She Builds California: Q&A with Operating Engineer, Melanie Baker
Melanie Baker is a journeyperson operating engineer with one of our Build California champions, Teichert Construction, and with Operating Engineers (OE) Local 3. March’s focuses were on operating engineers and Women’s History Month, so Melanie was the perfect person for our latest Q&A.
We connected with Melanie to talk about her experience as an operating engineer, misconceptions about the trade, advice for women looking to join the industry, and more. Read on for her insight!
Q: What drew you to this career path?
A: It came in stages. When I was a teenager, I started spending summer vacations at my uncle’s ranch and learned to operate his diesel-powered loader and other types of mechanized farm equipment. The exposure to a farmer’s living and active involvement in all the agricultural chores that his ranch required strongly influenced my passion for heavy equipment and the outdoors. I was also very fortunate to meet amazing mentors along the way that noticed my natural instincts, encouraged me to pursue a career in this industry, and convinced me that not only I would like it, but that I would also excel at it. The rest is history!
Q: What is your favorite part about being an operating engineer?
A: There are several things that I enjoy about my job as an operating engineer. The most important one is that I am getting paid to play in the dirt! I enjoy the physical aspect of my job and being able to work outdoors alongside a great and knowledgeable crew that are proud of their work and what they do.
It is also very empowering. Operating and moving large equipment and material around the job site and watching a project go from bare hillside areas to a finished infrastructure that people use every day — it gives me a great sense of pride knowing I played a role in helping build it. Every day is different and there is always a new project, a new site, or a new piece of equipment, which gives me the opportunity to learn something new every day and diversify my skills. And let’s not forget the benefits and paycheck.
Q: What is something interesting most people might not know about operating engineers?
A: There is more to this job than pushing dirt! I think this type of work has a stigma sometimes. There is a level of knowledge and expertise that is needed to do this job that requires going from apprentice to journeyman to master, and with each of these steps comes more learning, training, gaining appropriate experience, remembering all the rules, regulations, and safety measures in addition to schedule changes and weather conditions affecting the work. You have to be willing to work hard and put in the hours, as some projects can’t stop until they’re finished.
The thrill of operating construction equipment has never worn off — there is nothing like the adrenaline rush breaking over a hill.
Q: What are some misconceptions surrounding the trade?
A: There’s a misconception that you can’t make enough money in this job. It’s likely because skilled trades are sometimes not considered a real career because a college education is not required, and we’ve been taught that the only path to success is via a four-year degree.
Also, there’s the perception that heavy equipment operators’ jobs do not pay well, and that there is no place for women in this line of work as it may be considered a man’s job. Obviously, that has not been the case in my situation, and I’ve always encountered a fair shake when I get to a job site, and I am treated just like the rest of the crew. Both men and women can make a career in this field that can be very rewarding and stable.
There is always going to be a need for operating engineers, as construction is booming everywhere with heavy equipment operators playing a big role as the first people on a construction job and the last off. The union takes care of you and provides a safe environment where you can improve your skills leading to more career opportunities.
Q: What advice do you have for young women trying to get into the industry?
A: I personally like being a female in a [predominantly] male industry because I’m able to show that I can do it too. I want other women to know that they are a positive force in this, and any industry and that opportunities for women are as open as they are for men at Teichert. Pursue your options not as a woman but as an individual who has a desire to do the work because gender is not a measure of success in this industry — what you can do and deliver will be your identity, and it’s as simple as that.
In the past, opportunities, or information, for women about non-traditional career paths were not available, and women may not have considered this type of work as an option because it was a predominantly male-dominated workforce. Times are changing and many companies are seeking to diversify the workplace, and OE3 provides access to various types of training opportunities. If they enjoy a challenge and working as a team, or if they like working outdoors and don’t mind getting dirty, then a career in this industry may be a great fit for them. Find a mentor or role model, learn as much as possible, do the legwork, and stay teachable. If I can do it, they can do it!
Q: What was a project that you were really excited to work on/complete?
A: Moving large equipment and material around job sites is exciting to me. One of the best parts of being an operating engineer is variety. You’re not doing the same thing every day, and if you are, it will be on a different site and/or with a different area of dirt. I personally enjoy the projects that allow me to operate a new piece of equipment and bring on the challenge that goes along with hands-on learning. It gives me satisfaction to expand my flexibility and expertise while on the job site. The thrill of operating construction equipment has never worn off — there is nothing like the adrenaline rush of breaking over a hill.
Q: What was an unexpected skill you picked up in becoming an operating engineer?
A: It is not just about playing with ‘big toys’ in the dirt. A mistake could cause serious injury or be very expensive. With any construction project, it is an ongoing process to prioritize safety and quickly react in response to issues that arise in a fast-paced environment. Operators are in charge of very expensive equipment, and the knowledge and skills on how to complete the job correctly and safely are key.
Some of the important skills I’ve learned are to mitigate and reduce hazards. From visualizing target points, responding to different signals, and positioning machinery accurately, to identifying when a piece of equipment needs maintenance or is not working properly. There is always something new to learn and figure out about the rules of the road and becoming familiar with all the different types of equipment. Also, I am no longer intimidated by the big machines. Now, I look at any new piece of equipment and tell myself, “Yes! I want to learn this.”
So, are you ready to start your journey in construction? Want to help us continue making the industry a place for all? Get started in your construction journey and check out career options today!