Karelin was already aware of Schneider and the history of co-op when she chose UC. “I loved that UC has co-op advisors,” she says. “Their job is to get you a job, essentially. Obviously, they’re not going to do the legwork for you, but that’s what their world revolves around. I loved having that person to be my advocate and help me through the transition into a more official work position from my internships.” Karelin’s co-op opportunities let her learn more about her passion, working on bridges of all sizes during her first three co-op experiences as she pursued her construction management degree — from small, single-span overpasses in Pennsylvania to the billion-dollar Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville, Kentucky.
She spent her final two co-op semesters within spitting distance of the Golden Gate Bridge, but her work in San Francisco instead introduced her to a new industry. Helix Electric, an electrical design firm that installs systems in new constructions with offices throughout the United States, had been wooing her since their first meeting at a job fair during her freshman year. “We can teach you electrical, but we can’t teach you interpersonal skills,” she recalls being told. “We can’t teach you work ethic. You need to come work for us.” Reluctantly, she accepted a co-op with Helix, despite her relationship with electricity — or lack thereof. “Electricity? Yeah, I charge my phone every night,” she says. “That’s about the extent of it.”
She got off to a frustrating, humbling start learning about her new world of voltage, rough-ins (the running of wiring and such) and Ohm’s law. “I had to work twice as hard as I’ve ever worked — and I’ve always worked hard — because I just didn’t want to be at the bottom. I didn’t want to be at the same knowledge level as a first-time co-op coming in.”
A challenging project gave Karelin the opportunity to show the Helix folks that she was well ahead of the curve, despite her inexperience in electrical work. Her boss instructed her to create a process for putting everything needed for the rough-in for one room in a box, as well as a logistics plan for getting the boxes staged at their destination construction sites that would minimize the amount they’d need to be moved after delivery.
“I told my boss, ‘I can give you something that works in a week or two, or I can give you something amazing in a month,’” Karelin recalls. After getting the go-ahead, she used the extra time to visit Helix’s prefabrication shops and job sites, observing the work and interacting with workers. She learned about the forms used to place orders and the reasons errors occurred. She identified the logjams in Helix’s existing procedures. It was only after she understood the full process that Karelin went about the task of improving it.
She designed an elegant color-coded system that automatically populates purchase order forms and greatly increases the amount of work that can be prefabricated before it arrives at the work site. By plugging in the needs of a given job site, her system can efficiently and without error generate everything needed for a given box. Karelin likens it to creating an a la carte system for gym shoes. “I want the logo this color. I want it to have a non-slip sole. I want it to be leather, as opposed to canvas. I want it to have these shoestrings,” she explains. “I did that with electrical boxes.”