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Mentoring Women in the Construction Industry

NAWIC President-Elect Shares Vision

Schoenenberger

Catherine Schoenenberger, president of Stay Safe Traffic Products Inc., Westford, Massachusetts, and national president-elect of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) grew up in a construction family.

“My parents had a commercial landscaping business and Dad sold heavy equipment,” she recalls. “However, the girls in my family were never encouraged to get on the machines. It was always the boys.”

Schoenenberger found herself in the public works industry when she answered a blind ad for a general manager for a traffic signs company back in 1996. “I had a degree in political science but I attended the school of hard-knocks when it came to running a business. I knew I could run a company and so I did,” she says. “I quote Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In a lot,” she says. “She said don’t think of your career as a ladder you’re climbing [as a woman], but instead look at it as a jungle gym. I like that visual!”

In 2002, Schoenenberger started her own company and also serves as a Work Zone Safety and Flagger trainer for several organizations.

“As far as I know, I’m one of only six certified flagger trainers in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the only female,” she comments. “That’s helped grow my business to a degree, because people may not always remember a name, but they do remember it was a woman.”

In 2008, Schoenenberger joined NAWIC and currently serves on the board of directors and is its national president-elect, 2016-2017. “One of the best experiences is when I sit in room with a bunch of NAWIC women. The power in the room is just incredible. Single mothers who are now senior engineers on some of the largest construction projects in the country, or the young project manager who is coming to grips with the realities of being the only woman on a site…all offer their own perspective and all have the ‘Can Do It’ attitude.

“As part of NAWIC’s long-term strategic plan, one of our tasks is to conduct nationwide roundtables of leaders in the construction industry. They are predominately males, of course, and so it’s important to find out from them, as employers and as men, their take on the pluses and minuses on having women on the job site and in management,” she says. “NAWIC builds leaders in the construction industry and it’s in that value-point, that our leadership training and skills acquired by our members are transferable to what they do in their jobs every day, otherwise there is no perceived value to the employer, or to our member, for that matter.”

Schoenenberger also serves on the advisory board for a local technical high school and notes that attitudes are changing towards career technical education (CTE).

“It’s more acceptable now to go to a tech school. Mentoring, no matter what industry you’re in, is important. Our young women need to see other women, role models, out in front of them. They need to see themselves in your shoes/steel-toed boots, and you can’t be all talk,” she says, “You have to walk your talk, because no one can tell someone else what to do. Show them and explain and let them get involved – empower them and open them up to the possibilities. If we can set examples along the way and open up opportunities to let them experience firsthand, they’ll be interested and they’ll stay interested.”

Schoenenberger is so committed to mentoring that she established the New Hampshire Construction Career (NHCC) Days. “We modeled it after a national program, designed for both male and female high school students. In 2009 New Hampshire became the 38th state to adopt the structure of it. The first year we had 35 exhibitors, about 20 pieces of live equipment, and 345 kids come through that single half-day event. Since then, NHCC Days has allowed for well over 6,500 NH high school students to experience construction in a very hands-on way.”

Schoenenberger has also brought awareness to women at the forefront of public works, and currently she co-chairs the Diversity Committee for the New England Chapter of the American Public Works Association.

“We’ve learned in our research that your public works and first responders should be a reflection of the community you serve. Having women out on a crew – whether engineering a site, maintaining the function of a transfer station or plowing snow – would only be a plus and perhaps a better reflection?” she notes.

Schoenenberger knows that hard work, determination, and a healthy perspective are all keys to success. “Get out of your own way! I stay ‘real’ about my business and keep the lines of communication open. I don’t get hung up on the minutia,” she says. “I am my mother’s daughter first. She provided a solid foundation of great ethics, character and sense of humor. She was my greatest mentor, my greatest influence.”

“You never know when you’ll have that moment to affect people,” she comments. “I guess that’s why we should always be authentic in who and what we are and do. You might be modeling for someone and not even realize it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Catherine Schoenenberger lives in Westford, Massachusetts with her husband of 30 years, Keith Schoenenberger, a Mastercraftsman/Cabinetmaker.

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