February 2015 – Alyssa Zayas was born to wear a hard hat.
Video: Meet Henry Meier, project executive with Swinerton Builders - and a graduate of Sac State's Construction Management program. He is past president of the Sacramento Construction Management Education Foundation (SCMEF), which mentors CM students such as Alyssa Zayas.
She remembers the times she and her younger brother, Kyle, woke up at 3 a.m. to go with their dad to pick up backhoes for Zayas Excavating, the family business. The kids usually spent the day in the front office with their grandmother, Sharon Zayas.
"They never pushed me to go into construction," she says of her family. "My grandpa would say, 'You need to go to school and get a job with good benefits,' but he never said, 'You should go to school and then take over our company.' "
Today, Alyssa Zayas is a project engineer with Sacramento's Swinerton Builders. She's currently working at the $39 million Sutter County Superior Courthouse under construction in Yuba City, and her next project is Swinerton's 16-story mixed-use/hotel tower, which will be built near the new downtown Sacramento arena. She manages the subcontractors responsible for doors, frames and hardware, elevators, ceilings and miscellaneous specialties such as high-density mobile storage, courtroom seating and landscape furnishings.
"It's fun because it's the art of coordination," Zayas says. "People who aren't in construction would be amazed at the amount of communication and coordination between us, as the builder, and the architect, the owner and the rest of the design team. The information has to flow correctly through all of those people and get to our guys in the field actually doing the construction.
"There can be a lot of problems, and I enjoy finding them - and finding the solutions," she says. After her two-year internship at Swinerton Builders, the company hired Zayas in December 2013. She worked full time on the courthouse project while finishing her final semester at Sac State. In keeping with tradition, the construction management graduates wore commemorative tasseled hard hats, instead of mortarboards, at their May 2014 Commencement ceremony.
And then Zayas switched to her Swinerton hard hat and went back to work.
"One of Swinerton Builders' goals is to hire the best and brightest employees," says project executive Henry Meier, a Sac State alumnus. "Based on Alyssa's performance and accomplishments during the infancy of her career, we knew she was a 'rock star.' I have no doubt that her destiny is to work her way up the management ladder and maybe one day earn the title of division manager, president or CEO of Swinerton Builders. It would make me happy to know in my retirement that the company is in good hands."
Meier also is president of the Sacramento Construction Management Education Foundation (SCMEF), made up of building industry leaders who support the students and coach them for competitions. He met Zayas when she applied for a spot on the design-build team for the 2012 Associated Schools of Construction (ASC) regional championship. He persuaded his fellow coaches to add her to the squad.
"We had no idea how good she would later become," he says.
Meier remembers the 2012 ASC team as one of the strongest he has coached in 10 years, but the students turned in their work late and were eliminated from competition. "They were told they would have captured first place had they turned in their solution on time."
"We came back in 2013 with a vengeance," Zayas says. "I was the captain that year, and I said from Day 1, 'We're turning in this proposal 30 minutes early.' Sure enough, we walked down there at 8:30 p.m. And we won first place."
In addition to that regional win, Zayas was a member of two teams that won national championships in 2013, capturing the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) and ASC's inaugural Healthcare Preconstruction student competitions.
Her DBIA team, which included Javier Mederos, Neil Devlin and Nick Staykow, dominated Auburn University and Colorado State University in the final round. Their win was based on an outstanding 38-page written response to a request for qualifications (RFQ) and a request for proposal (RFP), as well as a 50-minute oral presentation for the design and construction of a residence hall at the College of William and Mary.
And, Zayas and teammates Mark Oliveira, Preston Tziouvaras, Kim Braga, Rob Clark and Nate Boyer went up against seven universities in the 2013 Healthcare Preconstruction competition, earning 95 out of a possible 100 points. Their closest challengers were Purdue University (86.8 points) and Auburn University (86.4 points.)
Justin Reginato, a professor of construction management, coached the Healthcare Preconstruction team. "Alyssa was the glue that held that team together," he says. "It was a team of leaders, and she put her ego on the back burner for the good of the team."
He presented Zayas with a special leadership/promotion award during the Department of Construction Management's 2014 Spring Event. "She's become the face of the program," he says. "She's competent, and she's one of the best students I've had at Sac State. In baseball terms, she's a five-tool player - someone who can do everything well - and there are only one or two in Major League Baseball. Of all the students who've come through the program, she's the one I'd hire."
Women made up just 9 percent of the U.S. construction industry, and the vast majority - 74 percent - were in office/sales positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of December 2011. Only about 13 percent of women employed in the male-dominated industry are, like Zayas, working in the field as managers/professionals.
"Even if somebody tried to belittle me because I'm a woman," Zayas says, "I would write it off, because you have to have a thick skin in this industry, and I try not to let things bother me. From Day 1, I've let (the men) teach me how to build. I've never swung a hammer, so I take advantage of their field experience and ask questions. I hope that builds credibility and shows them I'm interested in learning how to build and how things go together, not just on paper but on the actual project."
Zayas, who lives in Elk Grove with her English mastiffs, Delta and Dozer, grew up in Wilton and went to the same little elementary school as her mother, Tracy Callahan. She graduated from Elk Grove High in 2007 and attended Cosumnes River College for a semester, intending to major in business.
And for a short time, she worked in document control and estimating at Urata & Sons Cement in Rancho Cordova.
"Something clicked for me at Urata," Zayas says. "I wanted to go into this industry somehow, some way. I enjoyed seeing what my bosses, the project managers, did when they were running the construction work. And I had grown up in construction. My grandfather Al Zayas started Zayas Excavating, and my dad, Doug, and my uncle Mike took it over when he retired."
She soon moved to San Luis Obispo and enrolled at Cuesta College with the idea of majoring in construction management at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. But she changed her mind and, in 2011, came "home" to Sacramento State.
"Coming to Sac State was a shift in the universe for me, absolutely," Zayas says. "We're lucky to have access to internships that allow us to work through school and gain the valuable experience that reinforces what we learn in the classroom."
In February 2012, she landed an internship with Swinerton Builders and worked on the nine-month remodel of Jackson Rancheria and Casino. She also worked on Swinerton's $24 million renovation of the John Muir Health Ambulatory Care Center in Walnut Creek before the Yuba City courthouse project got under way.
"Alyssa is a great example of what can be accomplished when you apply yourself as a student, an intern and a professional in the construction management field," says Mikael Anderson, chair of the Department of Construction Management. "She utilized the resources around her to achieve her academic goals as an undergraduate by networking with her peers and others in our industry - and in representing the construction management program at Sacramento State to the best of her ability. I'm confident Alyssa will become a valued member of her industry and continue to give back as an alumna of our program for many years."
And Henry Meier is right: Alyssa Zayas intends to run Swinerton Builders one day.
"I want to go all the way to the top, but I'm not in a hurry," she says. "I want to go through every position so I can do the job better when I get there."