The Women of Operating Engineers 324

Operating Engineers 324, based out of Howell, Michigan, has been serving its union members for over 100 years. They now boast 14,000 members as they help build Michigan’s future. We had a unique opportunity to meet with some of the sisterhood. Join us as we introduce you to some of OE 324’s best.

Operating Engineers / Crafted in Carhartt
Ashley English, Elizabeth Kavanagh, and Ashley Cole

“The training center is an awesome facility and the instructors are amazing. An obstacle I faced in the beginning of my apprenticeship was that I was nervous to operate equipment in front of people. I thought I was going to get made fun of or people would judge me. But I got support from all of the instructors and other apprentices. Everyone has always been very helpful and supportive.

My mom and dad are both in the trades, so it has always been a part of my life. My mom is in the UAW but she is also an operator for Ford Motor Company and my dad is a lineman in the IBEW Local 17. I went to college for a year and was not interested in going back, so I started looking into different trades.

I got into the Operating Engineers when I was 20, so this is my first career. I think the best part of my job is that I love what I do. I love meeting new people. I also enjoy being able to work outside all day.

I think any young woman that wants to get in the trades should go for it. You can always change what you do. If you think you are interested, give it a shot. You can’t tell if you like it or not if you don’t try.” -Elizabeth Kavanagh

Operating Engineers / Crafted in Carhartt
Ashley English

“I love the amazing view of the world in the mornings, the chatter between my coworkers, but above all–the FREEDOM of the culture within the field. There are no hair restrictions, not many handbooks, and we take care of each other whether we want to or not.” -La’Tasha Smith (pictured below)

Operating Engineers / Crafted in Carhartt
Ashley Cole and La’Tahsa Smith

Crane Operator Apprentice, Jessica Knight (pictured below), has been a part of Local 324 for 3 years. Before that, she served in Heavy Equipment Construction through the Army Reserves for 18 years.

“I love the fact that I walked into both the Army and the Union with an open mind and wide eyes. I feel like I have a better chance at my own personal success. Being a woman, you have to have thick skin. If you can dish it, be ready to take it. And be open minded.

I’m helping rebuild Michigan. And showing women we got what it takes. Sometimes, you get guys who think you’re a princess. They might stare if you’re curvy, and talk about you behind your back. And you know what? I’m fine with that. Keep talking, because I’m doing my job right, so that you can run your mouth.” -Jessica Knight

“I do not keep my head down. I make others know my presence at work. I befriend my coworkers of all trades. We are here for one common goal: finish the job and go home safely.” -Jessica Knight

Operating Engineers / Crafted in Carhartt
Jessica Knight, climbing to position in a crane

“I am an Oiler. I learn to maintain the crane I am assigned to. I do my best to keep the cranes clear of debris, fluids topped off, and constant overview of the crane while in operation so that the Primary Operator can do their job…

Never be afraid to look at any piece of equipment and say, ‘Yeah, I want to learn this!’ Give ‘em hell ladies!” -Jessica Knight

Operating Engineers / Crafted in CarharttChristi Smtih (pictured above) has over 21 years of experience as an Operating Engineer. She was in construction before joining the trades and wishes she had joined right after graduating from high school. Her goal is to work 35 years and retire at a young age. Before she does that, she plans on working as hard as she can, to the very last.

Christi loves her job for many reasons. But at the end of the day, she loves getting paid to play in the dirt. Even though she’s certified to operate many different pieces of equipment, like the overhead crane, she has a few favorite machines: the side boom, forklift, and skid loader. Those are the machines that are always moving.

“I’m not a one piece of equipment kind of gal. I like being more versatile. It makes you more employable.” -Christi Smith

Over the coarse of her career, she’s seen many changes. More and more women are joining the trades and more and more folks are accepting that. She notes that the worksite has become a safer place as well—putting the common good over a quick build.

Christi is certain that the best move she ever made in her life was joining OE 324. She couldn’t be more proud to be part of a union.

“You work with a lot of great people on great jobs. And you always have a support system. The union takes care of you, keeping up to date with technology and providing a place where you can improve your skills. You’re a part of a group of people who are proud of their work and what they do.” -Christi Smith

Operating Engineers / Crafted in Carhartt

After graduating from her apprenticeship, La’Tasha Smith (pictured above) will be a Journeyman Civil Engineer. She is currently a second year apprentice with no previous experience in the field.

“Honesty, I never had any interest in the trades. I went to a career fair and one of the female coordinators approached me and was able to convince me to give it a shot.

I was 28 and broken—lost, homeless, and defeated!! Life had run me over with a truck and backed up to finish the job!! I felt hopeless. So I told her that there was no way I’d ever make it into that career, especially with no experience!! But she was convinced I could, and I actually did!

The training is very intimidating and fast paced. The obstacles I faced were being able to quickly adapt to the new career culture which is made up of predominantly males, learning new machines quickly and safely, remembering all the rules and regulations, schedule changes, and weather conditions affecting work.

I stayed connected to other women in the trade at my company. I asked as many questions as I needed to…

Do the legwork. Educate yourself as much as possible and stay teachable.” -La’Tasha Smith

Operating Engineers / Crafted in CarharttAshley O’Grady (pictured below) works under the Road Builders Contract, which covers heavy highways, bridges, and airport work. Currently, she’s on a concrete paving crew. She has 4 years of experience.

“I went through the operators apprenticeship program. The training from that gave me the confidence and skills I needed to be successful in the field. I have found support in all my brothers and sisters I’ve met through my union… I feel a great sense of pride when I get to see the finished product, knowing I played a big role helping build it.” -Ashley O’Grady

Operating Engineers / Crafted in CarharttAshley was interested in the trades because she knew she could be successful and make good wages without going to college. If she had known how much she’d love the work, she would have joined even sooner. The long hours have been the most trying part of the job, but the sense of brother/sisterhood, along with great health care, benefits, and a pension make it all worth it.

“I feel like construction workers have a bad stigma sometimes. I wish people actually knew how serious skilled trades are and how successful you can be.” 
-Ashley O’Grady

Ashley hopes to expand her skill set, continuing to learn different equipment. There are endless opportunities and paths you can take as an operator. She wants to be as versatile and experienced as she possibly can.

Operating Engineers / Crafted in Carhartt
Danielle Athey

Danielle Athey’s interest in the trades soared when she discovered she could travel through work and start her career while training, all without taking out loans for school. She currently works on the pipeline and has one more year left of her apprenticeship. Danielle’s been busy, particularly this past winter, taking class after class, making sure she is as educated as she can be.

“In one year, I see myself getting close to graduating the apprenticeship and eventually becoming a journeyman. In five years, I see myself traveling the country with my work. In ten years, I hope by then I have my own house and property…

My advice is don’t be afraid of anything. Have confidence and don’t ever think you can’t ask for help. The support from my coworkers helped me more than anything.” -Danielle Athey

Operating Engineers / Crafted in Carhartt
Elizabeth Kavanagh

“Being in a union is a good thing. They will have your back. Also, I joined when I was 20, so I started getting benefits and started my pension before most people my age. Sometimes it is hard work, but it can be very rewarding in the future.” -Elizabeth Kavanagh

Operating Engineers / Crafted in CarharttOperating Engineers / Crafted in CarharttTo find out more about joining Operating Engineers 324, click here.
To shop  favorite Carhartt gear, now available in hardworking new sizes from XS to 3X, click here.

Mother-Daughter Ironworkers, Carolina and Kat in Seattle

Carolina Taylor has been an Ironworker for the past 22 years.

That statement is loaded with accomplishment. In the 1990s, becoming an Ironworker as a woman was no easy feat. How did Carolina pave that road for herself?

cicCAROLINAandKAT27

It started with a road trip, an 18 hour quest up the West Coast from Los Angeles to Seattle. Carolina packed all of her belongings into her ’65 Galaxy with her daughter, Kat, as her copilot. She searched for a job that would provide for her and Kat—but all the “female” jobs like clerk typist, medical translator, or assistant tax accountant paid very little and offered no benefits.

A friend of Carolina’s who worked on highway construction suggested she check out a new program at Renton Technical College that offered good wages and benefits. She signed up immediately. After seeing The Space Needle as an example of what Ironworkers could do, Carolina realized her calling. She wanted to be one of “The Cowboys of the Sky.”

The beginning of Carolina’s career had its obstacles. Her car gave out, and she had to wake up early every morning to ride the bus to work, often rising several hours before her work day began so she could drop her daughter off at day care.

“On the job training began when I first stepped on the job site. It was mental and physical. All my senses were on high alert to make sure what tasks I did were done well and showed that I wanted to be there and that I belonged there.

As an apprentice, I was the only women in the gang… My arrival on the job site meant behavior change. (ie: taking down calendars with naked women, using different language, stepping out of comfort zones, etc…)

Did I work my fair share? Was I worth the trouble?

I remember the sticker on a hard hat that said, ‘I won’t work with someone who squats to piss!’

I walked tall and fearless, focused on learning to work safe and efficient to make it another day and provide for my daughter. I gave no one permission to break me or make me feel like I did not belong there.” -Carolina Taylor

With such a hardworking mom as her example, Kat grew up to be self-sufficient. Obstacles weren’t so daunting—she had living proof of what was possible watching her mom overcome her own hardships.

It wasn’t until after Kat attended her first orientation that she told her mother that she too wanted to be an Ironworker. Carolina felt a rush of colliding emotions when she heard the news.

“I know what it’s like out there. So many feelings…proud, excited for her. I know she is capable of working in the field in a safe manner, however as her mother, I had to prepare myself in the event she got hurt. Being in the same union eased the fact that even though I was not working in the field with her, my brothers in the field that did work with her would let me know how she was doing and would keep an eye on her.” -Carolina Taylor

Mother Daughter Ironworkers, Carolina and Kat / Crafted in CarharttMother Daughter Ironworkers, Carolina and Kat / Crafted in CarharttMother Daughter Ironworkers, Carolina and Kat / Crafted in CarharttMother Daughter Ironworkers, Carolina and Kat / Crafted in CarharttThe Taylor women have come full circle in their work and personal lives. Carolina, who began her career after seeing how the Space Needle was built, worked on the recent remodeling of the structure. Kat became a Jorneyman Ironworker in 2018 and is now herself a loving mother and a first time homeowner.

Mother Daughter Ironworkers, Carolina and Kat / Crafted in CarharttMother Daughter Ironworkers, Carolina and Kat / Crafted in CarharttMother-Daughter Ironworkers / Crafted in Carhartt

Ironworker Carolina Taylor’s Advice for Aspiring Tradespeople:

  • take good care of yourself
  • spend quality time with your family
  • continue making goals to achieve the next positions as a union member (ie: business agent, organizer, union president, apprenticeship instructor, coordinator)
  • be a dream-chaser, goal-reacher, and butt-kicker

Carolina has taken her own advice, advancing her career as she kept her goals in mind. In 2013, she was asked to be an apprenticeship instructor, teaching fundamental trade skills to pre-apprentices and 1st year apprentices. In 2015, she was named Tradeswoman of the Year by Washington Women In Trades. Right now, she teaches a welding class for TERO (Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance) for Yakama Nation in Toppenish.

On top of it all, Carolina still works in the field, building the city she lives in, tapping into her inner strength and original intention for being on the job site in the first place. It is still a thrill to see the transformation generated by her own two hands, working together with the crew she now sees as part of the family.

Mother Daughter Ironworkers, Carolina and Kat / Crafted in Carhartt
Building beautiful cities like Seattle would be impossible without Ironworkers like Carolina and Kat.

If Carloina’s sacrifices and strength remind you of your mom, share this story with her and thank her for everything she’s done.