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Empowering Change: Student Leader Paves the Way for Women in Construction

Photo of Jillian Cates by Benjamin Krain.
Photo of Jillian Cates by Benjamin Krain.

In celebration of Women in Construction Week, UA Little Rock is shining a spotlight on Jillian Cates, a trailblazing student whose dedication and leadership are breaking down barriers in the traditionally male-dominated field of construction.

Cates, a senior from Conway, will graduate this summer with a bachelor’s degree in construction management. As a passionate advocate for women in construction, she will be among a group of women sharing their experience about how to become a leader in the construction industry by enhancing their career through education. The National Association of Women in Construction will host the special breakfast panel event on March 6.

“The industry is not easy,” she said. “There will be times when you get discouraged, but I would encourage people to keep going. That is the beauty of what we do. You never stop learning. You should always work hard and keep your head up, especially the women going into this field.”

Cates is partially following in the footsteps of her grandfather, who used to build houses and served as an inspiration for her to work in construction. After graduating from Vilonia High School in 2019, Cates first started working in an electrical apprenticeship, but she soon received a shock that jolted her to reconsider getting a college education.

“We were working a job, and I got shocked by 277 volts changing a light out, fell down a ladder, and a perspective change happened,” Cates said. “I knew I wanted to work in construction, but I knew I wanted a little more security than I had. I stayed with that company for my apprenticeship doing distribution gas work. One day I picked up a shovel, and I thought that I could be doing so much more with my life. I applied the next week and got accepted to come to UA Little Rock. It was a pretty big life change, and I fell in love with it.”

While at UA Little Rock, Cates has been involved in the student chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), Dean’s Student Leadership Board for the Donaghey College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and the Industry Advisory Board for the Department of Construction Management and Civil and Construction Engineering. She’s also completed internships at Clinton National Airport and Baldwin & Shell Construction Company, which has led to a full-time career opportunity.

“After I finished my internship with Baldwin and Shell last August, they kept me on part-time as a field operations co-op,” she said. “In my career path, I’m geared toward a superintendent position, but that will be five or six years out. This position is giving me a better understanding of what a superintendent does and preparing me for that position. I work very closely with the superintendents and stay glued to their hips all day. I get to ask questions and learn.”

Cates said that her biggest accomplishment at UA Little Rock has been the start of a new topping out ceremony to honor graduating students from the Department of Construction Management and Civil and Construction Engineering.

“It was my baby, and I watched the idea grow and became reality,” Cates said. “Chancellor Drale is coming to the next topping out ceremony this semester, and it’s gratifying to know that we are getting recognition from the highest point at the university.”

Cates said her second biggest accomplishment is helping to grow the UA Little Rock AGC Student Chapter and getting it started back to what it used to be.

“Seeing people like Jill in this program is what makes this enjoyable to me,” said Instructor Stuart Scheiderer. “To single out one thing she has done would slight other things, but she has taken the AGC student chapter from virtually nothing coming out of the pandemic to a strong student organization. She has organized several events to support local industry organizations, developed the topping out ceremony and coordinated the Mardi Gras event at Riggs Cat in February. Jill never hesitates to take on more responsibility or leadership and performs exceptionally well.”

Cates said that it’s important to celebrate Women in Construction Week because women bring unique insight to a field that has traditionally been dominated by men.

“I think that women bring a perspective and so much to the table that is different than what men have traditionally brought, and I think that is something to recognize and celebrate,” she said.