The Women of Operating Engineers 324
Updated: Sep 20
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. I had a unique opportunity to meet with some of the sisterhood. Join me as I introduce you to some of OE 324’s best.
Ashley English, Elizabeth Kavanagh, and Ashley Cole
“The training center is an awesome facility and the instructors are amazing. In the beginning of my apprenticeship, 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
“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
Ashley Cole and La’Tasha Smith
Crane Operator Apprentice, Jessica Knight, 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
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
Christi Smith 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
After graduating from her apprenticeship, La’Tasha Smith 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
Ashley O’Grady 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
Ashley 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 sisterhood, along with great healthcare, 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.
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
“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
To find out more about joining Operating Engineers 324, click here.