Breaking down barriers, building up respect
March 12, 2013
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Tell the average person you work in construction and images of strenuous physical labor and heavy equipment in the harsh outdoors likely come to mind. Not exactly the setting in which you would expect to find a kempt, petite mother of three. Yet it is precisely the work environment Margaret Benningfield, a quality assurance construction representative with the Afghanistan Engineer District-South, enjoys most, she said.
Benningfield is one of the few American women who earn their livelihood in the construction trades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about three percent of all American workers in construction are women. Meanwhile 90% of American administrative assistants are women. What was the most frequent job for women in the 1950's is still the most frequent job for women today, but Benningfield bucks the status quo.
"When you think of construction, people automatically think of men with power tools and hours of hard physical labor. The construction environment is a lot less cultured than an office environment, so I can see why most women would not find it appealing, but I love construction and I just let my work speak for itself. The only way to gain respect is to prove that you are knowledgeable and that you can do the job well," said Benningfield.
From environmental remediation to emergency response to deploying to Afghanistan to oversee workmanship on Afghan National Security Forces and infrastructure projects, Benningfield uses her construction experience to deliver high-quality services and facilities.
"Maggie is extremely dedicated to doing a great job on every project she is a part of," said Jay Fowler, chief of the Construction Branch at the Afghanistan Engineer District-South.
"I have been fortunate to hold positions that, I feel, have benefitted our customers and have helped me increase my skills too," Benningfield said.
And yet, quality assurance in construction was not the career Benningfield had in mind.
"I was committed to being a wife and mother," she said.
Benningfield's youthful, athletic appearance belies the fact she has three adult sons and two grandsons. An avid runner, Benningfield participates in several running events for charities. The two closest to her heart are St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and the American Cancer Society, she said.
About 15 years ago, her then husband had a job requiring a great deal of moving around and Benningfield followed him from Texas, her home state, to Missouri. She needed a job and found one as a quality control representative. Detail-oriented, sharp-eyed and meticulous by nature, Benningfield thrived at quality control. After many years in the field on construction sites, she was promoted to a quality assurance construction representative. In that role, Benningfield makes sure construction complies with established plans and specifications, codes and safety requirements. She also conducts preparatory, initial, follow-up and final inspections on construction. During the preparatory inspection, which is performed prior to the start of construction, Benningfield reviews design drawings and confirms all required materials and equipment meet required specifications and have, in fact, been delivered to the job site. During the initial inspection, which is performed after the first segments of the site are constructed, Benningfield inspects and verifies the quality of workmanship. She also verifies that the contractor's preliminary work is in compliance with designs and contract requirements. Further along in a project's development, she conducts follow-up inspections a few times a week to ensure continued compliance. Inspections culminate with the final one, where all remaining issues, if any, are resolved just prior to the project being turned over to the customer or end user.
"I've watched Maggie as she inspects work. She sees the little things. She is always taking notes and has a great ability to recall previous conversations and work completed. It's very hard for anyone to fool Maggie," said Army Lt. Col. Eric Bishop, Kandahar Area Office officer in charge.
While women are few and far between on construction sites in the U.S. they are non-existent in Afghanistan, with the exception of women like Benningfield.
"Maggie knows construction and she knows her job and that gives her confidence. She may be the only female out there, but she won't let anyone talk down to her or disrespect her. If the work in place is unsatisfactory, she will require it to be fixed before any more work can proceed," said Bishop.
In Afghanistan, where access to adequate supplies and a highly-skilled workforce is not easy due to years of hostilities and neglect, Benningfield, within the bounds of her prescribed authority, provides some mentoring to Afghan contractors on the job sites. She visits sites almost daily and when she sees a deficiency or error, she brings it to the attention of contractors immediately; contractors then provide corrective action plans to bring the construction into compliance.
"Men really do not know how to react to me or how I am going to react to them. Most have had very little experience working with a woman in this position," Benningfield said. "This has actually worked to my advantage. In most cases, contractors and end users do not try to influence me or my decisions," she said.
And yet working in construction has not been a piece of cake for Benningfield either.
"There have been a lot of struggles with working in a male-dominated field. Sometimes things have been the same way for so long, it's hard for people to imagine anything different," she said.
One of her favorite mottos inspires Benningfield to continue regardless of struggles:
"You can't control what others do; you can only control how you react."
Memories of the people she has helped through her livelihood motivate her to continue excelling in the field.
"I was in Alabama in 2011 as part of an emergency response team removing debris from multiple tornadoes that had ripped through the state. I was humbled by what I saw. The devastation was much more extensive than I could have ever imagined. My first assignment was supervising cleanup of debris along roadways. Later, I conducted assessments of personal property damage and destruction. This required going to many residences and meeting many people in need of help removing debris from around their homes. Each individual I met had a story to tell about their personal ordeal. They described to me the emotional and physical pain they had endured from the moment the tornadoes had touched down until the moment I had come to assist them," Benningfield recalled. "As they shared their heart-wrenching stories, I saw their belonging, their homes, everything they had spent a lifetime building; gone! It was all gone and all they had left was their faith and each other. It was humbling helping them clear a pathway to start their lives over," Benningfield said.
Benningfield draws pride from serving as a Department of the Army Civilian. She deployed to Kandahar from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District.
"This is not just another job. I feel a sense of honor to be here with our Soldiers. I may not be serving in the same capacity as them, but I feel like I am doing what I can do to fulfill our mission here," she said.
She draws inspiration from her late mother, who Benningfield said was her biggest supporter.
"She inspired me to be a strong independent woman who doesn't give up without exhausting all options," Benningfield said.
As for mentors, "Uncle Thurman" was one of the major influences in her life.
"Uncle Thurman seemed to have discovered a way to slow down time. He showed me how to appreciate the little things in life and to not take things for granted."
On the job, Sonny Roberts, a now retired construction manager who worked for the debris, inspired Benningfield to increase her education and training.
"Sonny provided insight, methodology and advice to help me through challenging projects."
As for motivators, the best are her children, said Benningfield.
"For me, motherhood will always come first and my sons have been a great source of motivation and support. I simply couldn't have made it this far without their encouragement. I see myself as a role model for my children, 'if mom can do it, I have no excuse not to."'
The downside to working in construction, regardless of gender, Benningfield cautions, includes weather, anything from the sweltering heat of summer to the extreme cold of winter, exposure to hazards and the construction industry's dependence on financial trends.
"Construction is challenging, but it is rewarding! You leave your creations behind as a testament to your accomplishments. You can drive by a building, a bridge or a lock and say, 'I helped build that," said Benningfield. "That's a great feeling."