Heavy Equipment Operators Award – Women Dig Deep, Showing Their Grit
We know that women have an innate and enormous capacity to persevere and rise to any occasion. With the first inaugural winners of the Women Heavy Equipment Operator awards, they’ve persisted against the odds, and they’ve done it adroitly, with care, precision, stalwartness, meticulousness, and an openness to continual learning that keeps them at the top of their game—and safe in hazardous construction and mining jobs.
These women play a key role in our economic growth, too. The demand for construction and mining output is rapidly outpacing the growth of equipment operators. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, www.bea.gov, Washington, D.C., estimates the operators’ numbers will need to grow to 417,100 in the year 2026—seven years from now. We need more women to dig deep and join the ranks to operate heavy equipment on construction and mining jobs.
At the same time, roughly 91% of contractors, builders, and trades have trouble finding skilled construction-site workers, according to the latest index produced by USG Corp., www.usg.com, Chicago, Ill., and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, www.uschamber.com, Washington, D.C. And that’s with the dollar value of U.S. construction work pegged at roughly $1.3 billion, reports the U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov, Washington, D.C.
Underpinning this economic engine are the people who get the job done every day, ensuring it’s done right, it’s done safely, and with the latest in technological innovation.
The first annual Women Heavy Equipment Operator winners were nominated by their peers and are chosen based on the nominees’ machine ability, mechanical aptitude, and how the individual embraces technology.
Judges also took into consideration how many hours each candidate worked without a recordable incident, mentorship skills, and the challenges that each individual has had to overcome to make their mark within their mining and construction companies today.
Our awardees are truly remarkable women, not just because they thrive within the mining and construction industries that have been dominated by men for centuries, but because of who they are as human beings and how they view the future of work in construction. Please help us celebrate the first annual Women Heavy Equipment Operator winners.
By Peggy Smedley, Laura Black, and Sandra Guy
Though Kirsten Anderson has built a reputation of excellent heavy equipment operation for 24 years, it’s her resilience and her willingness to mentor others that shines through. Anderson’s patience is called astounding. And that’s a word she deserves.
She has overcome domestic violence, difficulties at work with discrimination, a devastating house fire that was sparked by a wildfire that swept through Fort McMurray in Alta., Canada, and destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings; and the short-term paralysis and slow recovery of her 19-year-old daughter following a car accident last year.
Her patience is described as “astounding, actually.” Anderson also is known for excellence in teaching and mentoring—skills that she keeps up-to-date by being open to learning about new technologies and state-of-the-art equipment processes.
Anderson’s expertise is particularly apparent when she explains, in detail, machinery break-downs. Her reputation is one of meticulousness—in everything she does. Details matter; and her extreme detail-oriented nature frees her time to accomplish what matters most on a project.
She demonstrates her dexterity in operating a variety of complex machines. Her colleagues praise her amazing skill at PC 8000 Komatsu shovel—the biggest hydraulic shovel built, requiring the power of two 2,010-horsepower diesel engines to run.
As a result, Anderson is a highly sought-after operator in mining and other companies in the Northern Alberta region.
Connelly Crane Rental
Sarah Emig demonstrates her athletic leadership—she was a first-year captain of her NCAA college hockey team—as an operating engineer. Whether she’s running a tele-forklift—equipment similar to a forklift, but with a boom like a crane—or a 230-ton crawler with a boom and jib combo, Emig demonstrates a willingness to lead, help, and learn.
All the while, she’s worked as an apprentice operator on machines ranging from a 110-ton LinkBelt crawler with a boom and jib combination, to a Kobelco 160-ton crawler with a luffing attachment and boom and jib combo.
She does her homework too. She’s more than willing to break out the operator’s manual to understand the differences mechanically of each machine.
She’s learned to interpret load charts, and to adapt to different job environments so that she operates machinery safely and efficiently.
Emig’s athleticism, stamina, and positive leadership enabled her to work long hours and endure physical labor—all while outdoors in Michigan’s harsh weather.
Her uplifting attitude and enthusiasm to excel has led Emig to an enviable safety record—4,790 hours without an accident. Emig has time for a life outside of the worksite, too. She coaches youth hockey—and the players truly look up to her.
TC Construction Co., Inc.
Linda Gerdon, an equipment operator and Teamster member, epitomizes the words “unstoppable” and “true warrior.” In fact, the foremen at TC Construction Co., Inc., headquartered in Santee, Calif., praise Gerdon for outworking most men.
She’s logged some 15 years operating trucks and seven years on other construction equipment, such as loaders and skid steers. And yet, it’s what Gerdon does with her work ethic that matters most. She sees tough situations as opportunities to learn and improve, and takes the lead when working with new or less experienced people.
Gerdon is mindful of how using equipment relates to safety, maintenance, and jobsite workflow. Her insights stem from her ability to heartily and skillfully embrace all aspects of construction technology as well as discern its importance to project safety, productivity, and overhead.
She also leverages her technological savvy to demonstrate excellent trouble-shooting skills. In fact, supervisors call her “a very smart and capable sponge.”
Yet Gerdon never gloats or sits on her laurels. She never stops assessing her status as it relates to the overall job flow; she communicates with other employees to account for changing dynamics; and, all the while, remains focused.
That’s because she understands the importance of paying attention to the small issues so they don’t end up being big ones.
Granite Construction Northeast
Kristen Hand’s intensity and devotion to becoming an operating engineer prompted her to leave a secure, full-time job as a law firm’s office manager.
She had to start as an apprentice, wait six months to find out that she had been accepted into the IUOE (Intl. Union of Operation Engineers) Local 15; and undergo six months of training with the Nontraditional Employment for Women organization.
Yet Hand’s on-the-job training steadily grew, and she demonstrated her mechanical aptitude by becoming proficient in welding, operating equipment, fixing small tools, and helping dismantle a crane.
Now a 10-year veteran on the job at Granite Construction Northeast Inc., Hand readily embraces technology, and recognizes how technological advancements let her do her job more efficiently.
Hand also wins plaudits for her attention to detail and for being a positive role model whose enthusiasm builds trust
and enables her to help others identify realistic goals.
She’s open to giving and receiving constructive feedback, sets and meets personal and professional goals, and, like most high achievers, she values others’ opinions and is respected in return. They just don’t get much better than her on and off the jobsite.
LCI-Lineberger Construction Inc.
Mikayla Smith, a foreman and heavy equipment operator for LCI-Lineberger Construction Inc., is known as a “firecracker” for her energy and leadership abilities.
Smith eagerly accepts the challenges of managing her crew. She’s diligent and committed to the skills that are required to run a productive team.
Her specialty is her attention to detail—a vital ingredient in her daily tasks of assessing the worksite and the equipment, reviewing construction drawings and partnering with quality control. All the while, Smith remains focused on the finished product.
As an equipment operator, Smith quickly identifies equipment malfunctions and makes minor repairs and adjustments. Indeed, her mechanical aptitude comes through clearly in the way she operates complicated heavy construction equipment.
Smith also has proven to be technologically savvy. She uses an iPad and construction software to track job costs and to project progress, materials, and employee time.
New hires are fortunate to learn from Smith, since she is a key part of the company’s mentoring program.
The program not only teaches new employees to manage their work, but additionally provides counseling and serves as a resource for questions and helping newcomers acclimate to the workplace.
Being a single parent working long hours, and sometimes for as many as 10 days away from home in a male-dominated industry, could easily make for exhaustion and negativity. But heavy equipment operator Terry Stacey has turned her seven-year experience working 12-hour to 13-hour days and on jobs away from home into opportunities to lead and mentor others.
After Stacey earned a four-year scholarship from the Steelworkers union to become a leadership mentor, she facilitated courses for her fellow steelworkers for four years throughout western Canada. Stacey also mentored new drivers on-site for both Sunhills Mining and Imperial Oil.
Yet she also can laugh at herself when she describes her biggest initial challenge. At 5-feet tall and weighing 110 pounds, Stacey spent quite a bit of time—unknowingly as her coworkers watched—figuring out how to lift 40-pound chock blocks over her head to place them on the bars at the front of her truck’s bumper.
Stacey now has racked up years of experience on construction equipment ranging from Cat trucks to a Liebherr mining truck.
Additionally, she loves the challenge of new tasks on the worksite. As Stacey explains it herself, “My glass is neither half empty nor half full. It’s always overflowing.”
Rachel Contracting Inc.
A 20-year veteran as a heavy-equipment operator, Debra Thompson has gained a reputation as one of the best in processing concrete, bundling rebar, and sorting iron.
As a result, Thompson often gets recognition from other members on a project for her ability to make a hard task look easy.
Thompson, who works for Rachel Contracting Inc., based in St. Michael, Minn., can spend as much as 10 to 12 hours a day as a demolition excavator, but that doesn’t stop her from offering to help others. Her other strengths include changing out excavator hoses and attachments, cleaning out air filters, adding fluids, and understanding the machine for possible failures before they occur.
Thompson’s skills stem from her ability to focus on the basics: be as productive as possible. That means be on time and make sure each task is helping get the project to completion. Her primary objective is to be safe and assist others to achieve their daily tasks. She recognizes that it’s imperative to ask as many questions as possible when the team doesn’t understand the task at hand. She understands the value of seeking direction to achieve the necessary objective rather than to cost time and money by not knowing, resulting in unnecessary downtime.
Thompson layers onto those basics by staying open to trying new technologies that will improve a project’s production and efficiency.
And, to top it off, Thompson is a stickler for neatness. She’s known for ensuring that all rebar and concrete are sorted in neat piles and ready for crushing without additional work, and she’s often on one jobsite directing others to ensure the jobsite is lean, mean, and clean.
Kathy Tuccaro has served as a mentor not only to new hires at the mining site, but also spending countless hours on her personal time helping people around the world who are struggling with homelessness and mental-health issues.
Tuccaro combines her five-and-a-half years’ experience at Imperial Oil operating heavy haul trucks with a sense of humility and fun. She’s known among her peers and friends for trying to make others laugh, even, at times, wearing funny hats or costumes to achieve the task at hand, even at the mine.
She is also very sincere and serious when it comes to work and people. She has traveled around the world helping underprivileged children and women who suffer from domestic and sexual abuse, as well as women incarcerated in prisons.
With the same tenacity, Tuccaro has never let any challenge hinder her progress on the worksite and you have to be when driving a 400-ton payload capacity 797F Caterpillar mining truck.
What makes Kathy stand out is that she avidly learns new technology with ease and grace. In fact, on the jobsite, Tuccaro is known for touting that she drives not only the largest truck Cat produces, but the biggest mechanical-drive mining truck in the world. But what matters most to her on the job is that she is revered as being a safe and reliable machine operator who pays attention to details, follows all procedures and protocols, and asks questions when needed.
She is open, honest, to the point, respects her coworkers, and exudes an integrity that ensures she does the right thing and gets the job done to the highest level.
Senior Operator Maintainer
Iron Ore Co. of Canada
Kimberly Tuttauk went from having to overcome her male coworkers’ objections for the chance to run a grader to making history by being the first mom to help her daughter on a haul truck at a Rio Tinto worksite.
That’s an appropriate outcome for Tuttauk, a senior operator maintainer for Iron Ore Company of Canada with 14 years of experience. She prides herself on explaining to others the job that needs to be done—even drawing pictures for trainees and patiently making sure to answer their questions. But Tuttauk also openly embraces learning. She reads manuals, asks questions, asks co-workers’ advice, and wants to never stop learning.
She also works with her colleagues’ goals in mind. So while working on a grader, she’s careful to remove obstacles for the haul trucks; on a dozer, she’s thoughtful not to leave dirt too thick for the grader coming behind her; and while working with a rubber tire, she pushes the dirt where the shovel can reach it.
In a few words, Tuttauk is a true team player—and she’s been hired for every job for which she’s been interviewed. So for Tuttauk, that’s where the rubber meets the road for hard work and dedication.
Cindy Van Marter
Transportation Craft Recruiter
Sundt Construction Inc.
Cindy Van Marter is a true maverick and pathbreaker for women in construction, having stood strong against sexism, bullying, and sexual harassment, when she started operating heavy equipment 26 years ago.
More than a quarter century later, Van Marter still gets excited to be part of an industry where she can use her knowledge, skills, and experience to help build and construct dams, canals, highways, treatment plants, and mining operations, and more.
Van Marter loves working outside and seeing a finished project that she played a part in—and with her years of experience she played an integral part in many aspects of the construction process. She’s proficient on 11 pieces of heavy equipment, ranging from excavators to loaders to backhoes and forklifts to a rough motor grader.
Today in her role as transportation craft recruiter at Tucson, Ariz.-based Sundt Construction Inc., Van Marter is known for being organized and planning her work in the most safe and efficient way to get the job done.
Her thorough understanding of what the equipment is designed to do enables her to recognize when equipment needs repair or is operating incorrectly.
Yet she’s always eager to learn, remains open to technological advancements, and keeps learning to stay competitive. Her competence shines through in her ability to operate several different pieces of equipment in a single day, smoothly, quickly, and safely—as well as climbing up and down steep slopes with an excavator. It’s all about doing the job right the first time, and Van Marter is greatly admired for doing so.