Local company models mentorship to attract, retain talent in industrial Northwest Portland

Over the past two years, an assembly factory in industrial northwest Portland has seen a jump in women employees that other manufacturers in the historically male-dominated industry see over decades.

"Really recently (in the industry), you can look back and say over the last 20 years this happened," said Kirsten Nieman, marketing director. "What I've seen at Schoolhouse, it's been over the last couple of years we've seen that big shift."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Jensyn Short, left, assembles some lamps. According to Short, the assembly department has a light-hearted culture where they can listen to music and chit-chat — as long as their hands are moving, too.

At Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co., located at 2181 N.W. Nicolai St., 40 percent of the employees are women — and 60 percent of the leadership are women.

While hovering around 50 percent might seem perfectly average, it's quite a high ratio of women for this type of historically male-dominated industry: inside Schoolhouse Electric, an assembly factory of steel, woodworking and textiles pumps out in-house designed fixtures, hardware and home decor.

"There's been a definite shift," Nieman said. "Compared to a couple years ago, there's a labor shift in more traditional male-dominated roles and in leadership as well. They're not just staying for a year and looking to go elsewhere, they really have a home here and are able to grow with more opportunities as we grow."

Schoolhouse Electric doesn't have problems attracting talent, training those rising to leadership and retaining women employees.

The employee is a customer

Sara Fritsch, vice president of marketing, brand product and sales, leads the design studio and sales team and has been with Schoolhouse Electric for two years. Fritsch spent 15 years as a business consultant and studied mechanical engineering — and art.

"I've always looked for a way art, engineering and the business side of things come together, and this seems to be the perfect blend of all those things," Fritsch said.

Her leadership is a common theme to which employees attribute the success of Schoolhouse Electric over the past two years — Schoolhouse Electric has a second retail store in New York with around six employees, and has plans to open a third in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in early 2018.

According to Fritsch, there are four ways to measure success: employee engagement, a happy customer, healthy sales and mindful margins.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Sara Fritsch, vice president of marketing, brand product and sales, has been with Schoolhouse Electric for two years, during which the company has seen a rise in female employees and retention rates.

"But what we're finding is if you get the first one right, the other three are hitting the targets," Fritsch said. "With us accepting that to be true, the culture is really focused on treating our employees as best we can — that means having empathy, leading by example, thinking of the employees as customers."

Fritsch said attracting top talent is not a problem for Schoolhouse Electric, and the workplace culture emphasizes investing in internal talent.

"We staff our teams much like we source our products: we start with quality," Fritsch said. "For everybody in every position, we're recruiting and nurturing the best-qualified candidates."

She came across the fact that women were coming — and staying — while assessing employee engagement to determine how to best serve their career paths and better Schoolhouse Electric as a whole.

"To do that well you have to look at the demographic — who are your employees, just like customers," Fritsch said. "You get to know who they are. Once we did that across the teams, leadership and manufacturing, that was our first aha moment — Wow, we're heavy on women in areas where traditionally you wouldn't see that."

While it's not unrelated that the company has strong women in high leadership roles and is investing in growing women's careers from entry-level and up, Fritsch said the growth in the percentage of women employees was unintentional.

"We're not doing anything special to allow women to grow here, we're thoughtful about people in general and women are 50 percent of that population," Fritsch said. "There's a link here: I don't think it's conscious, but if I were entry-level, I'd want to look up and see someone like me achieving. There's always career path ambition that's very achievable that's not something I take lightly — there's eyes on my doing what I'm doing."

A self-made position

Cyndy Chan, a finisher in the metal shop with Schoolhouse Electric, went to college to study anthropology. Since being employed here for a little over a year, she's now filling a need for a trainer position created by the fact that she noticed it and spoke out.

When she applied for an entry level position at Schoolhouse Electric, it was below her pay grade and not exactly in line with her interests of combining her shop skills and lean manufacturing knowledge.

"They weren't hiring a production manager. I was like well, I know you have to work your way up in a lot of things when you're trying to get restarted in a new industry and I'm willing to do that," Chan recalled saying in her entrance interview. "I also want you to know I have production management experience and lean manufacturing training."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Cyndy Chans metal finishing department takes raw metal parts — which have no standard for how they look coming in — and get it ready for production.

Opportunity at Schoolhouse Electric rose for her during a standard one-on-one with her department head.

"More and more, I saw there's a lot of turnover in my department," Chan said. "They'd hire people, people either wouldn't grow into the job or they didn't find that it was what they expected it to be when they signed up — I'm not sure what all the reasons why people left were."

She offered to help address that.

"They basically have created a role for me where I get to do that — I get to take people from the first day in my department and attempt to transfer all the knowledge I've been able to pick up on — and it seems to be working," Chan said. "My first two trainees successfully completed the 90-day probation period last week. They're doing really well. I'm helping write a training document so other people can learn the same checklists and breakdowns of steps I'm going through with all my trainees."

Chan draws advice from a group of friends who are teachers, which includes her mom and aunt.

"I don't know if I feel I have a mentor in this, but I've got Julie (Sumner)," Chan said. "Julie is great if I've got specific (questions) about specific people and how to reach people. She's given me a lot of good advice, a lot of the same things I'm attempting to do she's done in her life. She'll tell me things like people aren't going to learn things the first time, don't get discouraged."

After quitting college, she dabbled in cooking, political work, acting, music and then construction through the Oregon Tradeswomen, but Schoolhouse Electric is the place she is staying.

"Part of it is that you love working for a place that's successful and where there's always work and it doesn't seem like you're in danger of running out of work," Chan said. "Not every place that is successful shares that sense of joy and success with its employees — at Schoolhouse, you do feel company successes are your successes and that as the company becomes more successful, they're also trying to develop us personally in our jobs."

Rising quickly

Jensyn Short, assembler with Schoolhouse Electric, told the Business Tribune she started out her career with a bachelor's in exercise and sports science, but realized it wasn't what she really wanted to do. Short has been with Schoolhouse Electric for two years this August.

"I started out in assembly," Short said. "They moved me up pretty quick because they had too many new hires — I got thrown into the mix from day one, I did really well, and my boss Julie (Sumner) pretty much saw I could handle a lot of things at one time."

Depending on the day, Short fills in for different departments on the four floors of the warehouse and otherwise acts as Fritsch's assistant.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Schoolhouse Electric is located in the industrial northwest sector at 2181 N.W. Nicolai St.

"I made it my goal: everything I was asked to do, become an expert at it. Once you do, they really give you a lot of opportunities," Short said. "They give a lot of opportunities for advancement if they see that you care and put in a lot of hard work — I've been really thankful that I have been given opportunities to move forward."

She found a mentor in her department lead when she first came to Schoolhouse Electric, too.

"When I first started, my lead Ryan was my mentor. He noticed right away I was really helpful if he had too much going on — can you take care of this, no questions asked, get it done. He started advocating for me with Julie (Sumner)," Short said. "Since then, ever since Julie saw what I could do, she's been a really good mentor to me for sure."

Since then, she's watched colleagues move around to different positions and departments, including the head engineer who's worked in every department there.

"It's pretty crazy how fast I've moved up compared to (other jobs)," Short said. "Half (my colleagues) have worked here longer than me, half are newer. Some 10 years, some just started. They give opportunities to everyone."

The value of mentorship

Nicole Curcio, PR consultant for Schoolhouse Electric, describes Fritsch's communication style as "very encouraging and embracing."

"You don't see that in a lot of other companies," Curcio said. "I don't know if it's gender specific, but people have grown into their roles here, it's really a nice, encouraging, team-oriented effort I see happening here."

In Fritsch's experience in school, there was a number of women in mechanical engineering that's still low today, but because of the unbalanced weight of caretaking placed on women — as daughters and mothers — they drop out of the ranks even if they did secure the career.

"This is still shocking to me to walk in and have so many women around me — this is a first for me," Fritsch said. "I think I was just raised not to see that (gender discrimination). It was probably happening, but I never knew — I was probably overly confident, but it wasn't an issue to me. Now where I am, I see it more. Looking back I know it was happening for sure, but I'm tragically optimistic."

Schoolhouse's retail stores and overall revenues are up double digit percentages, despite the slowing brick-and-mortar market.

"It's true for women and men: lots of people start at entry level, but the sky's the limit," Fritsch said. "We are growing so fast, we put so much value on how we treat our employees, that pays off when we see employees take on more and more responsibility."

By Jules Rogers
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