The Source Civil Engineering Magazine First Step: Persistence and networking pay off

First Step: Persistence and networking pay off

By Laurie A. Shuster

Fathima Lahar, CMIT, A.M.ASCE

Fathima Lahar, CMIT, A.M.ASCE, graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2019 with a master’s degree in construction management and was promptly offered not one but two full-time jobs. She began as an assistant project manager in January 2020 with Astra Group in Atlanta and has already progressed quickly.

Lahar earned her Bachelor of Technology in civil engineering from Vidya Academy of Science and Technology in Thrissur, Kerala, India, before moving with her baby daughter to join her husband in Georgia. There she pursued her higher degree at Georgia Tech to restart her career after being a stay-at-home mother.

A goal-driven go-getter, Lahar says that being persistent, networking relentlessly, following the advice of mentors, and taking advantage of professional development courses helped her land the job with Astra.

Here is how she did it:

Civil Engineering: How did you first become interested in civil engineering?

Fathima Lahar: I’ve never had an interest in things that are imaginary; I wanted to work with things I can touch and feel. And I always had an interest in buildings, so I chose civil engineering for my undergrad. But after completing that four-year degree, I understood that civil engineering is very vast. You study structural analysis, design, transportation, traffic, irrigation, hydraulics, environmental engineering — there is a lot to it.

So I went into industry for a couple of years doing estimation. When I did that, I realized I should go back to school to learn more theory in estimation as well as construction management. That is when I thought of going for a higher degree.

By that time I had gotten married and had a baby. I came to the United States with my husband and daughter, and I had to take a break from my career to be a stay-at-home parent.

But I always had a passion toward my career, and I didn’t want to lose my progress. So I decided to apply to Georgia Tech. I knew construction management would be the best fit for me because it could give me an overall idea about the preconstruction, construction, and postconstruction phases. To my surprise, not only did I get admitted into the building construction department, but I was admitted with a fellowship. Achieving that degree was a turning point in my career that gave me a great second start.

While pursuing my master’s, I also interned with Gleeds, a global property and construction consulting firm, which opened doors into project management. I also went on to earn three more scholarships, including the inaugural scholarship from the Construction Management Association of America. That boosted my resume.

How did you conduct your job search once you were close to graduation?

I never missed any career fair that happened at the university. I knew that I had to keep following up with the people I met there to get a job. I took notes there and would write letters to the people I met that referenced those notes to help them remember the conversation. I was persistent.

I also used LinkedIn, which is a wonderful platform for a job search. And I tried to go to every possible networking event that happened around me. I didn’t want to miss any chance. Fortunately, this was before COVID-19.

I was also a student member of ASCE, and I enrolled in the ASCE Mentor Match program. I was matched with Ken Mika, P.E., M.ASCE. I still keep in touch with him. And I was a member of the National Association of Women in Construction, and I had a mentor there, Kirsten Neff. Each person had their own ideas to share. I was new to the United States, and they helped me, especially with resume reviews.

By graduation, I had two full-time offers. One was from Gleeds, and one was from Astra Group. Gleeds was a program management company, and I loved my internship there, but I thought that to do justice in working on project controls, I should understand real construction first.

Additionally, Astra Group, being a general contractor, seemed to be the right path toward my goal of becoming a construction manager. So I chose Astra Group. Astra is a leader in the Southeast that provides general contracting services to governmental entities, and I’m learning a lot; it has been wonderful.

Interviewing for jobs can be stressful for anyone. How did you boost your confidence at interviewing?

Getting my full-time position was easier than getting the internship because when I was applying for my internship, I didn’t have any experience at all in the United States. But for the full-time job, I had the internship, which helped to boost my resume.

I was fortunate to have been asked to a lot of interviews, which is the first step. I got those opportunities through my continuous networking and following up. Each interview gave me an experience to learn from. At the end of a few interviews, I learned there were some questions that everyone asked in common. So I could prepare and have very confident answers. Also, after the interview, I would come home and practice for the answers that I had given that I thought failed to impress the interviewer.

Taking courses in career development and leadership at Georgia Tech also helped me immensely toward my job search. The professors brought industry leaders to the class for guest lectures. They shared their experiences and told us how they interviewed people. We got exposure to a wide range of leaders, and I pursued those connections. I got to know the importance of networking — or ‘net-weaving,’ in the terms of my professor — through the career development course.

Attending mock interviews also helped to enhance my confidence.

What appealed to you about the position with Astra?

The position Astra offered was a shortcut to my future career goals. It also gave me the flexibility to learn on-site as well as in an office setting. I have the opportunity here to get exposed to all phases of construction.

Moreover, I liked Astra’s working environment. It is always hard to judge the culture just from an hourlong interview. But after the interview at Astra, I had a good feeling that I would have space to learn. And I was right. I work with a great team now.

How has the job compared with what you expected so far?

When I started, although I was passionate and excited, I had no real experience with that job. I was like the baby in the company. But I could see each day how the theory I had studied at Georgia Tech was being applied as practical knowledge. Even my capstone project applied to what I was doing.

And I love the job. Just today my project manager told me I am growing at a pace that is double what they expected.

At Georgia Tech we had a leadership course, and it taught the Pygmalion effect, which means when managers set high expectations, employees work to meet those expectations. And that keeps on happening. And here again I see the theory applied in real life. My manager is very generous in expressing his appreciation for the work I do, which makes me want to do more and learn more.

As a woman and a person of color, did you ever experience anything that made you uncomfortable? Did your current company make you feel welcome?

At first, I was a bit hesitant because it does happen at many workplaces, but I have been so lucky — I have never had an experience like that so far. And Astra Group is dedicated to bringing in more diversity. There is regular guidance from leaders on treating each other with respect.

What do you like the best about your job right now?

First, I am learning what I wanted to learn about construction. Second, I love my team; each person is so supportive and helpful. We are all growing together. And third is the work-life balance, which I still need because my daughter is in kindergarten now, and with COVID-19, she is home for online classes. My husband works remotely from home because of COVID-19, but I usually have to go to the office. So he is doing a lot of child care. But today, for example, he had to go out, so I asked my team if I could go work from home to be with my daughter. They said yes. They know I am working no matter where I am.

What role do you see yourself working toward next?

I am a very organized person, so I always set goals for myself. I believe having a vision is very important. I am currently aiming toward becoming a very good construction manager. I would also like to help more women get into this industry.

And I see so many people losing jobs because of COVID-19, so I want to share what I know about interviewing skills. I just celebrated my first anniversary at Astra, but my ideas are still fresh. I believe now it’s my time to give back.

What advice do you have for young job seekers in the current environment?

My advice is that while COVID-19 might have brought changes to things happening around you, there are still opportunities. Being persistent and determined can help you land the right job. Start using LinkedIn today! It’s such a wonderful platform. Work on your resume. Attend mock interviews. Find a mentor who will be able to help you. Work on your elevator pitch and common interview questions. Follow up after an interview. Be thankful — and stay optimistic!

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