By IEC Staff
Every IEC contractor member needs a Cara Herbstritt. Cara brings unique skills, a can-do attitude, an overwhelming desire to see that things are done right, and a huge heart that makes it her business to see that everyone is cared for in the best way.
Cara has been active in IEC for many years and has many ideas for contributions in 2024 and beyond.
The Road Led Home
Currently, Cara is owner and administrative officer at Electrical & Mechanical Systems, Inc., (EMSI) in Erie, PA. The beginnings of Cara’s road to electrical began as a young girl in the house she grew up in.
“My father started the business in 1981 out of our home, so it’s always been a part of my life,” she says. “I was 10, and there were always bucket trucks and equipment around. My first vehicle was a company truck. My first job was a Kentucky Fried Chicken because my father did the service work there.”
Cara, however, did not take the route to the family business by becoming an electrician like her brother Steve. Instead, she went to college, first pursuing math and secondary education, before shifting to hospitality as her focus. She spent more than 10 years in Colorado working in hospitality — managing hotels, training new managers, teaching tech, handling auditing, creating procedures, and more.
As it works out, these skills are directing translatable to running an electrical contracting business.
She came back to Erie in 2007 and continued to work in hospitality. By then her brother had purchased the business from their parents. With a family business, even with her parents now retired, work is never off the table and Cara found herself immersed in many EMSI discussions. Her first inroad to IEC was stepping up to help out with the local IEC chapter (then, IEC of Northwest Pennsylvania).
“That was my father’s baby,” Cara remembers. “They needed an apprentice program for electricians and he was one of the chapter’s founding contractor members. He also was one of the founding members of the IEC Forum group that Steve continues to participate in. With my training program experience from hospitality, I became a part-time executive director (ED) for the chapter and my main focus was strengthening apprenticeship.”
Cara found it extremely challenging to be a part-time chapter ED while working full-time. She says she didn’t have a lot of association management experience and relied heavily on her IEC ED peers and did succeed in offering proper IEC training for members. However, when the opportunity arose for IEC of Northwest Pennsylvania to merge with IEC Central Pennsylvania and become what is now IEC Pennsylvania, she felt it was the right move for her members and for her.
“It was a gift for my chapter members to merge them with one led by a person with lots of association management experience and lots of legislative experience,” Cara says. “It also was a gift for me to take that off my shoulders and know that training access would remain strong for my chapter members.”
It was 2011 when she left the hospitality field and joined her family to work at EMSI as operations manager. She became an owner with her brother this year and they work together on a daily basis.
“It’s a good challenge for both Steve and I,” Cara admits. “We get along very well. In fact, people don’t believe we get along as well as we do. Dad is a great consultant, and I don’t think any big decision in our business is made without him and my mother providing input. We’re truly a family business.”
Volunteering with IEC National
In addition to using her skills at EMSI and IEC Pennsylvania, Cara feels a calling to make an impact at the national level. In the last couple of years, she has found herself heavily involved on IEC National’s Membership, Professional Development, and Industry Recognition committees. She has contributed time and talent to help grow new and expanded IEC chapters and identify session opportunities for SPARK and the Business Summit.
“There are so many tentacles to the IEC Industry Recognition Committee (IRC),” Cara acknowledges. “Among them are workforce development, marketing and branding, awards opportunities.”
As an IRC member, she participated in SkillsUSA in Atlanta in June 2023. That experience is driving many of her ideas for the 2024 IRC, says Cara. SkillsUSA calls itself “America’s proud champion of the skilled trades.” Its mission is to empower students to become skilled professionals, career-ready leaders, and responsible community members. The event Cara attended was the SkillsUSA Championships, which saw more than 6,000 state champions from across the U.S. showcasing themselves in 115 skilled and leadership competitions, including electrical. IEC staffed a booth on the exhibit floor and had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of these up-and-coming trades workers.
“SkillsUSA is not big in our county in Pennsylvania, so I was clueless about this opportunity,” Cara says. “It was amazing to see all of these successful students there using their gifts as electricians, chefs, medical, and more.”
Cara sees now more than ever that making sure all IEC chapters are aware of existing opportunities like SkillsUSA is of utmost importance. So is changing the message on amazing opportunities in the trades. Cara feels this is something that needs to be communicated from kindergarten through high school and beyond.
“The IRC has workforce development as one of its areas of responsibility,” Cara explains. “We need to give our chapter executive directors and even our contractor members education — and tools — regarding this message. There are plenty of other books out there for elementary boys and girls about the trades. A great one is The House That She Built by Mollie Elkman. We need to help chapters with workforce development messaging. We need to encourage contractor members to get out there to talk construction industry and the trades.”
Often those conversations happen on a more personal rather than corporate level. That’s good too, says Cara. After attending SkillsUSA, Cara felt empowered to share advice on entering the trades to an out-of-state friend whose son let her know he doesn’t want to go to college. She also had advice for her niece regarding how to turn her love of languages into a career path. These conversations are quite natural, and they need to occur at younger ages, she says.
“We’re always looking for different ways to offer training to our contractor members at SPARK and the Business Summit,” Cara says. “They need to know about opportunities like SkillsUSA, co-ops, internships, and how those types of things generate interest in the field.”
In another IRC area, Cara led the charge to solicit IEC National Awards applications this year and feels good about the 130+ submissions in 2023. She ran a few webinars to explain why to nominate someone for an award and the how of the process. While presenting a webinar without the ability to see and read the listener’s impressions was tough for her, she felt the message of its importance was heard.
“It’s a pride thing for a contractor member to be nominated, and that honor rolls down to all company employees,” she stresses. “A journeyman can say, ‘Hey, we were nominated for a project that I worked on.’ An apprentice can tell his parents, ‘Remember that job I told you about where I screwed in about a thousand screws? Well, we won this award for it.’ We need to make sure contractors know what a big deal these awards are.”
Cara felt honored to sit on a panel, Women in Power, at SPARK 2023 in Dallas along with Susan Cox, Janet Martin, and Gentry Roberts.
“This panel of SPECTACULAR IEC women was a first for IEC,” Cara says. “It was organized by IEC’s RaeShawn Crosson and Kari Messenger. Candy Branham, IEC’s first woman president, was the moderator for the session.”
Passion and Persistence
Cara says no one gets very far without a team. From her days as an executive director to the recent gathering at SPARK in Dallas, Cara believes in the IEC community and will continue to do her part to keep building Team IEC.
“You have to surround yourself with people — people whose skills complement yours — and collaborate to get things done. Don’t recreate it if it already exists but help move it forward. We are an association of many groups and if one group is doing something great, let’s take it and share it with everyone. I have learned that I might not be best person to do something, but I know I can find the right person to do it.”