Bright future for female crane drivers

  • Four of Laing O'Rourke's female crane operators tell their stories
  • All have come through the company's apprenticeship scheme
  • Technical Director Sarah Williamson sees a bright future ahead for women in the industry

From left to right: Casey Elsby; Kelly Hollis; Sarah Williamson; Lindsey White, and; Katie Kelleher

As reported in Infoworks in 2015, Select’s Katie Kelleher re-trained from recruitment consultant to crawler crane operator. Three years on we caught up with Katie and a few her colleagues - also female crane operators - to discuss their experiences as women in the construction industry. Documenting her journey on social media platforms such as Instagram and LinkedIn, Katie’s story has inspired not only women, but also those looking to diversify, re-train and develop new skills.

Are you surprised by the reaction and the level of positive feedback you’ve had?

“Massively surprised, yes, as it’s given me real momentum in my career. A lot of it stemmed from being put forward into the young Crossrail scheme, because it put me in touch with schools and exposed me to so many people from different walks of life. I meet Government ministers at photo-calls where apprenticeships are discussed, and I would never have experienced these things if I hadn’t seriously considered a career change or done anything about it. One of the most positive off-shoots is my work with the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce, where I’m still an apprentice board member.”

You must have been glad you made the change?

"I don't think my Mum and Dad have ever been so proud. They're always surprised. For some of the awards I’ve been nominated for I’ve taken my Dad with me to the ceremonies, which he’s often very emotional about.”

Do you see yourself as a role model?

“I don't see myself as a role model, but sometimes things have a life of their own. I was at a meeting about the construction industry recently and I overheard someone talking about this crane operator in the news who had pink hair. Then I realised they were talking about me! It makes me feel that I can make a small difference in my own way. If there are others out there in the same position I was - or women who don't think they can work in construction - I want to do my bit to help.”

Is there anyone who’s benefitted from your experiences already?

“A woman messaged me on LinkedIn a while back, who has now become a training manager in the construction industry. Another example was when I was buying a goldfish one day. The person who worked in the pet shop told me that she followed me on Instagram, and after we’d spoken we exchanged numbers, kept in touch, and now Lindsey's a tower crane operator for Select.

We pick up the story with crane operator Lindsey White.

So how did you come to be a crane operator?

I was always fascinated by cranes as a child, but girls weren't told anything about it at school. I had quite a long stint in Retail management, but also manufacturing LEDs and bespoke lighting. I always knew that I wanted to do something different, so it felt like fate when I bumped into Katie Kelleher having followed her online.

 I was working in a pet shop in Kent at the time and someone I know was following her updates. They suggested I should find out more about her, because what she was doing sounded really good, even if it did seem daunting initially. I also really liked the fact that she'd done it via an apprenticeship.”

 Have you made a career change, or was this what you always planned to do?

Really and truly I was going back to my instincts as a child. I always looked out for cranes when I was out and about in different places from a very young age. Am really pleased I've made the changes I have because it's changed my life in so many ways. I never get up and don't look forward to the day ahead even though it can be mentally tiring at times. I love it.

Have you felt pressure as a woman working in a male dominated industry?

I don't think it’s an issue, everyone is very supportive and they don't judge me. Everyone is very nice, I feel people look out for me. Everyone is always fascinated about it. I have had a good experience but I do feel we have to prove ourselves a little bit more. Once you've proved yourself people just get used to it.

Technical Director, Sarah Williamson (pictured) said:

As well as the clear business benefits diversity creates, the availability of opportunities for everyone is something we passionately believe in at Laing O'Rourke. Katie and her colleagues in Select are fantastic examples of exactly where we are going as a business, in trying to create an environment where everyone feels free to follow their ambitions. I found their stories extremely inspiring and feel others will too.

With colleagues making the switch from recruitment, retail and manufacturing roles, Laing O’Rourke’s Kelly Hollis was a football coach before she made the switch to operating cranes.

So why give up football for cranes?

I used to play football at a high level for teams such as Southend United, Tottenham and Millwall but due to a car accident I was undergoing physiotherapy and thought I’d take a break. I then trained and qualified as a football coach, which led me to work in parts of the UK, America and Tunisia for different schools and clubs. When I came back from Tunisia I wanted to change career as construction interested me, so I applied for an apprenticeship with Select and was accepted.

I feel I could be a good role model for others now, as I’m very safety conscious and have been awarded a recognition certificate at works taking place at the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium. I became a crane operator as my Dad enjoyed working for Select, and had shared his experiences on projects such as The Shard in London.

Families, and Dads in particular, have played a major role as Katie explains:

When I got the job offer initially I spoke to my Dad about it as he was a bricklayer by trade. It never occurred to me that women could do that job and it was difficult to get over the apprehension of it initially, especially if you've never operated something that large before. I was terrified for ages, not least because the machinery is powerful enough to knock a building over! Once I conquered that fear it was an amazing feeling to know I could do it. Now I say to myself that not only can I operate several different types of crane, but I can do it well, there’s massive satisfaction in that.

I’ve worked on two major projects recently, Thames Tideway Tunnel and at the Crossrail site at Tottenham Court Road in London. I can say to people I had a hand in building those things. In fact, when I get on the train into London with my Dad he tells me about all the projects he's worked on as a bricklayer, but now I’ve got some bragging rights over him! Ultimately some of the iconic projects I’ve worked on will outlive me, which really makes you think.

Kelly Hollis agrees.

The legacy started with my Dad already being a crane operator - in fact he has been for the last 12 years. I have now stepped into his footsteps and maybe one day someone will follow mine.

Casey Elsby also has a family connection through her Dad - so how did she become to be a crane operator?

Mostly by accident if I’m honest, although I was in the construction industry anyway through a family connection. I’ve been doing this for just over 3 years now and before that I was working as a driver’s mate for my Dad. I’d been back and forth on jobs in London when someone I knew worked for Laing O’Rourke’s Select business. He told me about the apprenticeship scheme so I thought I’d give it a go, and they were the one of the first companies I contacted that came straight back to me.

Is there a sense of legacy in terms of what you’re doing?

I know that in the business there are four other women working on cranes so hopefully we will grow and develop together as a group. I guess it’s a new development in the industry, and there are a few times when you can tell that from the reaction you get on site. Hopefully it can be the norm from here on in though, because quite quickly I think we’ll be at a point where no-one will feel the need to double-take or comment on it in the future.

Has it been a positive experience in the main?

Absolutely. I’ve gotten on really well with everyone. Traditionally women didn’t apply for these roles which has maybe led to a certain mindset for people working in construction, but if you can handle the way it is on a site and you have the mindset required I think anyone can do it.

So what about diversity in the industry - what else needs to be done?

Diversity is a topic that comes up often on-site – I think it’s very visible and getting better all the time. There are posters on the wall and it’s often covered in our face to face briefings with supervisors on a regular basis.

I think my experience and the experience of others will make things a lot better – our feedback will probably make things a lot easier for those who follow after us. Once you see someone else do it, it shows that it is possible. Us girls never really saw women up cranes or really thought about it when we were younger.

Katie Kelleher thinks visible role models, schools and awareness-raising are the key

“I think the main thing is to have a two-pronged attack. We need more visible role models, people need to see these pictures of women doing all kinds of jobs. Schools are getting better all the time in terms of promoting different careers but there’s still more to be done. At school my careers advice was to be a dog groomer, while a friend of mine was recommended hairdressing! I would love to have learned a trade – taken an apprenticeship as an electrician or a plumber. If we’re positive and tell women they can do it, share positive images, share their stories and talk to schools, we can tell kids they can do it too, then you're making a difference and can change things. Also, it’s not just women, apprenticeships are often associated with kids and teenagers, but I had a 35-year-old on my course, it’s just about raising that awareness.”

Have you felt pressure as a woman working in a male dominated industry?

“I’ve been lucky really, because I’ve worked at two large sites within a large company. The only pressure I felt was pressure that I put on myself. I’ve only ever wanted to be as good as the guys, in fact better if I’m honest. I never wanted to be the token woman operating a crane and not getting it right. If I was younger am not sure I would have had the resilience to keep going back day after day, but I just knew I didn’t want to go back to my old career.”

So no regrets about making the jump to the construction industry?

"Looking back, it was the best thing I’ve ever done, it completely changed my life. I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere, and from Monday to Friday I wasn't feeling fulfilled, mainly because I wasn't sales driven but I am people driven. I could never have imagined what an opportunity it was going to be. Since re-training I’ve operated a crawler crane, a tower crane, done slinger signalling, traffic marshalling, I’ve had so much varied experience.”

And what does the future hold for Katie?

“I definitely want to be more involved in the business, but also get more women onto apprenticeships and into construction. On a personal level, I'll always have a slightly reserved nature and a little bit of insecurity, but I'd like to think I can keep pushing myself further. The main thing is to keep learning new things, new skills and keep an open mind.”

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