Builders at our Core: Saara Virtanen
California’s Silicon Valley is known as a place of innovation and fresh starts. DPR’s Saara Virtanen made a fresh start here after her family moved from Finland and she decided to embrace her passion for building by undertaking a new career as a carpenter. Her role has given her a deep level of respect for her fellow craftspeople and an appreciation for how SPW crews are able to streamline schedules and make projects more efficient.
Q: What is your role at DPR and what path did you take to get there?
Virtanen: I’m a carpenter for DPR and this is actually my second career. Even though there are builders in my family, I never pictured myself doing this kind of hands-on job. I went to college, earned my degrees and made a career in the corporate world. It was only after my family relocated to the US and we started to remodel our house that I got interested in construction. I went to college again, this time to study construction technology. After that, I did small residential projects until I joined the union in late 2019. After the Covid lockdown was lifted, I started working on a DPR advanced technology project and have been working for DPR ever since.
Q: What are some interesting aspects about the project you’re working on right now?
Virtanen: I’m working with fiber reinforced polymers (FRPs) to build a platform and access system for the generator yard on another advanced tech project. FRP is lightweight, so it’s easy to lift, carry and handle, but it’s still very strong and durable. The FRP columns, beams, bracing and grating come pre-cut and pre-drilled from the factory, and our job is to put them together according to the plans. Careful print reading is the most critical aspect of the work, since everything needs to be installed so that all the precut and predrilled materials fit together accurately, all the holes align, and everything is plumb and square.
Q: Why do you think being a self-performing general contractor makes a difference on a project?
Virtanen: I think SPW is a huge advantage because it adds efficiency and speed to the process. When something comes up, SPW teams are already on site, so there is no need to wait on outside subcontractors to do the job. Naturally, this also makes the whole process much more cost-efficient.
Q: What have you learned from your team members?
Virtanen: I’ve been lucky to always land on a team where everybody respects each other and can learn from and teach each other. I enjoy working with craftspeople who have skills and knowledge that can only be acquired after spending time in the field—no book can teach you those little tricks. I have learned so much about this industry and how hard craftspeople work. They know best how to build, in which order to proceed, how to protect the material, how to work safely and efficiently, etc. These people are the real heroes in my eyes. Rain or shine, they are in the field doing their jobs, lifting and carrying heavy loads, working at height, making sure DPR reaches its goals and that the customer is happy.
Q: Talk about a time in your career where you intervened to make the work on-site safer.
Virtanen: Safety on the jobsite affects everyone. It is at the center of everything we do. My job is to always keep possible hazards in mind: slipping, tripping, missing or defective handrails, missing rebar caps, unsecured material on windy days, etc. We all need to walk with our eyes and ears open and have this kind of mindset to make the industry as a whole safer for everyone.
Q: What is your proudest moment at DPR?
Virtanen: There is no one proudest moment at DPR for me, but I am proudest of how far I have come since the beginning of my career. I entered the jobsite as a 50-year-old female, speaking with a weird accent, and not looking like the strongest person in the world. Despite all that, I have excelled and shown everybody that with hard work, commitment and the right attitude you really can achieve whatever you set your mind to. I can't wait to see where my path will take me next.
Q: To be successful in your role, what skills does a person need?
Virtanen: To be able to work in the field in this kind of job, you need to be physically fit. The job is hard and demanding. You need to be able to lift and carry heavy loads. All the job-related skills you need can be learned in the field, but the other, perhaps more important, part of being successful comes from the right attitude. You need to be open to learning new things. You need to be able to work in a team. We all make mistakes, so you must own your mistakes and learn from them. Being honest, trustworthy, committed, always on-time, doing what is right, having integrity—one of DPR's core values—is what we all need.
Q: What would your advice be for the next generation of builders entering this field?
Virtanen: This is a hard job. You wake up early, sometimes commute a long way, work in all weather, sweat all day, get your muscles sore, but you earn good money. After a long day at work, you go home and recharge for the next day. Then, after months or years, you stand in front of a building, proud of having been a part of something awesome. Meanwhile, you have made real connections, real friendships, shown your skills and capabilities, and proven yourself—made a great, solid career you can be proud of. So, if you are just entering this field, keep realities in mind, but know that you can do it, whether you are male or female, young or a bit more mature. Just work hard, smart, and safe, have a positive attitude, and you will have a great and rewarding career ahead of you!
Posted on April 24, 2023
Last Updated April 19, 2023