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'She really drives the project': 35-year-old NDSU grad manages $494 milllion Sanford Medical Center build

FARGO - Joanna Slominski sometimes thinks she fell into her chosen field of construction management. She's landed at the top of Fargo-Moorhead's biggest construction project, the million-square-foot, $494 million new Sanford Medical Center that w...

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Joanna Slominski is the construction executive overseeing the $494 million Sanford Medical Center. Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO – Joanna Slominski sometimes thinks she fell into her chosen field of construction management.

She’s landed at the top of Fargo-Moorhead’s biggest construction project, the million-square-foot, $494 million new Sanford Medical Center that will rise 11 stories above the intersection of Interstate 94 and Veterans Boulevard.

Slominski is construction executive for the project, which means she oversees the major details of the project, which now involves about 350 workers – a hardhat army that will swell to 600 or 800 by next summer.

The collaborative nature of the project and the many roles it requires, is a theme Slominski emphasized Wednesday when she spoke about how she juggles the myriad responsibilities of her job.

“It’s never one person,” she said. “It’s always a team.”

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Her soft-spoken voice had to compete with a cacophony of construction noise – a rumbling fleet of cement trucks, the piercing whine of steel saws, and a pulse of pounding hammers.

The 35-year-old chuckled as she observed that her world strikes her mother and two older sisters as completely foreign.

Slominski grew up on a grain farm near Mill River in northwest Minnesota, where she kept a spotless appaloosa and showed horses.

“I rode a horse before a bike and drove a tractor before a car,” a sequence she said probably isn’t unusual for a farm kid.

Her most direct early connection to building might have been the do-it-yourself gifts she made, with help from her father.

She began college at Minnesota State University Moorhead with the aim of becoming an architect.

But after a few semesters, she switched to construction engineering at North Dakota State University.

“That was where I fit,” she said. She found the combination of math, problem-solving and work that took her away from a desk agreeable.

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A 2004 college graduate, Slominski was one of five females in a construction engineering program of more than 100, a field that has traditionally been male-dominated.

In the U.S., women comprise less than 3 percent of the construction workforce, although women make up almost half of workers in all occupations, according to a recent report by the National Women’s Law Center.

Women comprise about 12.1 percent of engineers, a proportion that more than doubled over the past three decades, but the percentage of women in construction barely increased over that period, the report found.

Slominski said she has been well-accepted by classmates and on the job but acknowledges that she’s taken some teasing.

“There’s a lot of ribbing,” she said. “To be honest, you have to go with it.”

Her employer, Mortenson Construction, the prime contractor with Nor-Son on the project, has made a concerted effort to bring more women and minorities into construction, Slominski said.

“Diversity of people helps and supports” dealing with diverse clients and partners, she added.

In construction, she said, performance is what matters. “Everyone coming into the industry needs to gain respect.”

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Her approach is to anticipate questions and try to be an expert in her area. But when she doesn’t know something, she doesn’t try to hide it, and she isn’t afraid to ask a colleague to explain something.

She noted a steel worker with 30 years of experience can teach someone six months out of college. Although young, she said she’s found acceptance among her veteran colleagues.

“Age doesn’t matter if you can bring people together to solve problems,” she said.

Don Marty, a vice president of Sanford Medical Center who works closely with Slominski, said her strengths include her ability to communicate with her collaborators.

“She has values, I think, that really support team leadership,” he said. “She has a great amount of respect from the folks who value her team leadership.”

On the other hand, Marty said, she can be firm when the situation demands it to keep such a large project on schedule and on budget.

“When she needs to be tough, she’s tough,” Marty said. “From that standpoint, she really drives the project.”

To keep everything on track, Slominski relies on lots of to-do lists, a raft of spreadsheets, 3-D computer schematics and plenty of meetings, starting with a 6 a.m. superintendents’ meeting, followed by a gathering of trade foremen.

She tries to be home by 5:30 p.m., but that isn’t always possible. Outside of work, her time is spent with her family.

Fortunately, her husband has his own business involving custom carpentry and cabinetmaking, which helps make his schedule flexible.

While at NDSU, Slominski augmented her coursework with a series of internships and on-the-job experiences that gave her practical knowledge that helped her, said Gary R. Smith, her academic adviser and now dean of engineering at the university.

“She’s proven herself at many levels,” Smith said. “I think she is an excellent role model and would be a great mentor.”

Those internships included work as a carpenter – “I had a tool belt on, I was a grunt laborer” – as well as surveyor; she can swing a hammer and sight a transit.

Before being tapped to oversee the Sanford Medical Center project, Slominski managed the final phase of the TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota, a $220 million construction project.

Her first construction project to manage was an addition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The architect’s inspiration was a crumpled piece of paper, and the odd shapes posed a building challenge.

“I don’t think there was a single 90-degree angle,” she said.

Hospitals come with lots of right angles, but also with special demands. The concrete core of the new medical center has been completed, and steel-workers now are working on the fourth floor.

Steelwork – placement of 8,100 tons of beams – should conclude in November. Next month, installation of enclosure panels will begin. The project is on track for its late 2016-early 2017 completion.

“It’s all teamwork,” she said. “Every day changes.”

 

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