Be persistent, work hard and be yourself. That’s the advice Rebecca Wall Schultz, Washington, gives to young women (or anyone) who come to her asking how to rise through the ranks in the construction industry.
Wall Schultz is known for blazing a trail for women in the male-dominated field. She began her career as a data entry clerk in 1981 and has climbed the ladder to management. She is now vice president of preconstruction at PARIC Corporation and a member of that company’s five-person senior leadership committee.
Earlier this year the St. Louis Business Journal named Wall Schultz to its 2014 list of the 25 Most Influential Business Women.
“It is very exciting to be recognized alongside these phenomenal women,” said Wall Schultz, who was one of three women in the construction industry to be chosen. “The other women who are on that list are outstanding, so just to be included on that list is exciting.”
A Leader Even in High School
Wall Schultz grew up in Union. Her family moved there when she was 3.
She graduated from Union High School in 1973, one year earlier than the rest of her class, as it turned out.
“When I was a freshman in high school, I looked at the courses you had to take and I figured a way that in three years I could have all my credits (to graduate),” said Wall Schultz.
“I didn’t tell anyone that I had figured that out until I was a junior . . . so then I told them I wanted to graduate. So they said, ‘Well, we don’t normally do that, but if you go in front of the school board, we’ll talk about it. As long as you say you’re going to go to college, we’ll consider it.’ ”
Wall Schultz did her part. She went before the school board and also spoke to the president of East Central College, and everyone agreed. She was allowed to graduate early.
Wall Schultz enrolled at ECC, signing up for secretarial courses. The college probably offered more variety, she said, but at the time secretarial was all she considered.
“I didn’t know what all was out there. In my mind, what else do you do? You’re a girl, you do secretarial,” said Wall Schultz.
“It was the obvious path, and I liked it. I had taken some office-type classes in high school, did well at them so I thought well this must be what I am supposed to do.”
Wall Schultz’s own mom had worked at Brown Shoe Company in Union. No one in her family had ever worked in construction, and she never knew there were any opportunities for women there.
Wall Schultz left ECC after one year. Soon after that she was married and started a family.
She worked at a couple of jobs around Union before a friend who worked at McCarthy Construction in St. Louis told her about the kinds of job openings there.
“I liked computers at the time, was getting into that side of the business, so I interviewed there and got a job at McCarthy right after my second son was born,” said Wall Schultz.
Her job was “plugging in numbers that estimators put on sheets that would be the beginning of them compiling their estimates for projects.” She decided to take it a step further.
“I wanted to figure out how those people got those numbers from these big sets of plans,” she said. “So I started asking a lot of questions.
“Rather than doing anything at the office with it, I took it all home. At nighttime, I’d roll out these big set of plans, I’d have the sheets in front of me with the answers on them and try to figure out how they could match. I’d go back to work every day and I’d ask a bunch of questions.”
As Wall Schultz learned more, the company let her take on more responsibility here and there. Later when the company was downsizing, her versatility proved beneficial.
“The fact that I did understand some of the other things, I was more valuable to them, so I got to stay,” said Wall Schultz.
“Then I just kind of progressed. As we combined departments and the company got smaller, I just kept asking a lot of questions, as I always do.”
By the time Wall Schultz left McCarthy Construction in 2001 she was vice president of preconstruction.
“I was in charge of a lot of their health care and laboratory projects, doing the estimating and presenting those numbers to the owner, helping them get their numbers to their budget,” she said.
At PARIC, Wall Schultz, whose office is in Westport, began as a senior estimator but within six months she was promoted to vice president of preconstruction.
“I review all the numbers that go out, and I try to help the less experienced estimators in getting their jobs finalized, how they are reported to the owner and how we can work with the owners to get to their budget,” said Wall Schultz.
Self-Taught, but Associations and Networking Helped
Wall Schultz learned much of her job by asking questions and paying attention, but where she could, she also took classes and joined industry organizations like the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and American Society of Professional Estimators (ASPE).
“I found that was a really good way to get out there, meet the people who are in construction,” she said. “Those are not usually situations where you’re concerned if you have a job or not. People are much more open to sharing with you. So I used those organizations and the classes they offered to get the training I needed. And I have had some good mentors along the way.”
Both organizations also gave Wall Schultz opportunities at leadership. At NAWIC, she led committees and served as president, and at ASPE she served as regional governor.
“Just learning how to handle groups of people and manage groups of people on committees there certainly helped big time at work,” she said. “It was a good learning tool.”
And as these organizations provided Wall Schultz with mentors, she too has mentored many women in the field.
“That’s one of the things I love to do,” she said. “We have an official mentoring program at PARIC, but I also have some people who have just called me to see if we can get together once a month to talk.
“We talk about their career paths and what I think they need to do to get to the next step. We talk about issues they are having. Most of any business is how you work with certain people. There’s different ways to deal with them.
“We talk about what should you go try to do to get to the next step,” she said. “If I think they need some training in an area, I’ll tell them. Just things they need to hear. And they can tell me things they may not feel comfortable telling their boss, and I can advise them how to handle certain situations.”
Looking back on her career, Wall Schultz admits some luck was involved in her landing that first job in construction — she had a friend who worked there and gave her pointers, things like what were the good days to call.
“You certainly do luck into some situations, but I was persistent with them. I didn’t let the ‘No, We don’t have anything yet,’ go,” she said. “And once you get that opportunity, you can’t just sit on it. You have to keep going.”
Women Make for Better Workplace
Back in 1981 when Wall Schultz had her first job in the construction industry, there were other women who worked there, but nearly all were secretarial-type roles.
“If there was ever any discrimination against women, it was from the industry,” said Wall Schultz. “It wasn’t common that you had a female doing something in construction other than secretarial work.”
Today there are many more women working for construction companies.
Wall Schultz said even in her preconstruction group there’s a few, and she only sees the numbers growing.
“I think it makes for a better work environment, a better place,” she said. “People think differently. Women add a more personal touch.
“I tell anybody, but especially women, just know you’re going to have to work really hard,” said Wall Schultz. “It’s not easy, and it’s harder when you have a family, if you’re raising a family, because of the hours and lots of deadlines. You may have to take stuff home to work on it, and if you’re managing a project out in the construction world, it’s grueling, but you’re going to have to do that — you may have to work harder than the guy next to you.”
Women coming up in the construction industry are doing both office work and job site work. Anyone with an engineering-type mind is well suited to work for a construction company, said Wall Schultz.
They come out of college with a variety of degrees — construction management, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, architectural engineering . . .
She doesn’t recommend trying to come up through the industry like she did.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t wish I had that (education),” said Wall Schultz, “and that I wish I had been out on the construction site some, because I haven’t, so what I do is surround myself with people who do have that. I know my limits.
“What I have learned to do well is manage people so I make sure we have the right variety of people because it is good to have the different kinds of backgrounds.
“That’s the part I love the most, the people part,” said Wall Schultz. “It’s really fun and exciting to see the people grow.”
‘I Put Together Math Puzzles’
Although her work is done in an office, Wall Schultz likes to make occasional visits to the job sites, “because it’s the real world.
“We live in the pretend world of preconstruction where everybody is happy and wants to get along,” she said. “Once you get out on the construction site, it’s tough and it’s the real world. You’re out there negotiating, trying to get to the truth of exactly what’s happening, and there’s a skill set to that.
“I wouldn’t be good at that. I don’t like the arguing. I like the selling and the getting the deal moving, that’s much better suited for me.”
Wall Schultz said in her day-to-day job she’s often on the phone and looking through project drawings.
“You’re taking off the quantities, you’re developing quantities for things the architect has drawn on the drawings,” she said.
“I always equate it to when I was growing up I always liked math, and I always liked puzzles. And that’s kind of what I do. I put together math puzzles.
“It’s trying to figure out what’s all on the drawing, getting the quantities and putting prices to it — estimating what you think the job’s going to cost, tracking that as you go through.”
The work Wall Schultz is known most for in the industry is her seminar that simulates a bid day in a contractor’s office.
“I did it one year for the Hazelwood School District, their teachers and their counselors,” she said. “The reason I did it for them was to tell them you don’t tell people to go into construction because you think it means being a carpenter or laborer. Well you can do that, and that’s a good career, but you could be an accountant and be in a construction company.
“You could be all these other things and work for a construction company, and quite frankly in many cases, make more money for a construction company than if you worked for an accounting firm,” said Wall Schultz.
Wall Schultz is married to Bill Schultz, who started Washington Fence Company. She has two sons who both work in the construction industry.