After spending 14 years working in retail, Heather Hightower saw her move to Arkansas to be closer to her wife’s family as an opportunity to go back to school and start a new career.
“I wanted to get out of retail, and my dad had gone back to school late in life. He said, ‘If you want to do it, I know you can,’” Hightower said. “He was a disabled veteran and had to start with remedial math at a community college at age 36. He was a civil engineer and pushed me toward engineering, but I was more fascinated by construction.”
Hightower, a native of Florida, considered herself an “East coast girl” and wasn’t sure she would fit in in Arkansas. Now, she will graduate Dec. 16 from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a Master of Science in Construction Management, already employed as a full-time associate estimator at Platinum Drywall, Inc. in Little Rock.
“The first day that I came to get books, I remember getting the ‘How to Read Drawing’ and ‘How to Read Welding Symbols’ books,” she said. “I questioned myself. The books were very thick and looked formidable. I was also older than everyone else in the class, but (Department Chair) Mike Tramel was very supportive and took me under his wing. The whole construction management department was very helpful.”
She became a teaching assistant and student ambassador for the Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology and president of the UA Little Rock chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Hightower recently won third place in the national Daniel W. Mead Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers for her ethics paper exploring whether engineering faculty should teach if they have not obtained a professional license. In April, Hightower won first place for the best professional paper and oral presentation at the American Society of Civil Engineers Deep South Student Conference.
Professor Tramel in the Department of Construction Management and Civil and Construction Engineering described Hightower as an excellent writer and one of the most intelligent and dependable students in the department.
“Heather is a natural leader and earns the respect of her peers with her work ethic, integrity, maturity, and courtesy,” Tramel said. “She has demonstrated excellent organization skills and has been instrumental in the success of several student activities.”
Hightower found her job at Platinum Drywall, thanks to a helpful professor and some practical classroom experience.
“I got that position through Professor Chris Rey,” she said. “Chris recommended me because I had won Estimating Bid Day. In lieu of a final exam, we have a bid day where you act as the general contractor and determine the overall best bid.”
For her master’s thesis, Hightower explored the relationship between lack of skilled labor in the construction industry and vocational education. She found that the drop in vocational education programs is linked to the lack of skilled labor in the construction industry.
“As of 2020, there will be 5.5 million workers aging out of the construction industry, and there are not enough skilled workers to fill their spots,” Hightower said. “My recommendation is that even if the government doesn’t invest in vocational education that colleges need to get together with the industry leaders and companies and make a program to invest in these students that will become the leaders of the construction industry.”
After she graduates, Hightower will focus on finishing the Master of Science in Operations Management and graduate certificate in project management that she is completing through an online program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She is also discussing the possibility of becoming an adjunct instructor for the Department of Construction Management and Civil and Construction Engineering and eventually plans to earn her doctorate.
“One thing I learned in retail and by coming here is that it’s better to go with the flow instead of sticking to a set plan,” she said. “I’ll be successful wherever I go.”