Celebrating Professional Women in Building Week at Penn State


By Rachel Fawcett

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In celebration of the National Association of Home Builders Professional Women in Building Week, the PWB Council of Central Pennsylvania partnered with the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center at Penn State to speak with undergraduate students from several majors in the architectural engineering course AE 470: Residential Building Design and Construction on Sept. 17.

Brian Wolfgang, associate director of the PHRC and instructor, teaches the course each fall. AE 470 is a foundational course for the residential construction minor at Penn State, which equips students in any major to pursue a career in residential construction.

“According to labor force statistics in 2020 from the Current Population Survey and analyzed by the NAHB, only 10.9% of construction industry employees are women, despite comprising nearly half of the total working population,” Wolfgang said. “By engaging with women students at the undergraduate level and facilitating discussion with women in the careers they want to pursue, we may be able to keep them in the workforce pipeline.”

Keri O’Shea, executive officer of the Builders Association of Central PA, kicked off the class conversation by introducing the local PWB Council and explaining how professional organizations offer students the opportunity to network, find job leads and contribute to their industry.

O’Shea was followed by Sarah Klinetob Lowe, high-performance housing specialist of the PHRC, who moderated a discussion featuring two women leaders in the residential construction industry: Ellie Leyo and Karen Welsh. Leyo, designer with PennTerra Engineering in State College, graduated from Penn State in 2021 with a degree in civil engineering. Welsh, an architect who graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1989 with a degree in architecture, is the principal and owner of UpStreet Architects of Johnstown and Indiana.

Students previously submitted questions for the speakers, who shared their professional experiences as women in the industry, including advice on working to obtain professional licensure early and networking to create a strong support system.

“When I started my career, I was often the only woman in the room,” Welch said. “Now, I’m in so many meetings with all women leaders and decision-makers. It has been a pretty dramatic transition, and the respect for everyone at the table has really evolved over time.”

As a recent graduate entering the industry, Leyo reflected on the value of professional organizations and support networks.

“Networking, making connections, and having the right support system is what brought me to where I am today,” Leyo said. “Find the right people who are going to support you in what you want to do, and never let someone else determine your outcome.”

Welsh echoed Leyo’s advice.

“It’s all about networking,” Welsh said. “Use the support systems, resources and networks available to you. Make it a point to meet people, and introduce yourself in professional and social settings, just like this discussion today. I just met Ellie, but I expect to be working with her in the future.”

The PWB Council of Central Pennsylvania, the local arm of the BACP’s NAHB PWB Council, and the PHRC organizers plan to continue this discussion in collaboration with the Penn State NAHB Student Chapter and with other educational groups.

The Pennsylvania Housing Research Center collaboratively engages with the residential construction industry to catalyze advancements in homebuilding through education, training, innovation, research and dissemination. The PHRC is administered from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Penn State. For more information, visit the PHRC website.


Share this story:

facebook linked in twitter email


College of Engineering Media Relations