Training Future Operating Engineers
As part of The Rebuild SoCal Partnership’s on-going series focusing on Women in Construction, we talked to Renée Gadberry, Curriculum Inspector Instructor and Female Outreach for Operating Engineers Training Trust (OETT) Local 12. In her role, she develops curriculum, teaches classes, and trains future operating engineers to go out and work on some of the biggest projects in Southern California. (She is pictured above in the first row, wearing the plaid shirt.)
What are operating engineers?
Operating engineers are the men and women on jobsites who operate, maintain, and repair heavy construction equipment such as bulldozers, backhoes, dredging equipment, and more. They also act as special inspectors verifying the quality of construction work.
Operating engineers are members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), an AFL-CIO affiliated union that is comprised of independent Locals throughout the country. Here in SoCal, they belong to Local 12, one of the largest and most influential locals in the IUOE.
What is the Operating Engineers Training Trust?
OETT is a non-profit training facility for Local 12 members that partners with signatory contractors to facilitate a skilled workforce by providing training resources. We purchase training equipment, hire instructors, and provide a host of other educational resources that are used by both apprentices and journeypersons.
We promote becoming an operating engineer by going through the apprenticeship program. Once in the program, a coordinator places an apprentice with contractors, so they do not have to look for work. Apprentices who graduate from our program are classified as “A” listers and they get first priority for dispatches when they are out of work.
How did you get into this role?
I went to college with the thought that I would go into international business. As I progressed, I found that wasn’t for me. What I enjoyed was teaching, but I was getting into the job market during the recession during the mid-2000s. Teachers were getting pink slips. I was substitute teaching, waitressing, and tending bar to make ends meet. I learned about OETT from a friend, filled out the application, took the test in 2012 and started in 2013.
What projects have you worked on?
I worked as an apprentice inspector on the Metro Gold Line (L Line): Pasadena to Azusa; and Metro’s K Line: Crenshaw to LAX. The role of a building inspector is to do observations, inspection, testing and sampling of the soil, asphalt and concrete. Inspectors are the checks and balances; you look to see that work is done as planned.
After the hours I put in on these two projects, they were enough for me to graduate the apprentice program. After graduation, OETT offered me a position as an instructor in the training facility and I accepted.
What’s the ratio of men to women currently in the training program?
We have multiple classifications for training:
- Equipment operators: They operate forklifts, bulldozers, scrapers, and other heavy equipment as well as performing grade checking.
- Building construction inspectors: They get certified to perform inspection, testing, and sampling during phases of construction and check soil, concrete, masonry, structural steel, and welding work. They learn building code and make sure work is in compliance. Inspectors provide observation and inspection in addition to sampling and testing.
- Heavy duty mechanics: They repair and maintain all the heavy equipment in the field.
- Dredge operators: These operators run various types of heavy equipment, including cranes, near waterways and harbors to clear soil buildup and create breakwaters.
- Plant equipment operators: They use a variety of machinery in industrial settings, support plant operations, and maintain the plant.
- Rock, sand, and gravel operators: They work at sites to remove rock and gravel and recycle it for use on other projects or for other purposes.
There are currently 659 apprentices: 623 men and 36 women. A little more than 3% of women are equipment operators; another 1 to 2% are mechanics. We have just over 25% of women training as building construction inspectors.
I believe some of the reasons women gravitate toward inspection is that they see other women being successful at it and they are more inclined to handle the amount of studying involved to get the certifications.
As for the other roles, I think a lot more women would be interested if they knew what it’s all about.
I think there are misperceptions. Women — actually many men and women — think construction is for “dirty people.” Some construction work is for ditch diggers, it’s part of the job. But in addition to ditch digging, we build the infrastructure, problem solve and give back to our communities by building schools, hospitals, roads, airports and stadiums.
We are operating engineers because we take the plans the engineers create in the office and build it in real life. Many times we have to problem solve in the field what doesn’t work on paper.
Up until recently, construction wasn’t being put out there as a career goal. It was: college, college, college. Not many people were talking about the benefits of the trades and working with your hands. Our culture isn’t pushing women into these types of careers and thus, women don’t see the great opportunities. We’re often pushed into other roles that subsequently pay lower salaries.
Many women do well as inspectors and equipment operators if they have the courage to break cultural norms and get past being intimidated by the equipment and the massive projects we work on.
What do people learn in the OETT?
They learn what they need to get them working on the job. There is no cost to attend OETT. In fact, when you apply and test, 90% of the learning through the apprenticeship program happens while you are earning an hourly wage. You’re getting on-the-job training while working with Journeypeople and Operating Engineers who share their skills and craft.
We help guide, mentor, and provide training materials so members can successfully graduate the program. We provide assistance to help our members fine tune their skills and provide curriculum to assist them in continuing their professional growth as an Operating Engineer.
What people don’t recognize is that coming in as an apprentice, straight off the street not knowing a thing, you’re going to make $30 an hour plus. You can earn overtime pay after 8 hours of work, and double time after 12 hours, or for work on Sundays and holidays. And there’s a pension plan, annuity, health insurance, vacation fund, and a burial fund. There’s a lot of benefits you won’t find in other careers.
Are the women in OETT young or career changers?
Both. I came to this when I was in my late 30s. After seeing me go through, my husband switched from his former career as a hairdresser. At 47, he went through OETT. I see people in their 20s and people in their 40s. Even career changers can find something they can do well. Going through the program, you can make some major financial jumps a lot faster than if you had a corporate career.
But you’ve got to be prepared for this, not just physically but also mentally. There are some long hours. We drive to wherever the work is. It can be a challenging career. It can also be so rewarding. It can change your life.
Do you find that women are still struggling in the industry?
In a word: yes. It’s unfortunate, but it still happens. I find that 99% of men have our backs. You have to have a certain disposition and a bit of thick skin to be in this business. If you want a piece of the action, be savvy with the way you approach it. It’s not necessarily right that we have to do this to get ahead, but if you get in and you do the job, I’ve found that if you demonstrate your worth, the gender differences are put aside.
President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill includes childcare and elder care. Some people wonder what these things have to do with infrastructure. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said, “Because it matters. It is core to our competitiveness. In order for you to go to work, you need to know that your loved one is being taken care of.” Do you find it is important to women (and men) working in construction?
This career can be challenging for younger people with families, but it can be done, and you need to strategize. Someone needs to take care of the kids. There’s an Iron Workers Local in Chicago with a program to provide childcare for workers with families. I think this will continue to be the path where individual Locals have to address it. I know this is a topic in our IUOE Sisters group. It’s a challenging situation.
What changes do you see happening in the industry (and specifically in SoCal construction) in the next five years, next 10 years?
The more women we have in leadership roles, the more women there will be in the industry overall. We are walking role models whether we do outreach or not. Other women see us as the breadwinner in the family. The percentage of women in construction is never going to be huge; not every woman can do this job. Not every man can do this job. It can be very challenging work. But I think the culture is changing and there’s more emphasis on the trades. There are great opportunities for women, veterans, and career changers.
Can you share examples of some projects OETT apprentices have worked on?
Many women apprentices have worked or are working on massive SoCal projects including, the Sofi Stadium, Long Beach International Gateway Bridge (Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement Project), 405 Expansion, LAX People Mover, and all of Metro’s light rail projects.
Many of these women graduated from the program by putting in hours on these projects, much like I did. They become journeypersons. Women can kill it in this career. If you want it, you can come and get it.