A Q&A with Project Manager Dana Nelson, a Major in the Air Force Reserves

During the day, Dana Nelson is a Skanska project manager, currently working at our 12.57-acre Las Olas Improvements project in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. On nights and weekends, he takes on his second full time job as a Major in the Air Force Reserves and Commander of the 482 Maintenance Squadron at the Homestead Air Reserve Base. In this Q&A, Dana shares his experience balancing these roles; the importance of employer support; and the skills Veterans bring from their service that make them strong candidates for civilian jobs, especially in the construction industry.

1 / 2 During the day, Dana Nelson is a Skanska project manager, working at our Las Olas Improvements project in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. On nights and weekends, he takes on his second full time job as a Major in the Air Force Reserves and Commander of the 482 Maintenance Squadron.
2 / 2 In their local newsletter, Florida Connection, our Florida team highlights Dana’s recent promotion to commander. Skanska colleagues attended this event in support of Dana’s achievement.

1. What is it like serving in the Air Force Reserves and working at Skanska full time?

It is hard and exhausting! However, I’m proud to serve my country, and I enjoy the work I do at Skanska. With Skanska, most days I’m on site at our Las Olas Improvements project in Ft. Lauderdale. The project is finishing up, and will open soon, so the days are long with a lot of ongoing work to get everything ready.

I spend my evenings and weekends managing all the work that comes with overseeing a unit of 300 Reserve members and 28 F-16s, ready for air-to-air combat. Once a month, from Friday morning through Sunday evening, I’m on base. Annually, I take a 15-day tour and occasionally I receive Temporary Duty Assignments (TDY), which can take me anywhere in the world. Lastly, we deploy to a combat area of responsibility (AOR) every 1.5 years. These tours are from three to six months.

In 2013, I was deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. It was a difficult deployment, but I’m proud of the great work we did there. We are in the midst of preparing for our next combat deployment in early 2021. Even though deployments can be hard, it helps to know I and my family have Skanska’s support.

2. How do you balance both roles?

People ask me this a lot. Not only am I in the Reserves and working at Skanska, I’m also a student at the Air Command Staff College. I’m married and have two kids, as well.

You have to train your mind to be in a specific mode. For me that’s jobsite mode or base mode. One way I create that division is by having three phones—one personal, one for the military, and one for Skanska. When I’m on base, I shut off my Skanska phone. When I’m on the jobsite, I shut off my military phone (of course, the Air Force has other ways to get in touch with me if there’s an emergency). This simple step helps me stay focused on the task at hand.

It’s difficult to juggle these responsibilities, but everyone has their own things to juggle. When faced with this type of difficulty, it’s important not to walk away just because it’s hard—stick with it, and it will be worthwhile.

3. How can employers support Veterans who serve in the Reserves?

One of the biggest challenges I, and others in my position, face is that our co-workers and leadership don’t truly understand all that we do. In the past, I’ve been asked how my vacation weekend went, but over the course of that brief weekend I may have overseen 54 flight missions and presented five briefings to the wing commander that cover an entire month’s worth of combat preparation, statistics and training. Managing a unit of 300 Reserve members who must remain fully deployable to anywhere in the world within 72 hours is daily work, too—my responsibilities don’t stop once I leave the base.

One thing employers can do is simply ask about what we do when we’re away. It’s important for them to understand the significant efforts we put forward to protect our country. A great opportunity for employers is the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Boss Lift program, managed by the Department of Defense. It promotes supportive work environments for service members in the Reserves and National Guard. As part of the program, I bring Skanska leadership to the base where they go through a mission brief and learn about what I do. We then take them on a flight aboard a KC-135 tanker, and they are able to watch F-16s line up and fuel.

It’s important employers realize that by supporting those who protect our country, they are strengthening our national security. Understanding what we do is important, but they should also provide Reserve Service members flexible schedules, like time off before and after deployment and granting leaves of absence if needed. Much of this down-time is mandated, but employer support is necessary. Going from the extreme chaos of war during deployment back to the civilian world is very hard, and it takes time for us to adapt to the change.

It goes both ways, of course. I’m a strong advocate for my troops involving their employers in our military lives. Offer your supervisor and others a visit to your base and show them around, let them see what you do. Having a better understanding of your hard work will make a difference.

4. What are some ways Skanska has supported you?

For a Reserve member or Veteran looking into civilian work, it’s critical you find an employer who is supportive of your service and experiences. Skanska has been that employer for me. For example, a Skanska executive has been awarded the Department of Defense Patriot Award in honor of their dedicated support.  I nominated them for this award because of their support for a mission in Afghanistan.

My colleagues have been of significant help and support, too. They offer assistance for my family while I’m away—whether it’s simply checking in with my wife or finding someone to fix an HVAC issue. My wife even attended a Skanska Christmas Party while I was deployed in Afghanistan because she is so close with my team. Knowing my family is taken care of makes my time away less stressful.

Three colleagues recently attended a change of command ceremony, where I was promoted to Commander of the 482d Maintenance Squadron. It means a lot to have this kind of support and engagement from my co-workers.

5. A unique challenge Veterans face as they prepare to enter the civilian workforce is translating their military skills into civilian terms. What skills do Veterans bring to the construction industry?

Leadership, first and foremost. Veterans typically have strong personalities and will step up to lead anytime needed. At the same time, we also have the ability to follow and will always support our leaders.

Veterans are very disciplined. An employer won’t have to worry about whether the person will show up to work on time, finish the task at hand or be accountable should a mistake be made.

We have a keen eye for detail. In the military, we’re taught to work in a procedure-based environment with systems, processes and checklists that must be adhered to. If you miss a step, somebody dies. Everyone must do their job 100 percent.

I use many of the skills engrained from military training in my daily life at Skanska. To ensure work on the jobsite is done safely and to the highest quality standards requires accuracy, attention to detail and efficiency. Construction is high risk, so minimizing that risk is imperative. I incorporate combat training, like (SA) Situational Awareness and the OODA Loop, which is about observing your surroundings, orienting yourself on what’s happening, making a decision on what you’re going to do and then acting on it. I talk to our trades about Situational Awareness and the OODA Loop as they help us fight complacency and work safer.

6. Teamwork and collaboration must be important in the military as well. Is that skill transferrable to what you do at Skanska?

Absolutely. In the fighter community there are so many moving parts needed to get the jet to fly and bombs on target. Without each specialty focusing 100 percent on their role, we risk losing air superiority and the possibility for loss of life is multiplied. Similarly, at Skanska we are dedicated to a common cause. Each project team member and trade partner has specific roles choreographed into activities requiring constant course corrections. Without teamwork, the whole dynamic changes and mission/task success is threatened.

7. What advice would you give to someone wanting to serve in the Reserves and also hold a civilian job?

People who join the reserves usually come from active duty and are wanting to go into the civilian world, while continuing to serve their country. Every once in a while you’ll get someone who joins the reserves with no active duty experience. Like those who choose active duty, they are patriots and have a good heart for their country. It’s a worthwhile choice, but it is difficult.

I counsel teenagers who are interested in joining the military. I always tell them that it isn’t for everybody, so make sure you’re getting into it for the right reasons.

Dana enlisted in the Air Force in 1994, serving in the Air National Guard for seven years. In 2002, he became an officer and was active duty until 2005, when he joined the Air Force Reserves. Dana has been with Skanska for 13 years.

Last updated: 11/8/2019