Jen Schottke is no stranger to change. With a career evolution that took a sharp turn from the beauty industry to the construction industry, adapting is something she does best.
Jen is the President of the newly opened West Michigan Construction Institute located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, right in Cat Footwear HQ’s backyard. Cat Footwear is proud to be supporting the next generation in construction and has donated pairs of Cat Footwear work boots and apparel for the first class of students. Talking with Jen, she seems surefooted and confident, but there’s no doubting the hard work put in along the way.
In honor of International Women’s Day and Women in Construction Week, we sat down to talk to Jen about women representation in the trades and construction industry, what her career path looked like to get where she is today and why being open to new opportunities is so important.
Cat Footwear: Tell us about yourself! How did you get started in the construction industry?
Jen Schottke: In 2007 through pure happenstance, I entered the construction industry as a marketing and business development director. I had spent the first five years of my professional career in the beauty industry, and it was a massive shift to move from selling beauty products to selling construction buildings … amidst the great recession, nonetheless. However, as can often be the case when one looks in the rear-view mirror of their career, experiencing the recession while working for a general contractor, was an extraordinary teacher.
The company I worked for grew lean during those four years and we each moved out of our ordinary silos of work to pitch in across departments within the company. I went from updating the website and making cold calls, to helping on bid day, reviewing and sending contracts, assisting in accounting, and whatever was needed. Those years, albeit hard and none that I desire to experience again, revealed to me the full scope of construction, and introduced me in a more significant way, to our trade partners.
It was there that I discovered the brilliance that is a tradesperson. I learned that hard work plus a natural ability to problem-solve and the unique intelligence of working with one’s hands and mind equals a powerful, fulfilling, and meaningful career. Those years launched me into the work I am fortunate to do today, advocating for the construction career pathway and leading the West Michigan Construction Institute. It also influenced my desire to serve on the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education where I’ve been fortunate to serve as an elected official since 2016.
CF: As a woman in a traditionally male- dominated industry, have you faced adversity to get where you are today?
JS: Women comprise approximately 10% of the construction industry. Yet even smaller is the percentage of women working in the field – approximately 1%. Despite the perception these statistics may suggest, I have found construction to be an extremely rewarding industry. I share in many of the industry values and characteristics – a love for work, fulfillment when solving problems, community and teamwork, and working in a helping profession. I have been fortunate to have great male mentors within the industry who saw something in me and have advocated for my advancement and growth.
I’m also fortunate that they have listened as I’ve shared the barriers I’ve encountered along the way. There is still much work to be done to move the industry to be more welcoming to women, especially women in the field. We also need more women in leadership positions as they have the experiences to shift the industry and the power to implement new policies and cultures.
“We also need more women in leadership positions as they have the experiences to shift the industry and the power to implement new policies and cultures.”
This change does not happen without intention and current leaders need to look within their companies to identify and cultivate women in leadership.
CF: What advice would you give other women in construction?
JS: There’s no singular pathway to advancement in construction. It’s one of our best attributes. With the exception of the first two titles I have had in construction, my career has been built by seeing opportunity for a new role, asking for a chance at the work, and then growing and moving from there. My advice is never be scared to ask for what you want next. Even if the answer is no at first, you’ve planted a seed that often results in future growth.
CF: What are the improvements you would like to see in the work industry that would help women in work feel more excited or welcomed about going into the trades?
JS: Women need to see representation to know they belong. This goes from language (tradespeople vs. tradesmen) to marketing (who do we see from career days to company websites) to pop culture (where’s the Netflix series featuring the mom who is an electrician?!).
We also need more exposure to working with our hands throughout our educational experience so that we have the confidence to know we can build. On a more granular level, we need gear that is made for women – from work gloves, to safety harnesses, to steel toed boots – our bodies are different, but capable. Knowing that the industry is prepared for us can make a huge difference.
CF: Where would you advise someone to start if they’re interested in a career in the trades?
JS: There are hundreds of entry points into the construction industry, which is one of the issues the industry faces. Trade schools, community colleges, and apprenticeship programs are a great place to start. And, it is common and very acceptable to walk in the doors of a contractor’s office and ask for a job application. I’m a huge advocate for high school career tech centers, as well. High school is a great time to explore if construction is a fit and these programs do an exceptional job of providing career exploration opportunities. And, they are not just for students who aren’t choosing a college pathway! In fact, students who attend a high school career tech program are MORE likely to enroll in college because they already know what they’re interested in studying. So … go out and try on careers at your local career tech center!
CF: Can you tell us a bit more about the new West Michigan Construction Institute?
Nearly 50% of the construction trades workforce will retire in the next 15 years and the West Michigan Construction Institute was launched in effort to bring more people into the industry. WMCI is a brand-new, 7 classroom, 3 construction lab, comprehensive construction education facility. Launched by a construction industry trade association, the Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan Chapter, we are an industry-led and industry-supported initiative to provide construction education.
We offer high school construction programming, adult craft training, and industry professional development and certification courses. We are in our pilot semester and will expand our programming in the 2022-2023 school year. At the West Michigan Construction Institute (WMCI) we build strong communities by preparing the next generation of construction professionals for lifelong careers.
CF: What are you most excited about with the opening of WMCI?
JS: I am most excited about the opportunity to positively impact the futures of our students. A career in construction, and specifically the trades, is a noble one. The tradespeople I know are some of the most extraordinary individuals and advocating for them, and providing a pathway to be one of them, is work that I feel incredibly fortunate to lead.
Are you interested in a career in the trades? Learn more about how to get started.