When tackling complex problems, it's advantageous to collaborate with individuals with diverse strengths, unique experiences, and a collective wealth of lessons learned. We've explored the benefits of team members from various AEC backgrounds but what about those who've spent a decade in an entirely different industry before joining construction? They leverage their seemingly unrelated experiences in a unique way, often distinguishing themselves for this reason.
For example, teaching English or coaching a sports team may seem vastly different from construction, but the leadership skills developed in those roles can effectively translate into an extremely strong leader on any construction project—one who is patient, communicative, and adaptable to change.
Ben Hamm is a great example. A GLY Senior Project Manager, Ben started his career as a high school English teacher, then studied civil engineering, graduated in 2015, worked in both construction and engineering, and joined GLY in 2017. His outstanding performance and unusual path beg several questions—so I asked!
First of all, what brought you into teaching?
Ben: After earning a BA in English and Sociology from Williams College in 2003, I found myself facing various career paths. At the time, typical options included attending medical or law school, delving into finance, insurance, or politics, or pursuing a career in education. Although I briefly considered law school, the most practical initial step into the professional world for me was taking on the role of an English teacher and coach at Xavier High School, a Jesuit boys’ school in Manhattan.
I had every intention of working there for a year or two before pursuing other opportunities, but I enjoyed it so much! So every time spring came around, I committed to another year of being Mr. Hamm, the English teacher, basketball and baseball coach, and eventual Director of Admissions.
We've all looked up to teachers and coaches in our lives. Can you talk about some of the skills involved and how they translate to construction?
Ben: It showed me how to be an effective communicator and leader. Good luck getting through 50 minutes of grammar, composition, and literature instruction with teenage boys without a clear lesson plan. Best wishes to the basketball coach who hasn’t planned every minute of every practice and doesn’t clearly articulate the strategy to victory. Godspeed to the school administrator who doesn’t listen intently to colleagues, staff, students—and their parents in some cases—prior to making critical decisions.
Shifting careers is a big change. How did you come to this decision?
Ben: About seven or eight years into my career as an educator, two themes began to emerge:
While I loved the Xavier community—the students and colleagues—I wished for new challenges where I could tap into some of my underutilized strengths.
I realized that some of my personal life goals unfortunately required a bit more financial security, particularly while living in Brooklyn.
Most English teachers eventually teach Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, the one that concludes with:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
My roads diverged and I took one less traveled by, applying to the Grove School of Engineering at City College of New York (CCNY) with the hopes of becoming a civil or structural engineer.
GLY Senior Project Manager Ben Hamm spent ten years as a teacher, coach, and school admissions director before switching gears into the AEC industry.
Why engineering and construction? I hear this wasn't your first foray into these areas.
Ben: True. I spent countless hours in my father’s woodshop as a kid and teen, and my favorite subject in high school and college was calculus. In some ways, the decision to get an engineering degree and enter the AEC industry was a homecoming—I was going to tap into my other strengths and follow a buried ambition that emerged 20 years ago.
Also, like every other architect, engineer, and builder, I take great satisfaction and pride in the process, precision, and product.
Beyond communication and leadership, what other "extras" do you bring due to your teaching background?
Ben: Flexibility. Despite my best plans and intentions, I’d have to make real-time adjustments nearly every day during class, practices, or games. With so many competing interests and personalities in the AEC industry, knowing when and how to be flexible but remaining true to your bottom line or core values has served me and my fellow team members well.
Since you joined GLY in 2017, what's been the biggest surprise or area you had to work on?
Ben: The sheer amount of technical information that a general contractor, and specifically a project manager, needs to comprehend. It obviously helps to master every scope or division of work, but that isn’t always possible. There is a delicate balance between knowing when you need to be the subject-matter-expert (SME), when you need to know enough to be dangerous, and when to reach out to others. Emphasizing the latter, I quickly learned the importance of developing and nurturing a network of trusted trade partners and respected SMEs; knowing who to trust and when to leverage their expertise will only benefit the project and project team.
Ben's patience, flexibility, and excellent communication skills, honed during his years of teaching, greatly benefit his current role as a Senior Project Manager.
Any advice for others who might consider a non-traditional route to construction?
Ben: It requires a commitment, one not to be taken lightly.
I didn’t want to feel like an imposter, so a degree in civil engineering seemed logical at the time. This admittedly made my path a little bit longer. That said, getting that degree—in my 30s and living in New York City—was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done and provided the validation that I could accomplish whatever I fully commit myself to.
The next person may not necessarily need a college degree to land a job with a specialty or general contractor, but they will need to know themselves fully and find or make their way in—and commit to their decision. I had to build connections in this new industry to find an entry point, and ended up reaching out to a former student’s father who was the president of a family-owned GC in Brooklyn.
It can be a challenging industry with rigorous time commitments, but the reward of being on cohesive project teams and seeing the tangible results of your work and commitment are gratifying.
How would you sum up your career shift?
Ben: After 13 years in the New York City region, ten working as an educator and three as an engineer, and six happy years in the Pacific Northwest as a project engineer and manager at GLY, I can honestly say that the paths and roads I chose—some more traveled on and some wanting wear—have made all the difference.