The moment two men wearing hard hats and carrying drawings walked into a third grade classroom for Career Day was precisely when Kelly Mejia decided she wanted to be a part of the construction industry when she grew up. Now at the age of 24, Kelly is a Balfour Beatty project engineer with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Florida (UF), a Master in Construction Management from Florida International University (FIU), holds a General Contractor license, has her LEED Green Associate credentials and is a member of the Miami Chamber of Commerce. And that’s just the beginning.
Kelly is passionate about setting goals and working relentlessly to achieve them. “I always ask myself what I can do to improve myself and make myself more knowledgeable,” said Kelly. “I picture what I want to be and then I work toward that until I get there.”
Right now she’s picturing her email signature block with ‘LEED AP BD+C’ following her name. You can mark this one on your calendar – she’ll take the test before December 31. Her five-year goal is to be a project manager ideally working on a hospital project. Her interest in healthcare stems from the consistent demand for such facilities as well as learning about the challenging projects from veteran Balfour Beatty general superintendent, Steve Nielsen, who has more than 37 years industry experience and 20 healthcare projects under his tool belt.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone this young with so many significant achievements
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone this young with so many significant achievements. She’s extremely motivated and has an exceptional work ethic,” said Steve. “I tell the guys all the time that they better be nice to her because she’ll probably be their boss one day!”
At 5’1” with a slight build and a bright, red lipstick smile, she doesn’t immediately come across as a hardcore construction professional. But it doesn’t take long for people to figure out she’s dedicated to construction from the soles of her boots to the top of her hard hat. She once heard a subcontractor foreman tell another, “She’s the boss. You have to listen to what she’s saying…she knows what she’s talking about.”
Her path to a construction career didn’t begin with that type of support, though. In high school, the four year drafting program focused on architecture. In college she was told there was no money to be made in construction which led her to pursue a degree in liberal arts from UF. Still drawn to the construction industry, Kelly applied to the OHL School of Construction at FIU. Others continued to discourage her from pursuing her construction passion, but she decided, “I’m going to prove them wrong.” That she did. Kelly excelled as a project engineer intern on Balfour Beatty’s Miami-Dade College Hialeah Campus project. She was excited about completing the structure, but she also surprised herself by being excited to see the students exploring their new building.
“It was very awesome to see the students using the new facility,” said Kelly. “It was so rewarding to see the finished building with the students enjoying it so much.”
She attributes a lot of her growth at that project to the leadership of senior project manager, James Turner. “James was very motivating and made my internship a real learning experience,” said Kelly. “He would sit with us at lunch and ask what was going on at school. He connected with people on a personal level.”
Her attitude is always positive, her smile is infectious and her diligence to her duties is to be admired.
The respect between Mejia and James is clearly mutual. “Within the first few weeks of her arrival, we were wowed at how quickly she gained an understanding of construction and how eager she was to be a member of the team and to make an impact,” said James. “Her attitude is always positive, her smile is infectious and her diligence to her duties is to be admired.”
The personal connection and team spirit that James displayed easily convinced Kelly to begin her career with Balfour Beatty, one of many firms who presented her with an opportunity, after she graduated with her master’s from FIU in 2014. She was given the rewarding opportunity to return to her alma mater campus as a project engineer on the Student Academic Center project.
Goal. Check! Set next goal. “Now I wanted to earn my GC license. I prepared for more than six months for the test,” said Kelly. She was the only woman and youngest among about 1,000 men testing on the same day. Not surprisingly, she passed on the first try.
“I was not at all surprised when she wanted to pursue LEED accreditation and State Certified General Contractor License at such a young age,” said James Turner. “To succeed at getting both of them is outstanding. She has an incredible future in our business.”
Out of school, at least for now, Kelly offers advice to college students stating, “Complete an internship to get a feel for the field and have a better understanding of your role on a project team. These are two things school doesn’t prepare you enough for.”
Kelly continues to learn on the job every day. Her greatest lessons so far have been the MEP coordination at FIU and the coordination of elevator shear walls that presented many challenges in design and coordination with the field. “We depend so much on technology that we lose the ability to communicate with people,” said Kelly. Now she meets with subcontractor teams in the field to review drawings and RFIs together. Afterwards, when she’s confident everyone understands the goal, she emails the information to the teams.
Perhaps building is in her blood. A first generation American born to parents from Honduras, Kelly’s father worked for a rebar and lumber company for 20 years. Growing up in Miami she was fascinated with the tower cranes that dotted the skies in every direction. “Watching buildings go up in Miami was so cool,” said Kelly. “I grew up wanting to build one of them one day. Now I can say, ‘I’m so proud that I built that!’”