By Andrew Mobbs. Photos by Johanna Carson.
Although Tausha Smith considers herself a “late bloomer” in terms of her educational journey, she has blossomed powerfully, graduating in June with a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering management from Oregon State University and landing her dream job at Gerding Builders in Corvallis.
“I've always been a kinesthetic learner,” Smith said. “Ten years ago, while I was working on organic farms, a friend who worked on one of the farms was into welding and building, and she suggested I might be good at it.”
Excited to dive into hands-on projects, Smith enrolled in the welding and fabrication program at Chemeketa Community College in Salem in 2014, her introduction to career and technical education. Over the next two years, she excelled and graduated with certifications in arc welding and MIG welding before joining the workforce.
“I spent four years working in welding and fabrication at different fab shops and on-site, experiencing different types of welding like TIG welding and building 3-D printer components,” said Smith, whose first welding job was in a small fab shop in Portland that specialized in building Portland Loo freestanding public toilets.
Smith relished her time in the trades but eventually felt compelled to continue her education and expand her skill set. She realized this on a frigid morning when she was working for a company building nuclear reactor modules.
“I remember being out on the shop floor with a Rosebud (welding tip), melting ice off a stainless steel plate. I was cold, and I was reflecting; I enjoy projects, drawings, and teamwork, but how can I advance my career so I’m doing more than working in the shop?” Smith said.
Smith’s epiphany inspired her to research degree options that allowed her to take her hands-on knowledge and apply it to managing projects and leading others. She quickly determined that Oregon State’s construction engineering management program was a perfect fit, so she enrolled at Linn-Benton Community College in 2018 to complete prerequisite coursework before transferring to Oregon State in 2020 — right when the pandemic began.
While learning remotely presented challenges for someone as kinesthetically inclined as Smith, she embraced her situation and appreciated aspects of her instruction, such as the 3D modeling course taught by instructor Tracy Arras, which entailed constructing a 3D model of Kearney Hall.
“Tracy’s lectures were so thorough; there was a nice library of videos cataloged. It helped me to spend time with the 3D model of Kearney Hall, becoming more familiar with the software,” Smith said. “When campus reopened, I remember going to Kearney Hall and seeing it in person for the first time. I felt like I knew that building so well.”
Since then, Smith has continued to hone practical skills in a variety of areas, such as estimating and creating group project proposals, reaffirming her interest in a construction engineering management career. During her final year, she also took a project management class with senior instructor Lacey McNeely that offered training in Microsoft Project — software crucial to project managers in the field — and helped her build proficiency in scheduling.
Smith has also taken advantage of the many opportunities that the College of Engineering offers to students, including career fairs and networking events that introduce students to industry professionals. Adapting to pandemic constraints, many of these events were virtual, which Smith found beneficial.
“The College of Engineering has done a fantastic job funneling us into career fairs and setting up events for us to interact with local contractors,” Smith said. “Since these interviews were via Zoom, I lined up as many as I could, shopping for the ideal internship.”
Ultimately, Smith chose to intern with Gerding Builders in Corvallis, where she worked on-site at the Crescent Valley High School building renovation project during the summer of 2021. This ongoing project involves an addition to the school for its career and technical education program and a seismic upgrade. For Smith, joining well into the project was hectic, yet she recognized the supportive leadership that Gerding offered.
“I worked with two women younger than me who were project engineers. It was exciting to be paired with women who were going to train me,” Smith said. “That stood out as welcoming.”
Smith has experienced challenges common among women in trade occupations, and she is far from alone. These experiences moved her to join the National Association of Women in Construction, which has a chapter in Eugene. Smith believes seeking community within her field is essential, and she advises women entering the trades to find female mentors, job shadow extensively, and never be afraid to advocate for themselves.
One key part of Smith’s life that has cultivated her resilience to thrive in industry is CrossFit, which she has been doing for seven years. She credits CrossFit with boosting her confidence, noting parallels between CrossFit training and approaching work on-site, namely the need to focus intently on the task at hand.
“When I first walked into a gym and looked at the weights, I felt intimidated — the same way I felt when I first walked into a fab shop and saw the machinery and tools,” Smith said. “But learning to use those things and connect with a community of people using them has been incredible.”
Smith also felt a strong sense of community within the College of Engineering. “Joe Fradella and my classmates have been phenomenal,” she said. “I came out with strong relationships and networking, problem solving, communication, and team-building skills.”
Smith accepted a full-time job with Gerding Builders, her internship company, as a project engineer starting in July. She will work in a managerial capacity to address discrepancies between design blueprints and on-site conditions, collaborating with architects and subcontractors.