Meet a Woman of Asphalt: WAPA’s Deb Schwerman
Deborah “Deb” Schwerman’s first construction industry job started in the summer of 1993 when she was in college. She worked as an intern for the West Virginia Department of Highways as an asphalt inspector in 1994 until graduation. She achieved an A.S. Civil Engineering Technology degree and a B.S. of Civil Engineering Technology degree with an environmental emphasis from the West Virginia Institute of Technology.
Since then, she’s served in the industry in private, public or non-profit capacities. Today, she’s the executive director of the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association (WAPA), which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Schwerman took some time out of planning for the WAPA annual conference, coming up Nov. 28-29, where anniversary celebrations will be at their peak, to talk to us about her career and to encourage other women in asphalt.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers your career trajectory since joining that first team and what challenges you’ve overcome along the way?
Deb Schwerman: It was over those long days of summer that I fell in love with this industry. I knew that I was hooked and wanted to make it a lifelong career. My first permanent position took me from West Virginia to Pennsylvania to work for Valley Quarries Inc., a division of New Enterprise Stone & Lime in their HMA quality control unit and then as their environmental & safety coordinator. I stayed there until life brought me to Wisconsin in 2000, which is now home. My first phone call once in Wisconsin was to the asphalt pavement association (WAPA) to discuss career opportunities, but they were not hiring. I went on to work for the department of transportation as a regional HMA specialist.
I returned to the private sector working for Black Diamond Group as a QC manager, technician and mix designer. Looking to continue my professional growth I returned to WisDOT working in the region and then taking an advanced role at WisDOT’s Bureau of Technical Services as the HMA lab coordinator.
I joke around about it, but after 14 years in Wisconsin I finally got that desired WAPA job as their director of engineering in 2014.
AsphaltPro: When did you realize that you wanted to apply to be the executive director of the state association and what landmarks along your career have proved to be a help to you in this role?
Deb Schwerman: Earlier this year our executive director left the association, and the opportunity was there for me to ask the board to put their faith in me once again, this time to lead the association and become their executive director. Having been an integral part of the association for nine years prior, along with years in both the public and private sector working closely with local, state and national organizations helped shape the role I have today.
As for all that hard work to advance in this industry, there were many challenges including long hours, continued learning requirements, time on the road, software and technology changes to name a few. I have been blessed to have many great mentors throughout my career. If I were to offer any advice it is simple; Work very hard and your career will take care of itself. I have also known that if someone is willing to take a chance on me, that I wouldn’t let them down and we would both be better for it.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers what your first job in the industry entailed and how those experiences helped you decide what you wanted to focus on for a career?
Deb Schwerman: I was drawn to the people that this industry brings into their organizations. There are people that want to share their knowledge. There’s no such thing as a dumb question, errors are learning opportunities and hard work is rewarded. I never felt like an outsider, I have always been made to feel like a member of the team, one of the gang. Whether out on the project job site or back at the office, lab, shop, or plant, you’re always a valued part of the team. The hours are long, times can be stressful, and the work is hard. But at the end of the day, we’re all in it together. We can see tangible accomplishments and be proud of our work efforts. This industry has blessed me in many ways, and rewarded me for the hard work put in. I am forever grateful, appreciative and fortunate to be able to represent the industry in this new role.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers what your job as an executive director for a state association requires of you? What are some of your daily responsibilities?
Deb Schwerman: This job affords me the opportunity to showcase all the benefits that asphalt has to offer. We represent the interests of our members and the industry at the local, state and national level. We provide training and are an educational resource for the public, owners, members and customers alike. We have a seat at the table to discuss innovation, specifications, materials and construction best practices. We constantly work to raise the bar to improve our products and processes, strengthen our workforce skill sets, and be more efficient, offering the most cost-effective product for our owners, users and taxpayers.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position as an executive director in the asphalt industry and how would you encourage other women entering the industry to hone a similar skill to be any kind of leader or director they want to become?
Deb Schwerman: I would encourage women to be good listeners first. Understand situations from multiple viewpoints. Clearly understanding problems is half the solution. Then be willing to use your voice to solve problems. Be confident in yourself and your experiences when going against the grain, and address issues head on. Be a collaborator. Be a problem solver.
AsphaltPro: What part of your education relates best to the career track you’re on? (And what courses would you recommend to women who want to join a company (or association) to become a leader?)
Deb Schwerman: My formal education was just a starting point to my career. Our degrees ensure that we are trainable and that we meet the challenges and commitments to receive our degree. However, I believe beyond our degrees, we need to surround ourselves with strong leaders that encourage us to grow, continue our education, be eager to challenge ourselves and to get us out of our comfort zone.
We can learn specific skill sets. What we can’t learn are the essential traits we need to possess inside, like motivation, drive, desire to succeed, persistence, honesty or reliability.
AsphaltPro: What would you say was the most challenging “obstacle” you, as a female in the industry, had to overcome in the past 30+ years, and how DID you overcome that obstacle? How do you think other women in the industry can incorporate that skill or habit into their workdays?
Deb Schwerman: The biggest obstacle I have had to overcome has been myself. You have to be able to put yourself out there, to live with the consequences, own up to your mistakes and forgive yourself when you don’t get it right the first time. You have to be able to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and keep moving forward. It’s the only way to get to the finish line.
You also need to take care of you; have an out, a release, a way to shut it off at the end of the day, yet be able to pick it back up and hit the ground running the next day.
Believe in yourself. Be responsive. Build a network. Be a problem solver, solution-focused and an effective communicator. Find enjoyment in your work—this is an incredible industry!
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about teamwork. What differences do you notice between working in a private sector role and working in an association role?
Deb Schwerman: We are always part of a team or teams. In my association role I rely on my members as my teammates, and our customers as our partners. It is critical that we focus on what’s right for the asphalt industry. The challenge is to find compromise and agreement when there are conflicting positions. The goal is always to find win-win solutions.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about perceptions. What do you think is an incorrect perception that we, as an industry, can re-educate young people about to encourage more women to consider a career in the asphalt business?
Deb Schwerman: There is the perception that this industry is a male dominated industry. I don’t believe that to be true. Currently, there are three or four times as many females as there were when I entered this field. Females are not just in entry level positions—they are operators, foremen, superintendents, engineers, owners, and yes executive directors.
This industry has room for everyone. It offers fare wages, opportunities, career growth and serves the public.
It is further my hope that we encourage our own children to look at what our industry has to offer.
AsphaltPro: What is the most rewarding aspect for you of being in the asphalt industry?
Deb Schwerman: The most rewarding aspect of the asphalt industry is the relationships and networks that exist between contractors, clients and engineers. There is a commitment that the top priority is to provide quality products and services. It is very rewarding when everyone works together to meet that commitment.
AsphaltPro: Will you tell us about a person who served as a mentor for you? Is there a piece of advice from this person that you would share with other women in the industry/other operators?
Deb Schwerman: There have been so many mentors throughout my career, and those that have helped me along the way. My advice to young people just entering their careers is that they find good mentors and learn as much from them as possible. For those seasoned individuals later in their careers, I would advise that you become that mentor for those following behind us.