Carrie Wilson and Julia Payment- Women Who Built West Michigan
As an extension of Women in Construction Week (WIC) – The Construction Careers Council has a mission to celebrate, educate and promote the roles of women in construction. The Council set out to highlight the women who currently work within West Michigan’s industry through our “Women Who Build West Michigan Series.” The goal is to inspire and educate specifically young women but also those interested in being a part of our next generation’s construction workforce.
I sat down with women across West Michigan to discuss their career path, the work they do, what they like or dislike about their role, what motivates them and much more. Our conversations were authentic and the women I interviewed have a wealth of stories and tips to becoming successful.
This conversation was our first interview with multiple women – Carrie Wilson, CEO at Freedom Construction, and Julia Payment who works at Veneklasen Construction. Although our interviewees are at different stages of their careers, both give great feedback on the state of the industry, what to expect when working in construction, and helpful advice they would’ve liked to know back in high school. This interview gives honest, real feedback on what a career looks like and highlights that not all careers are linear. After the interview I left inspired to be a better person and follow you’re my passion!
Mac: Welcome! Tell me about yourself and how you got into the construction industry.
Carrie: The seeds of this were sown early for me. My dad was a jack of all trades as far as building goes, from barns to houses to anything on our farm. As a young girl he would bring me along to build things with him. I didn’t love the 6 a.m. wake up call, but I had no idea how much I was learning about the value of work and the physical representation of the work you have done. But it was not the path I took. After my younger years I ended up going through college and got a masters in creative writing. I then started working as a bartender and server, and eventually worked at a car dealership running their call center. I then ended up moving to Kent District Library and worked my way up to Director of Operations there.
I ended up in construction by learning about the importance of accountability, especially in a male-dominated work environment such as a car dealership. The culture there got out of hand, which prompted me to start my own business!
This led me to construction, where my husband and I decided to combine our skills and start a business since his background was in construction and property management. He does all the project management for the company, and I handle CEO responsibilities, strategy, marketing, contract management and more. We really wanted to get back to our roots and realized there’s an abundance of opportunities (especially in West Michigan) for a woman-owned general contractor.
Mac: Julia, what was your path to the construction industry?
Julia: Since I graduated high school I have been in the military. I learned a lot through that experience. I learned I didn’t want to be a police officer or security officer. Since I was young, I was always doing projects with my grandpa and my dad. My grandfather in particular has been a role model for me since he was also in the military and fought in the Vietnam War. He’s retired now, but I’ve taken a lot of lessons and inspiration from him. He still teaches trade-related classes to people in prison or who have had personal hardships and tries to show people the work can be great. He’s very passionate about teaching and woodworking. I’ve taken that passion and turned it into my own and now I want to be a carpenter.
In the military you don’t really get to experience the construction industry because you are always moving around and managing responsibilities. Now that I am out, I am very excited to start working at Veneklasen on the carpentry crew. It’s a huge achievement for me and something I’ve always wanted to do.
Mac: Julia, you mentioned your grandpa was a big influence. Was there anyone else? And did you know you would go into carpentry after completing your military career?
Julia: The military could be a grind at times, so I would think about my next step a lot when I was on my 12-hour night shifts. I would say my dad also inspired me to go into the trades. He would do things around the house like putting rails on stairs, landscaping or putting tiles down for a fireplace. I would help and enjoyed hands-on projects. I also like to be outside, so having the ability to do a project and be outside checks my boxes.
Mac: Julia, what made you choose carpentry over other trades?
Julia: The hands-on aspect for sure, and I knew I didn’t want to paint! I enjoy everything that comes with carpentry, finishing, cabinets, woodwork and framing. I haven’t had the opportunity to do framework yet but my company said we will be training on that. They will also be sending me to a blueprint reading course, which I’m really looking forward to. I feel like the more I learn the more I want to do!
Mac: Carrie, tell me about your new venture Freedom Construction.
Carrie: Freedom Construction has been in business for a little over two years. Our mission is to build and serve with character and purpose. We do any type of commercial construction ranging from $300,000 to $3,000,000. We have an intentional focus on providing equal access to bid opportunities for underutilized businesses. To do that, we prioritize forming relationships with trade partners who are minority, women or veteran owned.
We are catching on quickly and have been extremely fortunate that our small business has had around 300 percent growth in revenue from year one to year two. .
I’m in an industry of 10 percent women, and I have been blessed to find other women in the industry who have helped pave the way and make quick connections and trusted relationships, and I believe that matter. Some of the success has to do with what we stand for as a company and trying to do the next right thing, leading through relationship focused service.
Mac: Carrie, you mentioned there’s only around 10 percent of women in the construction workforce. What would you say to inspire a young woman to join the industry?
Carrie: Anytime you have a majority and minority population there’s always going to be a fear of the unknown when starting something. But one thing that stands out is that traditionally, construction has been portrayed as a physical job that requires a lot of strength. Women weren’t traditionally interested in those roles, but a lot of things have changed in construction. We have increased technology; we have seen a change culturally as well. Power has really shifted towards the employees. Workplace expectations still must be upheld, but a lot of women need to know that psychologically it’s a lot safer in companies right now for women to work in a male dominated industry. I think for women you have a choice of where you want to work and if you choose the correct culture, construction is a beautiful place to be in so many ways.
Lastly, it’s important to know that construction is not exclusively a trade. Working construction does not always mean you will be on a job site. There’s bookkeeping, business development, relationship building, community liaison jobs, HR and more. There are people moving from nonprofit positions into this realm because of the good you can do in developing and building a community.
Mac: There are so many avenues you can take in this industry.
Carrie: I agree, I’ve even been surprised at how often I'm with people who enjoy building relationships and connecting community partners. I never realized how important that relationship building aspect was when owning a commercial general contracting company.
Mac: Carrie, what would you say to a young person in general that isn’t quite sure what they want to do after high school?
Carrie: Be curious. I would ask teachers or connections to introduce you to multiple different fields. When you’re in that 16-18 age range, you can undervalue all the wisdom around you! Take advantage of that and ask questions or find a mentor that you look up to.
Mac: Julia, what’s a skill someone might be surprised is important in the construction industry?
Julia: Communication is huge. If you can be on the same page as your peers and ask questions when needed, it helps a lot. Time management is crucial too, we undervalue the ability to show up to work on time and ready to go. If you can do those things people will be willing to help you.
Mac: Carrie, is there anything you want people to know about Freedom Construction?
Carrie: I’d like people to know that we’re a socially conscious company. Even though we are for profit, I think we have a responsibility to our community to align our operations, so we are benefiting people not only in the physical spaces but through relationships and where we choose to spend our dollars as a company.
Mac: What are you doing to sustain your current workforce?
Carrie: We invest in our people. We think it’s important to provide not just a livable wage, but a comfortable wage with benefits. One example is we have no cap on vacation. We also cover 100 percent of our employees’ health insurance. We also have flexible working options, and we care. We want you to bring your whole self to work. We want to know what’s going on in your life and make sure you feel OK. You can be honest here if you are having a bad day. If you need some time, we can give you that. Working is an exchange right... time for money. We want our people to be happy with that exchange.
And one more thing about Julia! She is such an inspiration. She is somebody who decided she wanted to do something and started meeting people. And she has taken every right step to get herself in position for a great career at a great company. She is so driven and has passion for everything she does, and I hope she can be an inspiration for younger women entering the industry!
Julia: Thank you Carrie! It’s not scary to get into construction, but if you are a little nervous about getting into the industry, find someone that can help you. For me that was Carrie. She was able to answer every question I’ve had and has helped me through everything. And although Carrie has been great, it’s still on me to be my best. Things aren’t just going to fall into my lap and I’m excited for that journey. So, thank you Carrie for everything.