What do you think is at the root of the problem?
Gentilhomme: I think it’s a perception thing. I grew up around construction. I knew there were good careers in it, and yet I never seriously considered it until well after college because it was always suggested that if you’re not good at school, then construction is a great career path for you. School was never a struggle for me, so it was not something I really thought about, or that my parents pushed me toward.
I think construction is a great career choice for people who don’t like school or don’t do well in school because it is a different kind of learning, it’s a different skill set, but it should also be recommended to the students who did well in school.
There’s a lot of innovation and development happening in construction right now, and it’s a great industry for all kinds of students. But top students don’t hear about it enough because no high school counselor is going to suggest a straight-A student go to a trade school.
It’s more than getting counselors to talk about trade school, or parents encouraging their kids to pursue construction, because a lot of young people don’t know what it feels like to do physical work, or handle power tools. Getting hands-on exposure is really important. There are organizations out there to help with this, but you have to look for them.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What would you like to tell young people who might be thinking about a career in construction?
Gentilhomme: I would tell them the work I do feels good. I feel successful and there was a real financial benefit when I switched from the clothing company to construction – I got almost a 50% increase in salary overnight. And that’s just the starting point.