Tossing aside a career behind a desk for one behind the controls of a big digger, Shannan Bell is thriving in the male-dominated civil construction industry. By Mary Searle Bell.
Shannan Bell has become a bit of a poster girl for women in the construction industry. The attractive brunette has more than proved her worth as an operator of heavy machinery, and her leadership skills have seen her recently promoted to the role of foreman with Fulton Hogan’s Waikato branch.
She leads her team of four on the Rangitahi Peninsula Project – the new 550-section subdivision is being built just five minutes from the tiny beachside township of Raglan in Waikato, and Shannan and her team have been constructing a new causeway to allow access to it.
I caught up with her when the project had just started.
“There’s some cut-to-fill, road widening, and service relocation to do. It’ll keep us busy until March,” she told me back in December.
Civil construction wasn’t the first career choice for this 27-year-old. After finishing school, she began studying for an accountancy qualification; however, during a holiday break, she got the opportunity to spend a few hours on site with A&R Earthworks in a 40-tonne dump truck and instantly fell in love with the job.
A&R Earthworks were clearly impressed with her too, and asked her to join the team.
“I was on a study break and they phoned me and asked if I would do some work there as someone had called in sick. I said, “of course, that would be awesome, and I never went back to school.”
She then spent the next 18 months with A&R Earthworks, honing her truck driving skills, before joining Fulton Hogan on the Tauranga Eastern Link project as a bulldozer operator.
She says that confidence is a big factor in her success.
“It takes a certain amount of confidence to get into those big machines initially, but once you’re there, it’s so much fun.”
In the past seven years with Fulton Hogan, Shannan has become proficient on a variety of heavy equipment, including scrapers and diggers, and has no regrets with her career choice.
And while she did ditch the office for a job outdoors, she did, however, complete her accountancy studies, showing that she’s not only studious but one to stick things out to the end. Characteristics that will prove useful now that she’s started ascending the contracting ladder into a more managerial role.
Her promotion to foreman back last year has taken her out from behind the controls of her machine for a few hours each day, but she remains adamant that this industry is so much better than an office job.
“I probably spend a quarter of my time doing paperwork and chatting with the boys making sure everything is ok, but the rest of my time is spent on the digger.
“I’m loving being foreman; I have so much more responsibility – I’m always trying to think ahead to ensure our team meets its targets. But it’s good; I’m loving the challenge.”
Clearly, the challenge is something she thrives on as she readily admits there have been tough times simply being a woman – and a young one at that – in a male-dominated industry.
“I guess I was a bit naive with what was involved with the industry initially – there are definitely challenges involved working in a male-dominated industry. It’s pretty tough, but you do get to prove a point as well.
“I’ve felt I’ve had to work a lot harder than my male counterparts to get where I am today. I’ve been in the industry for nine years now but have only just been made foreman,” she says.
“As a young girl on the team, I’ve had to do my time and prove myself.
“I’ve had some pretty horrendous experiences at work. But to survive as a woman in this industry you have to have a pretty strong persona, and you need a thick skin.
“There have been times when I’ve gone home and cried, but then you just get back to it.
“You need to brush off the negative stuff and focus on why you’re there. It pays off in the end. And yes, you will make mistakes, but everyone does. I’ve learned to let go of them and move on.”
She says women in the industry simply acknowledge they’re in a male-dominated industry and do what they can to fit in.
“Fitting in is part of it,” she says candidly.
“But now, they’ve seen me do the hard yards and are generally respectful of my position. Some of the older guys sometimes struggle with it, which I think is a generational thing, but my team have been really good.”
Shannan would love to see more women in the industry and harbours a desire to facilitate this in some way.
“It can be a bit tricky to get an in, so I would like to have a school where girls can learn to drive machinery.”
In the interim, she strongly encourages anyone – male or female – who has a hankering to get behind the controls of some big gear to show a bit of initiative and get their Class 2 licence and Wheels Tracks and Rollers endorsement.
“It’s an amazing industry to be in,” she enthuses. “There is so much variety and lots of challenges.”
In the coming years, if things continue to progress as Shannan would like them to, she will continue to hone her people and project management skills, and keep on advancing up the management ladder.
“I’d like to be a department manager and then move on to being a divisional manager,” she says. “I’m loving the responsibility of my new role.
“I’ve not had any official training – I guess some people are leaders and some aren’t.
“I’m often on my own, and I have to give the answers and make the decisions, and I enjoy that.
“The industry is so interesting, and there is so much to learn – every day is different. I love my job and find the work both challenging and rewarding.”