Q&A With Caterpillar Women in Construction CTL Skills Test Winner

Kenzi Tackette, operator for Beaver Excavating in Canton, Ohio, shares her construction journey and ways to welcome more women to the industry.

Tackette accepts the award for the best CTL operator
Tackette accepts the award for the best CTL operator
Lori Ditoro

Kenzi Tackette was one of 18 women who competed in three skills tests at the Caterpillar Celebrating Women in Construction event. She was second overall and won the compact track loader (CTL) skill test. She took the time to talk with the Equipment Today team and share her journey in the industry and some of the joys and challenges of being a woman on a jobsite. Check out the Q&A for more.

How did you choose construction and operating as your career?

I started construction in high school. I took carpentry at my local vocational school and graduated during the recession. I applied to the carpenters union, but they make you find your own work. At that time no one was working, and most were laid off. I have one uncle who became an operating engineer after a bad fall working as a carpenter. He told me that if I still thought construction was my calling, I should apply the next time they [took] applications, and that’s what I did.

The pipeline was about to take off, and as an operator, your union hall finds the job for you! I was accepted into the apprenticeship after passing their tests and interview. Once I sat in that seat, though, I knew it was going to be a great ride. Here I am 12 years later loving my job and waiting to see what big piece of machinery I’ll get to run next! 

How many people in your family worked in the trades?

All the men in my family have been tradesmen (carpenters for Local 200 [in] Columbus, Ohio)—my great-great-grandfather and all five of his boys. My grandpa, the youngest of the five, even spent time as a business agent. I have two uncles on that side [who] are carpenters as well. [These are all] on my mom’s side of the family. All her male cousins are tradesmen too ...

My father and his three brothers are carpenters. My dad, the youngest, is the only one left to retire. One of his brothers switched from the carpenter’s to the operator’s union after an accident left him unable to stand for long periods. That’s how I found out there is a union for people who only want to operate machines.

 So, when I said there’s a bunch of tradesmen in my family tree, I wasn’t lying! I’m just the only girl, but maybe that will change with my niece or a cousin.

What company are you with, and what type work do you do?

I work for Beaver Excavating out of Canton, Ohio. I’ve worked in landfills mostly, building the cells to hold waste, but [Beaver Excavating does] a variety of work from small jobs like substation pads to highways and schools.

During the panel, you said your favorite tech is Earthworks. Why do you love Earthworks so much?

I love the new Earthworks system because it’s so self-explanatory. If you don’t know what a specific feature does, you can touch the information button on the screen, and it walks you through the steps of how it works. It’s connected to the internet so you can figure a lot out by yourself without having to [ask] a coworker for a tutorial.

I like the fact that the project is visible in 3D. You can look at the job on your screen and see the work you're building instead of having to imagine it in your head, although you should still be doing that! You have to have an idea of the finished product, or your job will be 100 times harder if you can’t picture [it]!

I like that you can build an entire project from the seat of your machine or change certain things to make your job easier. No more waiting on the office. Now, we have the option to put in more than two points like the old systems and build all kinds of neat things. 

It’s just overall easier to have a machine with Earthworks. I know some of the old timers don’t like learning this new stuff, but for us younger guys who were born with technology … in our face from a young age, it’s so helpful! Who says the older generation can’t learn something from us? Just ask and we will help!

You won the compact track loader competition. Why is that one of your favorite pieces of equipment?

Tackette with the skills test winners; (left to right) small hydraulic excavator winner Azaria Biven, overall winner and wheel loader winner Kait Burds, and compact track loader winner TacketteTackette with the skills test winners; (left to right) small hydraulic excavator winner Azaria Biven, overall winner and wheel loader winner Kait Burds, and compact track loader winner TacketteI love [it] because it’s the tiny version of my favorite machine, a loader. I love it because it’s a versatile machine. If you have a skid steer [or compact track loader] you can do all kinds of stuff: bush hog the field, clear the bigger stuff with your thumb bucket, dig holes with the excavator attachment or your bucket, grade with the grader attachment and put the finishing touches on before packing up and heading out. All with a single machine and a few attachments on one trailer.

I love being the utility operator on a job because you get to do [different] jobs for various trades and you’re everyone’s favorite person because you help them with the heavy lifting. If I could be the skid steer/loader/forklift operator on every job, I’d be in heaven.

Are there any issues that you must deal with that contractors should know and think about when the bring women onto the jobsite?

Not that I’ve personally had to deal with recently. I work for a great company that will do what they’re asked to make my job easier or more convenient for me. PPE has gotten a lot better over the years, and our safety supervisor orders extra small gloves and vests for herself and those of us with smaller hands. She’s great!

I no longer have to look for men's boots with tread because there are a lot more companies making women’s boots now, and they realize we’re not just walking on concrete or pavement. Up until about 3 to 4 years ago, it was nearly impossible to find a good women’s boot with soles that weren’t slick Southern Ohio clay is slippery!

I would love to see an American company make maternity workwear that’s affordable. There are a few companies that do, but the jeans are [more than] $100 for something that’s only worn for a few months. The companies in Canada or Australia that make them charge outrageous shipping, and the items can’t be tried on, so if they don’t fit it costs even more to return them.

What are some ways to get women interested in operating and construction jobs?

I think that we need to host more career days where they can try the machines and see what sitting in the seat feels like. Our union does an event called SheDig, and it’s just for young girls. It’s been a great way to bring in more women!

We need to break the [negative] myth [around] male construction workers. I’ve met some of the best people I know at work. They would do anything for anyone and are the exact opposite of what TV portrays them to be. I’ve been asked so many times what awful things I’ve had said to me on the job, and to be honest, in 12 years I’ve had one incident.

I also think a general support system of other women who’ve worked in the field would be a huge help! I’ve been trying to start this at our training facility but, it’s hard because they don’t want to seem sexiest towards men. I think if we just had a website or app where we could log in and find another friend in the area to talk to, that would be awesome. Like Tinder but for women in construction to talk about the day if it’s been a rough one. I’m lucky to have a few friends who’ve been doing this for years before me. But I’ve also had a lot of apprentices come to me because they don’t know who to ask, and I’m one of the few journey(wo)men they know.

Is there anything else our readers should know about women working in the field?

Befriend us. It’s so hard being the new person onsite, and it’s even harder being the new “girl” onsite. We just want to be friends and coworkers and not have to feel awkward eating lunch alone for the first month while everyone figures out if we’re okay to talk to.