How does a wife and mother of two with degrees in criminal justice suddenly find herself pursuing a career in the trades? Carlyn McClelland says it all began back in 1998 when “I did what kids did back then when they graduated from high school. I went to college.” Like many of those kids she started college with no idea what her true passion was, but she was told that “smart kids go to college; the trades are for everyone else.” She had little in the way of funds, so she was encouraged to go into debt. She was told it was okay because it was “good debt”. When she graduated and got a job making $27,000 a year, then she was introduced to the idea of debt to income ratio.
McClelland pursued a master’s degree in criminal justice but became discouraged as she watched the debt pile up all the while feeling unfulfilled in her work. One day she said to her husband, “What if I took classes to learn how to fix up our house? It’s a hobby that might even end up paying a few bills.” Her husband’s response: “That’s not the dumbest idea you’ve ever had.” She went with it.
Southwestern Michigan College had a construction program which McClelland enrolled in. She enjoyed her classes, and she soon realized that the trades require brains. “No dummy is going to do this successfully,” she said.
Further, she felt like an individual who was seen and heard in the trades school, not just one of 40,000 people as she had been at the university. Even so she felt a little out of place at first; she was taking classes with guys who could have been her kids, but instructor Larry Wilson had a different viewpoint.
Wilson said, “So what? You have two times the passion of any of those guys.” Larry validated her ideas and forced her to think bigger; he told her this was her career not a hobby.
“Larry is retired now, but he’s still on my speed dial; I still call him to get his opinion on things, and to make sure he’s behaving,” she laughed.
At one point McClelland went into a tirade about all the debt she was in for a career she didn’t like (and wasn’t pursuing) and her husband looked at her and said, “You sound like Mike Rowe.” That sent her to the internet to look him up and she came across the scholarship fund. She thought, well I have a story that lines up with what they are saying, so she applied.
McClelland loves the pledge that the mikeroweWORKS Foundation requires of scholarship winners. Though it is not overtly faith based, it is all in line with what she believes and represents everything she would like to teach her kids. The only sticking point for her was the piece of the pledge that talks about not going into debt. She was starting from a place where she was in debt and trying to get out of it.
The scholarship money covered her whole second year which made finishing her construction degree reasonable and palatable to her husband, since she had a whole year of theory yet to complete. “To be fair,” she said, “I told him I didn’t want to do school any more after the criminal justice situation, so he had reason to be wary of another degree.” However, once they had the money, he supported her decision.
When McClelland graduated, she began her own one-woman business. She loved her work but she also says it was hard competing in a male-dominated industry. “We put so much on ourselves as women and mothers when working in a male role. But, if you roll with it and brush off a lot of the nonsense thrown your way, most men respect you for it. Just know why you are there and be yourself.
“Of course, I had a great role model growing up. My mother was the first female deputy in Flint, Michigan and she loved her work, so I knew that a woman could succeed in a traditionally male role,” McLelland continues.
She believes that life deals you cards in preparation for what you will experience. “I’ve always known who I am and I’ve been boldly myself as I’ve grown in faith, in my marriage, and in motherhood. So God gave me a challenge,” she said.
The challenge came in 2020 in the form of an accident. She fell from the top of a 16-foot ladder and her foot was seriously injured. She had to stay composed at the time because her sons were with her on the work site. It was very hard to be calm when she heard someone say “amputation”. Thankfully, however, she was wearing the free pair of work boots that Wolverine®, a sponsor of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, had given her. The high ankle saved her foot!
After the accident her foot was not healing the way it was supposed to so McClelland found that she couldn’t run her business any more. She ended up having a second operation which seems to have resolved the problem and now she is healing. In the meantime, she has been doing small projects and helping people. She enjoys it, but she would prefer to be doing more hands-on work. However, her foot still isn’t very functional, so she is moving into the next stage of her career.
McClelland has accepted a job as Estimator at Nuway Construction in Goshen, Indiana. She is very excited about this opportunity, particularly as this commercial builder has a lot of potential for growth.
“I feel like at some point I would like to move into commercial project management,” she said. “I can bridge the gap between someone who does the hands-on work and the management people who may not have done that work and help each to see the other’s point of view.”
While McClelland’s ability to make her own way in a male dominated industry and her way of making the most of the situation she finds herself in would be considered admirable by most women, she admires another woman in the industry. In fact the woman she named also received the mikeroweWORKS scholarship and was featured in this column: Nolee Anderson. She loves the fact that Anderson teaches construction to women; it’s another thing that she believes she would like to do. She knows that women often feel intimidated by men, so there is something very powerful about women learning from other women. She thinks that perhaps some day she will pursue that path.
McClelland believes that high school students need to be exposed to more tech-career opportunities such as tech classes, shadowing professionals, and visiting construction on site. This could steer more kids into the trades; she saw how excited college kids were to see how a house is put together and she thinks that perhaps if she had that experience when she was in high school, her career would have gone differently.
She has great advice for people questioning their path: “You are never too old to learn these skills. Go in the direction you want to go and don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do; just bring your passion with you. Once you have skills, no one can take them from you.” RB