Tours of dutyFor several years, economists and commentators have been talking about the “gig economy”. In a May 2016 article from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the author highlights some of the occupations where the gig economy is expanding. A scan of those top “gigs” includes jobs like musicians, painters, software developers, writers and drivers — reading more like a list of second jobs, casual employment, avocations and part-time work picked up in-between full-time positions.
Meet Nti AwakessienWe didn’t have to look far among the thousands of Aerotek engineering contract employees to find a prime example of this trend. Nti (like “En-tee”) Awakessien is a project engineer barely into her thirties, who’s already enjoyed three tours of duty, rich in rewards as well as interesting and valuable work experience.
Nti was strategic in her education choices, receiving her BS degree in civil engineering and then enrolling in a master’s in architecture program. After testing the job market, she then went on to earn a master’s degree in urban design. She spoke with us about how she has carved her rich career path. “I always knew I wanted to be an engineer. My early journey was certainly a bit unique. My family lived in Oman when I was in elementary school, moving to Nigeria where I spent my high school years. By the time I graduated from the University of Maine with my degree in civil engineering, I already had a feeling that I’d be travelling a unique career path. It looks like I was right!”
A journey not a race“My first stint in grad school was in Boston, studying architecture. I worked concurrently in the architecture field while taking three to four classes a semester. My first position was working on interior architecture for hospitals in the Boston area, and then I worked at a firm focused on the adaptive reuse of old buildings, turning them into apartment buildings. It piqued a curiosity that would drive my next career move — I knew that this is what I wanted to do. After that, I connected with an Aerotek recruiter about a job with a small architectural firm focusing on adaptive reuse of public spaces. I quickly became well-versed in the regulations and applications of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After a great run there, I was hooked on the psychology of how people feel and behave in spaces and public environments. Before long, I’d moved to Cleveland to get my masters in Urban Design and Planning at Kent State. During my time at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) I learned much more about the use of public spaces, one of my studio classes implemented a real life project on how to adapt and reuse public spaces called Pop Up Rockwell. Pop Up Rockwell was a temporary transformation of downtown Cleveland’s Rockwell Avenue, designed to test ‘complete and green street’ improvements under real-world conditions. My team and I went on to win the 2013 Excellence in Student Planning Award. This studio project inspired my thesis, Transitional Urbanism. My project explored something closer to home – how refugees resettle in new environments, particularly urban environments. What is the quality of their experience, coming from such a different world when they try to adapt to a new place? How do they assimilate, while still holding onto their past, as a community? Sometimes, it’s really as basic as how to get from point A to point B in a dizzying and complex new environment. It was fascinating work, developing prototypes for living environments. My previous work in architectural design in Boston came in very handy – how do we reuse and re-adapt public spaces for new users? I wanted to explore how to use urban design and architecture as a catalyst for success to create livable and vibrate environments that support self-sufficiency, as refugees transition and adjust to a new environment.”
The scenic routeWhat comes next in Nti’s career shouldn’t be too much of surprise, even if it might seem different than the work that precedes it. “After grad school, I worked at a few engineering design firms. One of the positions was as a structural engineer performing structural analysis of cell phone towers. Next, I worked as a transportation planning engineer on what appeared to be a pretty straightforward brief, but turned out to be anything but. It was a project to design and build a highway extension. But the neighborhoods where this extension was planned for included people’s homes, very vibrant communities. There was a significant and organized resistance from the people in those neighborhoods. I learned a lot, again, about people’s attachment to place and their strong need for home. The very human design for a familiar, physical place to build and make community. You might think it odd, but when I look back on this phase of my career I like to call it ‘taking the scenic route’. The path of rich experiences that all led me to where I am now. But not before I took an imposed, but welcome break, hitting the road to explore Europe.”
A view from the bridge (558 of them)One of the ever-present anxieties for everyone working in America in this dynamic jobs market is being laid off. The Brent Spence Bridge Project connecting Ohio to Kentucky lost its federal funding, which in turn ended Nti’s position, but providing a much welcomed break. After a trip abroad, she returned refreshed and ready for her next chapter. She began checking her daily email feed from Aerotek and spotted an opportunity she felt was purpose-built for her. The only hitch was it was in Pittsburgh, and she lived in Cleveland.
Aerotek’s Pittsburgh office was having a difficult time filling a very special slot for a new public-private partnership (P3) project to rebuild 558 bridges — the largest road or construction project in Pennsylvania’s history. “Our recruiters were having a hard time finding this very special engineering candidate, so we broadened the search. We extended the search of our database of contractors and there she was,” recounts Matthew Lord, an account manager at Aerotek’s Pittsburgh West field office. To hear the story from Nti’s side, the match seems to have been ideal. “When I saw the job description I had zero doubt that I was a great fit. Matthew’s team and the process they laid out were pretty straightforward and simple. Short story was, I interviewed on Wednesday, had the job offer on Friday, and started within a week. The cool thing was I got the pay package I wanted. I’d found the contract employee job match made in heaven.”
Nti says, “It’s beyond cool what we’re doing, we are designing and rebuilding 558 bridges in three years. My job is to oversee ten design squads spread across the US. Located everywhere from Oregon and Washington state, to New York and here in Pittsburgh, I coordinate with each of these teams, pushing production to meet deadlines, validating contract costs, coordinating design and constructability issues. I also oversee the quality check and assurance with each design package. What qualifies a bridge for the rapid bridge replacement project is it that it must be constructed in 10 weeks or less. That’s significantly less time than a typical one-off project might entail. The project database geeks hooked my team up with a custom-built Google Earth interface that allows us to do some very cool things with traffic flow analysis, signage, speed limits, barrier placement and everything else. This tool allows our regional teams to work on bridges in Pennsylvania while telecommuting from across the country — all from in front of our screens. Everyone is familiar with the deep frustration of sitting in traffic jams caused by construction. I know I am! In directing these engineers, I can help to reduce this anxiety to the greatest extent possible. I quickly started tapping into my previous experience in making time spent in public spaces as comfortable and positive as possible for people. We’ll never be able to make people feel good about having to add a few extra minutes to their daily commute for ten weeks. But we can do whatever it takes to make that delay less anxious than it might otherwise be.”
Alliances Over LifetimesFrom our vantage point, the current state of working in America is drastically different than it was just a few short years ago. Nti Awakessien’s early career path is strong evidence of this change, the growing trend towards professionals working as contract employees, and taking a more creative approach to their careers. Another former LinkedIn executive, Ben Casnocha, talks about the deeper implications for this seismic shift in business and the people who work there.
The End of Business as UsualNti’s story is one shared by an increasing number of mobile professionals whose career trajectories are changing the way we think about work in the US. There’s the obvious other side of this evolving workplace — the businesses where this work culture is evolving. In a recent Quartz.com article analyzing the changing face of business in America, the author cites numerous cases – from Warby Parker to Zappos and Google – where business innovations are altering the relationship between companies and the people who work there. Zappos has introduced their innovative business management theory of holocracy. Google encourages workers to “write their own job descriptions”. Warby Parker applies their system of “Warbles” to democratize business planning.
Where these businesses are growing and evolving is also changing, sometimes in surprising ways. Our Pittsburgh office offers a case in point of this changing industrial landscape, according to Matthew Lord. “It 6rsquo;s been said that Pittsburgh is the new Portland. In recent years, we’ve seen the median age actually decrease for the first time in many years, as we see ourselves becoming a magnet city for young professionals. What’s drawing them are the companies opening offices here, in cities like Pittsburgh, to take advantage of the younger, growing professional workforce. Companies you might not have previously imagined in Pittsburgh, technology businesses like Google and Uber. But we’re also seeing growth from healthcare businesses and higher education, which is rapidly changing the employment profile in a city where just a few short years ago, things looked very different.”
Learning is the New Doing“I absolutely love my work on the PA bridges project, because I’m learning and growing every day. But I also know it’s got a fixed term to the project, so I’m equally excited about what my next opportunity might look like. Maybe that’s because one of my guiding principles in life is to never be afraid of trying something different. If I had any advice for young professionals just starting out, it’s this: Don’t box yourself in. Especially for a woman working in engineering or design, you have to be ready and eager to go toe-to-toe. So, be bold, be smart. Also, be likable, but be firm and assertive too.”