Around the world, more women are entering the construction industry. While 9.1% of the total construction workforce are female today, compared to only 2% nearly 40 years ago, it’s clear significant progress has been made.
Sheila Ohrenberg, President of Sorella Group, a National Contracting Specialist, has seen a significant change in the industry over her 20 plus year career.
“For years, it used to be that I was the only female in the room on projects and at industry events. Today, there’s quite a few of us out there,” she comments.
As today is International Women’s Day, we want to highlight the achievements of inspiring women in the construction industry. For this week’s Behind the Build, we hear how Sheila started her company from the ground up with her sister and learn how she’s helping to open up opportunities for other females in the industry.
How did you first get started in the construction industry?
I’ve been in construction for over 20 years. In 2006, I started Sorella Group with my sister. Hence, the company name as sorella is Italian for sisters. My sister came from the construction software world. She was actually on the team that developed the first online plan room back with McGraw-Hill in the ’90s. We started out just selling specialties but have grown into a full service construction business. Today, we have active projects in about 17 states.
Why did you wake up one day and decide to start this business?
Before we started Sorella Group, I worked for a small government contractor. I realized that if I stayed with that job, I would have to travel a good deal. I had a then four-year-old who was going into half days at kindergarten. I realized that I didn’t want to travel anymore, so we started the business instead. For the first six months, we worked out of my basement. Soon, we started growing so fast and had to move into an office space and warehouse.
What started as this little company out of my home, grew larger than we ever thought it could.
What gets you excited to wake up in the morning and do your job?
It’s ironic because I started the company so that I didn’t have to travel. But now I love traveling. The chance to enter new markets and pursue large projects is thrilling. We get to work on really interesting projects. Our company has had several airport projects, including the new Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. We also do a great deal of military work which is always exciting when we are in the know of confidential projects before most.
Do you have a project that gives you a lot of pride?
I’m particularly proud of a housing project we completed at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. It was our first project that was over half a million dollars so at the time it was massive for us. I don’t think we ever thought we were going to do over a couple of million dollars of work total, but here we were, doing a half million for just one project.
The labor shortage remains a challenge in the construction industry worldwide. How do you retain the talent that you have?
For a small business, we’ve been told that we offer big business benefits. A lot of small companies can’t necessarily afford to give a decent 401(k), pay for health insurance, provide a generous vacation package and offer other benefits that we do.
Our employees are important to us, so we offer them the flexibility to keep family first.
We try our best to engage with our employees and meet their needs.
How has technology changed the way you work in construction?
The construction industry is constantly changing. There’s always new, innovative technology entering the market to make it easier, safer and faster.
Even when you consider the way we used to do things, it’s clear how much the industry has evolved. I can recall delivering bids back when I first started and had to find a payphone to call in to get the number before I delivered. Likewise, in plan rooms, we typically had 24 hours where we could take plans out. My sister would go to retrieve them physically, and I would lay them out on the floor to copy them on this little machine. Once they were copied, I would take them to the fax machine and send them to the manufacturer to get a quote. It was quite the process, and now we don’t have to do that at all.
What’s your favorite PlanGrid feature?
We have been using PlanGrid since 2012. At that time, we were working with Turner Construction and used PlanGrid early on in some projects. I am a big fan of how easy it is to attach photos to plans because we work in so many different locations. Being able to pull up plans and see the photos of exactly what is going on is invaluable.
What would you say was your “ah-ha” moment after using PlanGrid and seeing the difference?
We were working on a project in Iowa and visited when the superintendent wasn’t able to be on site. We needed to move a lot of systems around including the existing mechanical, electrical and plumbing. As a result, we ended up taking notes and putting everything on the sub plans in PlanGrid to communicate to the superintendent and his team. Without PlanGrid, this would have taken days to get everything worked out in the way we needed. It probably saved us a week’s worth of communication between us being a supplier, subcontractor and the general contractor and the architects and the owners of the building. We were able to get it all done within a day rather than what might have needed a second trip in the past.
What would you recommend to the next generation of builders?
Keep inventing and exploring new ideas to make construction safer, faster and more efficient.
You’re involved in Women Construction Owners and Executives, USA (WCOE, USA), a national organization. What are you most looking forward to as incoming president of the National Organization?
For years, it used to be that I was the only female in the room on projects and at industry events. Today, there’s quite a few of us out there. I’m heavily involved with WCOE in the U.S., and we have a lot of members with tons of excitement. I feel like we’re the best-kept secret in the U.S.–but it’s not going to be that way for long. There are many women construction owners, and we’re opening up opportunities for those who want to come into the industry. We’re a national organization with a few chapters now, but we’re working diligently to start additional chapters throughout the U.S.