Jen Schottke feels a strong pull to help children understand they have career choices that don’t necessarily involve college. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Growing up with a professor for a father, Jen Schottke used to feel ashamed she didn’t finish her college degree.
Today, her confidence is at an all-time high. As director of workforce development and external affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan, she helps students every day to find out what interests them before committing to college or a career.
Schottke’s journey to confidence has taken time, and she wants students to avoid the kinds of feelings she had in her young adult life in West Michigan following her childhood in Houghton, where her father taught computer science at Michigan Technological University.
“I learned a skill, and because I learned a skill I have had this incredible life,” Schottke said. “If you learn a skill, you’ll have a life. College is not the only predictor to success. We have to elevate the status of both pathways because, for whatever reason, we’ve put pressure on schools and students that you’re only going to be successful if you get a degree.
“And a lot of kids end up feeling like failures, which was my personal experience.”
As a child, Schottke thought she might be suited for a career in interior design and, at another point, pharmaceutical science — at least until she took advanced-placement chemistry in high school. Her attention next turned to English, with the potential to be a professor, a lifestyle she thought could be nice.
She attended the University of Iowa, which has one of the best creative-writing programs in the nation, but before long returned to MTU in the Upper Peninsula.
While her parents are happy with how her life turned out, Schottke said they probably wished she had made different life choices.
“It turns out this Yooper is not cut out for Big Ten life,” Schottke said.
Although she didn’t graduate from MTU, she met her husband-to-be, Brad, there, and the couple moved to West Michigan.
“I followed the boyfriend. Luckily, it worked out, but I had to make some choices about whether to go in debt and figure out what I want to do, or make another choice and learn a skill.”
She ended up in cosmetology school and for most of five years cut hair — something she still does — but also ended up selling and marketing beauty products.
In 2007, a friend called with a tip that a client was looking to hire a personal assistant, and Schottke was ready for a new opportunity.
The client was Grand Rapids-based C.D. Barnes Construction, and soon Schottke was talking to Executive Vice President Todd Oosting. The job wasn’t for a personal assistant but a marketing director.
“I cut my teeth in construction, and it was one of the best experiences of my life — even though I was there from 2007 to 2011, one of the worst times in construction,” she said. “I really watched that company agonize over really hard decisions. We got lean, and it meant I did more than marketing.”
Her time at C.D. Barnes wrapped up in 2011 as she left to have her second child. The brief maternity break ended after her first child asked when she was going back to work.
Schottke found a job at Professional Association Resources, which provides organizations with support. While there she worked with the West Michigan Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, American Advertising Federation of West Michigan, National Association of Community Development Extension Professionals and the Michigan State University Club of West Michigan.
In 2014, following three years with PAR, Schottke was asked to join Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan as membership and marketing director. She was able to marry her experiences in the construction industry at C.D. Barnes with the skills she learned at PAR helping various professional organizations.
As the construction industry began to rebound from the recession and it became obvious there would be a shortage of skilled trade workers, ABCWM began to shift the way it helped its members. In 2015, Schottke helped put together the first MiCareerQuest, an interactive career fair for students, and ABCWM began looking for a director of education.
Executive Director Norm Brady was looking for a candidate to fill the position when the perfect candidate was already in his organization.
“As Norm was grappling with who the right fit was, I kept feeling this strong pull into the work,” Schottke said. “I was working on this event with marketing, but I had this opportunity to influence 5,500 kids, and I figured out how much I care about this.
“Having felt ashamed for so long for not having a degree, and coming into construction where I see executives without a degree, I found out I have this calling to tell these stories, that there are so many ways to have a life.”
Brady said he appreciates Schottke’s never-ending positive attitude and willingness to help others.
“She is never rattled and is always focused on moving forward,” he said. “I am always amazed at the quantity of work that she can handle and the quality in which it is done. On top of all that, she is just a really nice person.”
Her work has led to involvement with Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Academy of Design and Construction at Innovation Central High School, which recently led to her appointment to the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education.
Working with students is a passion for Schottke, but her parenting life has its own challenges. Sometimes she and her 9-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, work on homework together, as Schottke plugs away at earning her associate degree.
Schottke is careful not to try to influence Brooklyn about whether she should go to college or learn a skilled trade, but instead she emphasizes that hard work and learning never ends, and sometimes a 180-degree career turn may be in the cards.
“I think it’s important that I show her that you can always learn; it doesn’t have to just happen when you’re 18 to 21,” Schottke said. “I will encourage her to pursue her passions but to understand that a passion doesn’t always equate to a career.”
Despite the fact that many GRPS board members have moved on to other political positions, Schottke says she has no intention of pursuing a political career in her future — although she will have to run for re-election to the board this fall.
Her mission to help future generations figure out their place in the world is far from fading. Her task, as she sees it, is to ensure students don’t have to make difficult decisions about education and a career alone and suffer the feelings she endured in her early adulthood.
“This passion really comes from having life happen in my early adult years and going through feeling … inadequate because I wasn’t doing what my friends were doing,” she said. “When I fell into construction, I started to gain that confidence back and excel in a career and have more and more opportunities.
“I don’t want kids to go through that and feel like they don’t have value.”