From behind the scenes to the jobsite: Jess Zeliger

From behind the scenes to the jobsite: Jess Zeliger

For Jess Zeliger, the journey to construction began on stage – not as an actor under the spotlight, but as a member of the build-crew behind the scenes. Truthfully, her hands-on experience with construction began even earlier, working for her dad’s handyman company. However, it was her time working on theater scenes in high school and college that drew her into the industry. After college, she spent two seasons working for Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, a partner of AmeriCorps that promotes leadership and environmental stewardship through environmental conservation, before joining Commodore Builders.

Now, Jess is a Project Engineer in Commodore’s C.O.R.E. program. We sat down with her to learn more about why she loves construction, what her experience in the C.O.R.E. program has been, and how she fuels her passion for hard work.

Why construction?

I would have loved to be a rocket scientist, but construction felt more authentic. My dad owns his own handyman company, so I grew up answering the phones, managing accounting, and shadowing him on weekends and over the summer. My first real foray into construction was working on build-crews for theater productions. I started in high school and in college, I worked in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Scene Shop. It was there that my advisor recommended I switch from applied mathematics to construction.

I always had a math brain growing up, and I loved calculus and trigonometry, but construction seemed to pull it all together for me.

Do you have any favorite projects from your time in the Scene Shop?

Two come to mind. We once built a 12-foot, 1,200-lb marionette puppet that we rolled around campus on Founders Day. We designed and engineered it from scratch, and then got to show it off around campus.

The second was more of an art installation. During the pandemic, we designed and built a 24-foot-tall aluminum globe on campus. It was a great puzzle – we had to figure out how to build it outside and do all the rigging and welding safely.

Tell us a little more about the time you spent with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

I applied for the program on a bit of a whim. I had been in Yosemite a few years prior, and when I saw a crew out there working, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I spent two seasons based out of Steamboat Springs, CO, and did hitches in national parks across the region. I worked in a burn zone in Arapahoe National Forest for two weeks, fixed barbed wire fences in Dinosaur National Monument, built trails, and did enabling work for a bridge installation. Despite losing my favorite pair of pants to barbed wire and discovering the true impact of disturbing a fire ant nest, it was the greatest experience of my life. I learned so much about myself, how to work in a team environment, and how to work with people from diverse backgrounds.

Coming back to Massachusetts was challenging. I went from sleeping on the ground and living with the same ten people out of a van for five months to living in Boston and starting a new job in an office. It took me a few months to settle into a new routine, but now I’ve found the balance between sleeping in a bed during the week and napping on top of mountains on weekends.

What has your experience been like as a member of the C.O.R.E. program at Commodore?

I found out about Commodore at a career fair at UMass where I met Andrea Rizzo. She told me about her experience as a C.O.R.E. and how it set her up for such success in her current role as an assistant project manager. I spent a summer interning at Commodore, and then applied for the program when I graduated.

I started my rotation in Estimating working on some of our larger life science and ground-up commercial jobs. I learned so much about how to read drawings and find the details that can make or break not only the estimate but the job. I also was able to build connections with trade partners that proved to be essential when I got out on site. I rotated next to Engineering Technical Services. I learned about BIM coordination and technologies, and how they could improve our site work. I then worked as a project engineer for several projects at Boston Logan International Airport.

I’ve found the theme of the C.O.R.E. program is that I’m given as much as I’m willing to take on. Everyone is so encouraging and supportive. Whenever I’m trying something new, there’s always someone there to show me their approach and answer my questions.

What do you do in your spare time now that you aren’t hiking through the backcountry?

If it’s outside, I’m there. In the summer and fall, I like to hike whenever I can. The White Mountains are my favorite, but I’m excited to start exploring Vermont hikes this summer. In the winter, I try to ski every weekend. Killington is my favorite mountain on the East Coast, but as long as there’s snow, you can find me on the slopes.