Interview Layli Pietri

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Interview Layli Pietri

Published by Edith Yanez in Interview · 5 December 2021
From secretary to Director of Diversity, Layli Pietri's journey.

This week at Latinas in Construction, we interviewed Layli Pietri, Director of Diversity for Balfour Beatty Construction.
Latinas in Construction is an initiative to train and motivate Hispanic women to enter and prosper in the construction industry nationwide.

Thank you Layli for your time and for the opportunity to interview you.

Edith: One of the first questions I have for you, is how and when did you start working in the construction industry?

Layli: Well, it's been almost 26 years now and honestly, I just needed a job, I was struggling, I had moved to a new area in North Carolina and I was struggling to find a job, because the place that I moved from the cost of living was very high and so the salaries looked high compared to where I just moved to, and so nobody thought I would take the job for a lesser salary even though, I just needed a job. I don't care what they pay me, I needed a job.  So, I was struggling to find work, and I wasn't an engineer, but I saw an ad posting for a project, for an administrator position for a construction company, and I knew nothing about construction, but I thought “what the heck, I’m struggling to find and so, you know, I have nothing to lose”. At that time, I had two small children and you know it was a financial struggle on 1 income and so I went to the interview, and they hired me (laughs).

Edith: You were coming from which area?  
Layli: I originally started in North Carolina.
Edith: But which area did you come from?
Layli: From Alaska. I have moved to...
Edith: Are you from Alaska?
Layli: Yes! (laughs)
Edith: Amazing! Very far north!
Layli: Yes, I started as a secretary many, many moons ago. (laughs)
Edith: So, you started again in North Carolina and with 2 small children, not knowing anyone there?
Layli: I had at that time, my husband’s family around and his mother. So, I had them, but I had no family close by and it was a very new area for me.
Edith: Was it difficult to coordinate everything?
Layli: Yes, it was!
Edith: I can relate to that.  
Edith:  So, your first job was a secretary and now you are Diversity Director.  What happened in between.  
Layli: I was very fortunate, that I had some very great mentors. On a project I learned a lot of different skills from the office manager and so when the office manager quit, I would take on their duties until they found somebody else. I would do the job until they got a replacement. But you know, after the second one left, the project manager said “Well, since you have been doing the job, would you like to be the office manager?” And I said yes!  
So, being new in construction, I did not understand a lot of the terms and acronyms. They have short words that mean something, that are specific to construction. I didn't understand, it was like a foreign language. They are talking about all that stuff, and I have no idea, no idea what they’re talking about.  So, the project manager would tell me, “Okay, write your questions down whenever you see something and you hear something and you want to know what it is, just write it down”. And at the end of the week, on Fridays we would go through my question, and he would take me out on the job site and show it to me, so I would understand what they were talking about. It was a very great experience to not just have somebody tell me what it was, but to show me what it was. I really got to understand how the different subcontractors were together to build this project, but also understood what the company's role was. What are some of the interesting features about construction, so I got to learn a lot.

And then my next project, I was offered an opportunity to work in purchasing and I did a very good job in issuing contracts, handling insurance and bonding and my boss says, “you're very intelligent I think you can be a purchasing agent.  You should learn how to read blueprints”. So, I took night classes through ABC Associated Builders and Contractors, and I learned how to read blueprints. At that time, I was going through a divorce, so the family was going from 2 incomes to 1 income, and I really needed to make more money, so my boss was kind enough to say, “let's teach you a new skill and then we can pay you more”.

Edith: Oh wow! These people are amazing!
Layli: Yeah! But I had to show that I can do it, right? And I have a choice I could quit my job and go on public assistance or because at the time, I couldn't get help because I made too much money but I didn't make enough money to pay all the bills, to feed my children, you know, to pay for daycare, to do any of that. I said, I need to do something. But I didn't want to have two jobs because then what are my children going to do? they are never going to see me. So, if I work in the daytime and I work in the nighttime, my children are not going to see me. So, that was not an option. I said I'm going to learn a new skill. I took night classes, I learn how to read blueprints and so at work they would teach me looking at the drawings, looking at pricing, and teaching me how to buy subcontracts and purchase over, and I was able to kind of start there. I also learned how to do some estimating; they took the time to teach me how to do some estimating. Part of working in purchasing is supplier diversity and we didn't have anyone who was focusing on making sure that we are following the rules, that we were meeting our goals and so my boss says; “learn as much as you can about these programs and put together something you think would help solve that problem”. Because I understood how to buy, and I understood what estimating was doing. I understood coming from the field, so I was allowed to put together a program, that was functional for our organization and so that kind of took me from purchasing to another level over a period of years and really kind of develop a rule that was very unique in the organization. But it took, you know, self-learning…

Edith: and a lot of effort
Layli: Yeah, a lot of effort. Yeah, because it took me longer, I wasn’t an engineer, it took me longer to learn things…

Edith: and at the same time, you were a mother, working the whole day. You were not allowed to feel tired, you know, before entering a classroom.
Layli: But I am thankful, because it took somebody to say, “I see talent in you”, even though I didn't see the talent, right? I didn't know that I was an option because I wasn't an engineer and didn’t have a degree, but to have somebody who said, “you're smart, you learn fast, you can do it, and we’ll help you”. I think it was very instrumental in my career growth within the organization.

Edith: And then someone says, “oh she's lucky because she is in that position”.
Layli: Yeah!! (laughs) It wasn’t that easy!

Edith: No, not at all. You have your journey.
Layli: Yeah! It was a very long journey, but it’s worth it.

Overcoming stereotypes
Edith: What do you think are the main obstacles or challenges that you have faced as a woman in construction?

Layli: I think as a woman, especially 20 years ago, the assumption that you don't have any technical abilities, they assume you're just an administrator of paperwork, you know, sometimes people will assume that you don’t know some technical aspects of construction, so just kind of proving yourself and your knowledge that you gained at that time, was something that I had to overcome. Being comfortable speaking out, being comfortable raising my hand to take on additional duties or handle certain aspects of the work was a challenge. I think it's gotten better over the years because there's more and more women in construction now. 20 years ago, it was very different, so now you see a lot more women in construction, which I think is very beneficial because it's taking that stereotype away. The other stereotype which I think has gotten so much better is the assumption that you can't work hard because you're a mother, right? Because you have to go home and take care of your children, you can't work late and that's not true, because we still work late, we still work even when we're home. My children would sit at the dinner table doing homework and I would take my drawings, because back then they didn't have drawing on computers, we had the big paper drawing, and I would roll them up and put them in my car, and  in the evening time when my children were doing homework, I was doing my work at home and I laid out the drawings on the living room floor and I would sit there and I would do my work while my children were doing homework, so I said this is my homework, that is your homework!

Edith: Everyone was doing homework!
Layli: I think that stereotype has as gradually decreased because we’re seeing more and more women be successful in the industry, you know there's more people working from home, so they understand that yes, people work very hard at home too and also you see more men taking care of their children as well, so it’s not just the women taking care of their children, you see men who are active because now there’s families that require 2 incomes, so before it was the man working and the woman stayed at home, but now there’s 2 people working and now men have to share, picking up the children and taking them to … whatever. So, you're seeing more and more men doing that and so people are starting to realize that it doesn't stop you from being a hard worker.

Edith: And it proves that you can work being a mother, I mean, you can work hard being a mother. This takes us to the next question, is diversity today different from the time you started?
Layli: Yes, tremendously. Especially when it comes to women, so you see a lot more women in construction, but also diversity in different leadership roles, so you’re seeing more Hispanics, more African American, you see Asians. The thing unique about construction is we need a lot of talent and there's not a lot of people interested in construction, right? and so you're able to grab talent from wherever it comes from, whatever it looks like, or what background they have.  We need talent, we don’t care where it comes from. So, you are seeing more diversity in the field, more and more diversity in leadership, because you have this need for talent and it’s a very competitive field, and because there isn’t a lot of people interested in construction. The nice thing about it is, you know, construction was very slow to change and still is, very slow to change. This is one of the industries that’s been very slow to adopt new technology, adopt new ways of building, but because there's more and more diversity you're getting more ideas, right? You're getting more ideas on how to build things better, you have to adopt new technologies, and so you're seeing a major change in the industry that wasn't there before.

Edith: So, diversity is something good?
Layli: Yes!

Edith: What would you say to a person who is struggling with herself, to encourage her to try new things?
Layli: It's very common for women to feel that way, and I think it's very common for women of color to feel that way, because society has in a way, kept us down to a certain degree, so you learnt it and your expectations are not high to be successful, but one of the things that help me, when I was put in that situation is, I could choose to be a victim of society, of my circumstances and give up, or I could do everything possible to try to make my life better. It's easy to just give up and feel sorry for yourself and to feel like you don't have control, but the reality is you have some control and if there's a small chance that your life could be better for your children and for yourself. Try! Give it a shot! What's the worst that can happen? You're going to be in the same spot. That's the worst possible thing, you're going to end up in the same spot.  But there's a chance that your life will be better, and it’s worth the effort to try to make your life better instead of not trying. Because you always have that regret, “I didn't try hard enough”, or “if I had only tried hard enough to make a change. And the reward is so much better when you do it yourself, when you don't have to rely on anyone else, you know, I bought my house, my first home myself. I didn't have a man; I didn't have anybody giving me any money. I bought my home for my children, for myself and that was a huge liberating feeling, because it changed the way I interacted, even, let's say for marriage and dating, because I don't need anybody's home. I don't need your checks to help me, so if you're not good to me, I can say bye! I'm done. Because I can take care of myself.  So, it’s very liberating to be able to have that choice, right? And sometimes when you're in a relationship, where you’re financially dependent on someone, it feels like you don't have any choice, but if you're financially independent you have a lot more choice, and you have a lot more choice in the direction you want to take your life.

"I could choose to be a victim of society, of my circumstances and give up, or I could do everything possible to try to make my life better."

Edith: This is true. Many Hispanics women are in relationships that are not good, you know, domestic violence, kids looking at how their mothers are being mistreated, and how they guys are being abusive, but women stay because of money, because of the children, and this is not healthy for anyone. But the way you explain it, that someone doesn’t have to see herself as a victim, is a game changer because there are not a lot of things these women can control when they are in these situations, but this is something they can control: the way they look at themselves.

Next question: What do you think are the main challenges for Hispanics in construction - men and women?

Layli:  You know, I think for some it's the language barrier, for some it's a stereotype especially in the last couple years with the whole immigration issue, there's been a little bit of ugliness in the world, right? When it comes to immigration. I think what’s unique about construction is that we need people, there's not enough people, so they're going to take you if you're willing to work hard and you're going to show up every day. There's a lot of opportunities because we don't have enough people, we need people desperately and so there's a lot of opportunities at every stage. There are some people that we have in our organization, that started out as laborers and there are now in charge of a lot of people, but they started somewhere: they started as labors, and then they were carpenters, and then they were foremen, and later, project managers. So, there was a lot of opportunity for them to grow, and that’s because of the lack of talent in the marketplace and lack of interest in the field, so I think if people are willing to work hard and are willing to learn, there are opportunities in construction, a lot of opportunities.

Women in leadership positions and workplace respect
Edith: I heard from my female students that some of them got the opportunity to be supervisors working for subcontractors, and the problem they have is that men don’t respect them because they are women, and they end up giving up the position, because the project is not making any progress and it’s a lot of stress and a lot of issues with the people, so they go back to being labors or go to another company and start all over again.  My question is, what is a big company, like Balfour Betty, doing or planning to do with these subcontractors, who aren’t facilitating that women stay in leadership positions?

Layli: There's been a lot of training for our people to recognize when this is happening, to recognize it in the field, when you see subcontractors not listening to our female engineers or you know, when they're witnessing certain things in the field and train them how to stop it. So, walking through those scenarios to make sure they're aware that this happens, that way they can notice the little things happening in the jobsite.  I think there’s been more awareness in the fact that this happens and you're seeing more and more men supporting women by telling the subcontractors: “No, you have to listen to her, because she is in charge and if you don't like it, you need to send a different crew, you're not allowed here anymore”.

Edith: Wow! That’s a good thing!

Layli: To show that this is the person you have to listen to, that's the person in charge and we will not accept you treating them disrespectfully.

Edith: Is this discrimination, I mean gender discrimination, isn’t it?
Layli: It is, it is! It’s discrimination.

We spent time also teaching the women how to respond when this happens. Different ways you can use to help you navigate some of these issues and sometimes it just takes time, and I encourage women not to give up, because there have been men in the past that I have worked with, who didn’t think I was going to be successful, but who eventually became my biggest champions. But it took time, years of proving I knew what I was doing, of proving I could be successful and once they saw that, they had my back. They were promoting me, they were saying good things about me, that they had confidence in me, but that takes time, but it's possible. There are also alternate measures that you can take when that is not working. There are protections in place for women, but you know, learning how to navigate that with the least amount of resistance is always great. Learning people skills, learning how other people respond to you and understanding that not everybody's going to be your friend, not everybody's going to like you and that's okay. They don't have to like you; they just have to do what they are supposed to do.  

Edith: What I think is amazing, is that the company is working on this problem, because we have heard about architects, engineers, project managers, Hispanics women in those positions, and subcontractors that don’t see the cultural difference between a man and a woman. And everything ends up when the woman is being asked, “what are you doing? Why are you not making progress?” They don’t see the challenges women are facing every single day. This is one of the topics we speak about in Latinas in Construction.

I only have one more question, this is more out of curiosity: How do you see robots in the construction industry? Is this something we have to be afraid of or is it something we can take as a challenge and try to make money with them?

Layli:  There's a lot of different technologies that are kind of emerging, but not all of it is practical, not all of it is cost-effective, but there are some opportunities, you know, you see more and more robots walking around with little cameras so they're taking job site photos. I don't think we need to be afraid of artificial intelligence, I think in some cases it reduces risk, contributes to safety on the job. But you're still going to need people; you can't build a building without people and so I don't think it's really going to replace everybody. The technology is not there and some of this technology that does replace people, is not cheap. So, it is a long time away from replacing bodies on the job. I don't see it as something to worry about in terms of business opportunities, unless you can come up with a technology that helps us build better and faster. So, for the women, who are in the technology room, that's an opportunity because we were looking at things that will help us build better, faster and cheaper.

Edith: And we still need programmers for the robots (Laughs).
Thank you very much Layli for your time, I’m very grateful that you took the time to give us all this insider information about the construction industry.

And to our readers: Stay tuned, we are coming again with the story of another woman in construction.

From Linkedin profile: Balfour Beatty is a leading international infrastructure group. With 26,000 employees, we provide innovative and efficient infrastructure that underpins our daily lives, supports communities, and enables economic growth.

Layli Pietri, Diversity Director
Balfour Beatty Construction

With 25 years of experience with Balfour Beatty, Layli serves as the Small Business Liaison Officer for the Federal Small Business Program.  Balfour Beatty, an industry leader for 85+years, is a $4.8B General Contracting firm.  

Layli resides in the Mid-Atlantic Division delivering over $600m annual revenue.  Additionally her duties are to oversee the Mid-Atlantic Divisions supplier diversity program, including establishing standard operating procedures   and small business participation; maintaining an in-house database of small business concerns (SBC); training estimating, project management and purchasing personnel on the Federal and Local regulations.  

Layli's support of the Small Business Community was nationally recognized with a Leadership Award by the Society of American Military Engineers for her role on the Small Business Committee, additionally she has served as Vice- Chair and Chair of the Washington Building Congess Small Business Committee and is currently the Board Liaison for the committee.

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