Alaskan Women As Equipment Operators

Construction equipment is designed with the operator in mind. Environmental cabs, state of the art sound systems, ergonomically designed seats and controls make the operator’s station on most machines functional and comfortable. In today’s world this can be a critical factor in keeping quality operators or attracting them to start.

The day of the muscle-bound John Wayne type of “Cat Skinner” depicted in his WWII movies are long gone. Women are finding their way into the operator’s seat for a variety of reasons and construction companies and mining operations are finding them to be exceptional operators.

Ashley Wood is a good example. Although she may be a wisp of a young lady, you better not underestimate her ability to handle mega-machines on construction jobs.

The 21-year-old Soldotna, Alaska native comes by her ability to operate heavy equipment naturally.

“We grew up with equipment in our yard, so I just naturally did everything that my brothers did too,” said Wood, a student at the Alaska Operating Engineers/Employers Training Center that was built by the Operating Engineers and the Associated General Contractors, Alaska chapter, in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (Palmer) in the 1980s to prepare Alaskan workers with the skills necessary to meet the ever-changing needs of the construction industry.

Weighing in at 120 pounds and 5 feet, 2 inches tall, Ashley Wood (pictured below – photo by Rob Stapleton/AJOC ) can be found demonstrating her operating skills as she steers a 980H Caterpillar in front of a of pile of snow in the yard, skillfully raising the shovel on the loader back and forth. A Cat 980H is a 349 horsepower wheel loader the weighs a whopping 67,294 pounds and can handle a bucket with a capacity ranging from 3.8 cubic yards to 8 cubic yards. In other words, it’s big.

Wood is attending a 10-week school to learn how to operate a wide variety of construction equipment, such as forklifts, loaders, dozers, graders, backhoes and track excavators.

“The track excavator is my favorite,” said Wood. “It is the most difficult.” It is also one of the more versatile machines used on construction jobs today.

She stands out among her peers. She could be seen last summer working on the Fifth Avenue project in Anchorage, on a skate park project in Wasilla or at the Eklutna gravel pit-moving earth.

According to statistics with the Alaska Department of Labor, women made up 5 percent of the operating engineers and other construction equipment operators in 2007, the latest year statistics were available. That’s about 185 women compared to more than 3,500 men in the field. Nationally, women make up less than 3 percent of the operating engineers sector.

Wood decided to make a career out of operating heavy equipment after laying asphalt for Alaska Road Builders, based in Soldotna.

“I decided to move on up to larger equipment and to go union after realizing that if I didn’t make a change, I would be operating an asphalt roller for the rest of my life and have no benefits,” she said.

Wood enjoys the lifestyle and the challenges, as well as the work schedule that comes with operating heavy construction equipment.

“I enjoy working the summers and getting my winters to go play,” said Wood.
She loves to snowmachine and race snocross, a sport involving racing specialized high performance snowmobiles on artificially-made tracks consisting of tight turns, banked corners, steep jumps and obstacles. Riders race at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.. “A four-year college degree was not of any interest to me. I barely went to high school,” Wood added.

She says that working with a group of men is not a problem for her.

“Most of the time when there is a woman in the crew, the guys are more respectful,” said Wood. “I remember one case, after the job foreman saw how myself and another woman were working – quicker and more efficiently than some of the guys – he started coming to us for our opinion on how to get some things done. I think we had more of a say-so in the long run.”

Still, Wood says women tend to take criticism from the foremen differently. “Women take things more emotionally, take things to heart, you know, more seriously,” Wood said. “Most of the time when you get an ass-chewing by guys, it’s a thing of the moment. Later the same guy won’t even remember that he yelled at you.”

The job requires different skills and the job offers variety, according to Wood.

“While the work is hard it is also fun,” she said. “Some days you are down in a hole digging and shoveling, other days you are sitting all day, and sometimes you move dirt for three weeks.

“I would say that the most important aspect of this career to me now is how to continue my lifestyle of working summers and getting the winter to play, and to have good healthcare benefits,” said Wood.

The apprentice training coordinator, Betty Jo Dibble, said the training center offers a lot for entry-level aspiring equipment operators, and the schedule is accommodating. Most classes are held over a 10-week period during the winter and spring, before the construction season starts up.

The apprentice training center offers classes for heavy equipment operator, heavy equipment mechanic, heavy equipment service oiler and basic equipment training, all at no cost to the apprentice.

The Alaska Apprenticeship Training Coordinators Association (AATCA) recognizes the importance of training a workforce to help meet Alaska’s needs today and in the growing needs of the future. Alaska’s construction industry has experienced a steady growth in recent years and a 15.7% growth rate is predicted through 2012.

“The selection process is very competitive,” said Dibble.

Starting wage for an apprentice is $21.62 per hour the first year. After every 1,000 hours of work experience, the wage goes up 10 percent, according to Dibble. After 6,000 hours are reached, the apprentice becomes a journeyman with a wage of $36.19 per hour.

In the lower 48, just before the economic crunch, a number of construction companies were having problems finding and keeping good employees. The smart ones started looking for women operators and were more than happy with the results.

I remember in the late 70’s, while covering the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, a couple of the contractors pointed out the fact that they had women operators. The three managers I interviewed made basically the same comments, “They were great operators; took better care of the equipment; and never pushed it beyond its
limits.” Adding, “And they put in a full day without complaining.” Point to remember, this was before today’s comfort cabs with ergonomic enhancements.

Greg Sitek

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