Now more than ever, women like Jen Schottke, president of the new West Michigan Construction Institute (WMCI), are challenging the long-held notion that the construction industry isn't a traditional career path for women. To learn more about how WMCI seeks to fill the talent gap in the industry and how more women can realize their career potential in construction, West Michigan Woman caught up with Schottke.
The WMCI, which recently celebrated its building opening in Grand Rapids with a ribbon cutting ahead of its official fall 2022 launch, is a construction education center focused on developing the workforce of skilled construction professionals. WMCI kicked things off with a "soft launch" during the spring 2021 semester, with about 75 students and five classes, and will increase the number of programs offered this fall, including carpentry, concrete and many others.
Schottke explained how the WMCI seeks to be a hub for construction education.
"We serve high school students and adults who want to start their education in the construction trades. We also offer professional development and certifications for those already working in the construction industry," Schottke said. "Additionally, we will be hosting our first series of middle school construction summer camps this summer. My team and I are dedicated to providing opportunities and pathways for people who want to learn with their hands and their minds."
Schottke is passionate about reaching students of all backgrounds.
"We are proud to be located near the city center with equitable access to all four quadrants of the city and school districts," she said. "Once you learn a skill, no one can ever take it away from you. Whether a person chooses to attend WMCI to learn a construction skill in order to start a career, or to better their abilities to create, build and problem-solve within the built environment in their lives, a construction skill will stay with that person forever."
With communication being one of the most important aspects of working in construction, WMCI partnered with the Literacy Center of West Michigan for one of the center's first programs during the pilot semester: a construction ESL (English as a Second Language) course. 11 non-native English-speaking students will graduate from the class in May, workforce ready.
"Construction sites are transient with new people and teams coming and going all the time," Schottke explained. "The ability to communicate within and across teams is imperative. Subsequently, our ESL program has brought about the question from native-English speakers if we can also offer a Spanish for Construction course. Native-English speaking crew leaders, field leaders and project managers desire to learn basic Spanish so they can meet the communication needs of their teams. Thanks, once again, to the Literacy Center of West Michigan, we can say 'yes' to this educational opportunity for the construction industry this coming fall."
Schottke says she has been fortunate to have had extraordinary male allies and advocates throughout her own career, and as she has grown in her professional career and both experienced and witnessed barriers to women, she's begun to be more vocal about the subject to the men who have lifted her up to her current role.
"Unless we talk about barriers, we'll never overcome them," she said, noting that because women account for only 10% of the industry, these barriers are not always spoken about or are obvious. "The really rewarding thing is that these conversations are beginning to shift contractors in our region. So, the retaliation to questioning a woman's place in the industry is to say, 'That's because you weren't ready for me and here's why. Can we change that structure so that more women like me can enter? Because this industry is a great place to be.'"
For the many women who may be considering a career change in the wake of the pandemic, Schottke shares that there's an abundance of opportunity in the construction industry right now.
"The West Michigan construction industry is projected to grow almost 16% over the next ten years, while at the same time, nearly 48% of today's construction workforce are expected to retire within the next 10-15 years," Schottke said. "Not to mention, the gender pay gap in construction is next to nothing."
She suggests reaching out to one of those 10% of women in the industry and ask for advice about making the change, in addition to reaching out to organizations like the National Association of Women in Construction and the Inforum Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Affinity Group.
"Reach out to anyone in these organizations and they will give you advice and expertise about joining the construction workforce," she said, adding that helping more women realize at a younger age that a skilled trade career is a possibility is an incredibly complex challenge, without a simple singular solution. "We begin to brand construction for boys at a very young age ... construction toys were never in my toy box. And, candidly, I never put them in my daughter's either. So, it's no wonder that construction slips out of young girls' minds early, if it ever entered at all."
Schottke's request to her fellow parents? Get your children involved.
"When the breaker trips at home, or you're putting the outlet covers back on the walls after painting, or doing any of the other construction-esque projects that happen at home, bring your children along—no matter their gender!" she said. "When a young person grows curious, that's where the magic starts to happens. If they grow curious about how things work, they may be a good fit for construction."
Having tradeswomen in pop culture, Schottke explained, is also a step that can help young girls and women realize their interests.
"I do hope that the advent of home renovation shows with women builders is beginning to shift mindsets of our girls," she said. "The construction industry needs to do a better job showcasing our women. We must adapt our marketing materials and our storytelling to showcase our women, because we are here, and we are making a difference, and we belong."
WMCI's enrollment for fall 2022 will open in late spring. Students can enroll in programs including Carpentry (Interior Finishes) and Concrete, as well as pursue certifications or professional development in additional specialties such as becoming a Building Industry Consulting Services International (BICSI) Certified Technician or Copper Installer. Program lengths range from one-week certification trainings to multi-year craft training programs. WMCI is also proud to host part of the GRCC electrical apprenticeship program.
"We know WMCI's new facility will make an impact on the demand for construction jobs in our region, which is needed as Michigan's labor market remains in a state of flux," said Schottke. "The interest in upcoming courses has been extraordinary; high school and adult students are excited and eager to use their hands and their minds for their career, and put the future into their own hands—literally."
Learn more by visiting West Michigan Construction Institute.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.
Courtesy of West Michigan Construction Institute