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Well it certainly wasn’t a linear pathway!
I always thought I would be a college graduate. My dad was a college professor at Michigan Tech and I always thought college would be my next step. But after a series of challenges with family and mental health, life was thrown upside down for me at 18 years old.
In 2001, I moved to Grand Rapids and started to work just to survive. After working briefly at a restaurant, I started to explore the cosmetology pathway. I had always liked the beauty industry so I ended up enrolling and getting my cosmetology license.
After working about five years in the beauty industry, I found myself gravitating towards handling the business and marketing side of the work rather than with clients each day. That led to traveling to salons and selling products; which was my entrance into the marketing & business world.
In 2007, I received an offer from CD Barnes to work as their marketing director. It was a huge shift. I went from selling shampoo to selling buildings!
And then the recession hit. Our company had to downsize significantly and I watched as many of my seasoned colleagues got laid off which meant I needed to take on many new and differing tasks. That turned out to be such a pivotal moment in my career because it opened the door to meeting tradespeople
Before, I felt like I didn’t quite deserve my role (I didn’t even have a marketing degree!) But then I started meeting other people in the West Michigan construction network that were leading businesses and running complex job sites and they didn’t have their degrees either. Whether they were the owners of the business or a laborer in the field, our paths had similarities. This is when a shift occurred for me and I really felt like I belonged in this industry. I believe that this fundamental feeling of belonging is what one needs to stay and thrive in their work.
Jen working in her first construction role as Marketing Director at CD Barnes
Former ABC West Michigan President Norm Brady (far left) with a mix of ABC and WMCI members at the WMCI Open House.
As I think about who and what WMCI is, I am proud that at the core of what we do is helping open doors for people. It’s a gift. I honestly can’t think of anything more powerful to do in life than open doors for other people.
In 2014, I received a call from Norm Brady from the Associated Builders & Contractors, Western Michigan Chapter to see if I would join their team as their Membership and Marketing Director. After a year at ABC, we started to have more serious conversations about meeting the looming workforce cliff. 48% of the construction workforce is projected to retire in the next 10-15 years. That’s a BIG issue not just in West Michigan, but one that will affect how we build the future infrastructure of the entire country! Working at ABC, I had become extremely passionate about programs aimed at growing the workforce, and I started looking into what we could do to help our community reinvigorate it’s investment in the future of the skilled trades.
Many years later when it was time to decide who would take on the leadership role at WMCI, I asked the WMCI board of directors to take a chance on me and for the opportunity to lead the launch of the school.
This is a repetitive part of my career; someone taking a chance on me. I am deeply grateful for the people that opened those doors for me along the way.
One thing that’s unique about wmci is that the majority of the staff is female in a male dominated industry.
There’s certainly been growth in numbers. Women employees have grown from low single digits to 12% to 15% of the workforce. We’re seeing that growth reflected with our student body as well which is very encouraging to all.
I also think there is growing awareness of how women are different than men. We need leaders to make changes in internal culture to create welcoming spaces for women. Candidly, I struggled because there was no paid maternity leave policy when I had my son in 2011. That had a big impact on my decision to leave the industry for a short while. But now, we are seeing more and more West Michigan companies preparing and welcoming moms into the workforce. I see more women in the field and more women in leadership.
What’s really great is that we’re seeing more male colleagues step up and advocate for female leadership as well. Companies understand the value that a diverse leadership team brings not just to company culture, but the efficiency, effectiveness and profitability of the company.
Wow, it is such a privilege and responsibility to be able to offer advice to others. I would first say that you belong here and keep going. You will begin to find your people over time. I’ve been fortunate to have been included in various communities of professional women and my peers are phenomenal. It is a gift to be surrounded by so many women in construction. There’s a really special thing about being a woman in construction right now; that trailblazing factor.
Trailblazing is not easy and will come with hard days no matter the industry. But you get a wonderful community that you get to rely on. So welcome. You belong here. And never stop pushing, even when it gets hard.
Having grown up in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula, being outside is where I find my rest and renewal. I love hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing, and snowboarding.
Both of my children are athletes and watching them grow and excel in their sports is one of my greatest joys – you will find me at volleyball tournaments on weekends, and dive meets and baseball games on weeknights. And, I love to laugh! Stand-up and improv comedy shows are some of my favorite ways to spend a night out.
3 ways YOU can help build the future of construction in West Michigan: