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The Key To Progressing In A Construction Career? Being A ‘Sponge’

The waiting room at UCLA Health's Encino facility, finished by Parker Brown

When Chris Collier took an internship at Parker Brown Construction in 2010, he could hardly have anticipated where he would be today. More than a decade later, Collier has progressed through roles as a project engineer, estimator and project manager to become the chief operating officer of the Canoga Park, Los Angeles-based construction firm. 

As 30- and 40-year construction veterans age out of their roles, they are finding fewer newbies to mentor; fewer young people are entering careers in construction and construction management, and stories like Collier’s are becoming rarer. Programs nationwide are working to reach young people and teach them about careers in construction. But the battle for talent is not just about hooking new hires; it's also about keeping those hires within the industry.

Bisnow sat down with Collier to discuss the mentors and the mindset that have kept him progressing in his construction career and how others can work to chart similar paths. 

Bisnow: How did you get your start in the construction industry?

Collier: I grew up around construction. During high school, I worked during the summers with a few contracting companies. I worked both in the back office, seeing how sites were selected, permitted and zoned for ground-up construction, and out in the field, getting hands-on experience laying foundations and learning the tools of modular housing fabrication. 

I ended up going to school for construction management, and over the summer before my senior year, I started as an intern with Parker Brown. As a California State University, Northridge, student, I knew some of the company’s work doing tenant improvements and retail projects around Los Angeles. I loved the work I did that summer and when I finished school, I joined on with a full-time role.

Bisnow: What was the first big project that you led?

Collier: I worked as a project engineer on dozens of projects for different managers at the firm. My first opportunity as a project manager was on a six-story parking structure in Hollywood. For the better part of the next two years, I took on more project manager positions along with some veterans of the company and eventually started running projects on my own. 

Seven years in, John Parker and Scott Brown brought me up to the executive level at the company as COO. I oversee a lot of pieces of the business now, but I still love running projects for the firm.

Bisnow: What’s your favorite part about working in construction?

Collier: It sounds strange, but I really like working on utilities projects. I remember doing the initial site work as we redid the utilities for a set of industrial buildings for Ford. It’s amazing to see how the water, electrical, fire, elevator and mechanical systems all come together at a property. If you haven’t been on a job site, you have no idea just how much work is done under the surface or out of sight.

A lot of the work I oversee are tenant improvements projects with extremely tight turnarounds of 10 to 16 weeks. When you have to get in, do the job and get out on such a demanding schedule, it takes a lot of advance planning, but every day there’s a new challenge. I love to feel like we’ve worked hard and were able to quickly provide something the client loves. 

Bisnow: What does it take to progress in the construction industry?

Collier: You only gain knowledge by doing and learning as you go. The reason I’ve progressed is that I’ve watched people build so many different kinds of projects, I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned what to do better for the next time. Even to this day, I’m still learning. 

It helps to have a mentor. I’ve been helped along my way by Scott and John, as well as Kevin McLean, Tom Featherstone and all the superintendents in the field who had a lot more knowledge than I did when I was starting out. Lean on them for advice, because they’ve seen it all and done it all. 

Bisnow: What advice would you give to someone starting out right now? 

Collier: Pay attention. Be a sponge. Don’t focus in on one little detail, try to learn everything that you can, and try out different areas to see what you enjoy. If you know drywall, learn concrete, if you know tenant improvements, learn estimation. Don’t stop learning.

Bisnow: Has the pandemic changed your firm’s pipeline for construction talent?

Collier: It’s certainly made my job as COO more difficult, coordinating between our employees who are working from home, the ones who have come into the office and the ones out in the field. Many of the projects that Parker Brown works on are in healthcare, whether they’re clinics, offices or urgent care centers, and those projects were deemed essential, which meant we were still in growth mode throughout the pandemic.

No matter who we hire, we try to stress to them that they can only progress by watching, learning and taking lessons to the next job. Being able to stay active during this time means our employees’ progression is still going at the same pace. 

Bisnow: What would you say you’re proudest of from your career?

Collier: Probably our work with University of California, Los Angeles and the relationship we’ve built with them. They started as a client around the same time I joined the firm, starting with some tenant improvements. We kept turning in great products and they kept handing us more work. Since then we’ve built 50 of their outside clinics and become one of their go-to contractors. Almost all of our business is with repeat clients or through referrals, so our reputation with UCLA is a massive achievement for me.

Especially during the pandemic, it felt good to be building health clinics. Some of them became Covid testing centers, vaccination sites and treatment areas, and it was meaningful to help, at least in some small part. 

Bisnow: It’s been over a decade since you started at Parker Brown. What makes you want to keep your career there?

Collier: Everyone knows each other here, it’s not like going into a 500-person office. I always feel like a valued member of the conversation, and I’ve never felt micromanaged.

I grew up in a family-run company. Even though there are two founders and owners, Parker Brown still has that same kind of feeling, and its culture is akin to the one I grew up in. 

This article was produced in collaboration between Parker Brown and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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