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The Southern California Woman: ON THE JOB : MAKING IT : The Personal Stories of Six Women Who Have Found Success in Individual Ways : TERESA LEE : Heavy-Equipment Operator

December 04, 1988

TERESA LEE HADN'T been working very long on her first construction job--building a steel missile tower at Vandenberg Air Force Base--when "Red," her supervisor, asked her to do a special job for him. He pointed to a giant pile of rebar--12-foot long metal rods used for strengthening concrete--and told her to move them to the other side of the missile pad.

The steel was long and heavy and awkward, but Lee "busted my back" all morning to finish the task. Triumphant, she rushed back to her boss later that afternoon to tell him she'd done it. "By George, girl, you did," she remembers Red saying, as he put his arm around her shoulders. "Now, put it all back. I just wanted to see if you could do it."

That was Teresa Lee's baptism into the construction industry. Today, after more than eight years as a construction worker and heavy-equipment operator, she has had to survive a great many others tests in her quest to become a member of what is still basically an all-male club. While other women sit behind desks all day in pink- or white-collar jobs, Lee, 32, has entered the blue-collar world of the building trades.

Thus, 10 hours a day, five days a week, Lee is out running an Ingersoll-Ran compactor-roller or 966 Loader, helping to move 45 million cubic yards of dirt at a construction site just north of Santa Barbara. It might not sound glamorous, but Lee has loved the world of construction--despite the obstacles--from her first experience with it.

"I think I learned a lot about construction, and a lot more about me," she says, recalling the Vandenberg job, "because it challenged me. Whereas in a regular occupation, I felt I wasn't challenged; here, I was undergoing physical and mental endurance and working outside."

An active sportswoman, Lee originally intended to work in recreation and therapy programs with the handicapped. While attending junior college in Santa Maria, she also ran the physical education program and coached the girls' basketball team at a local school. After two years, however, she decided that academics wasn't for her, and she took a job as a warehouser at a CBS Records plant in Santa Maria. When the plant shut down, a co-worker suggested that Lee might like construction work. Three weeks later, she was hired at Vandenberg, for a non-union job.

"It was strictly iron, 22 stories, 250 feet in the air and I was walking 5-inch beams," recalls Lee, who has an infectious laugh. "That was my first introduction to construction, and I tell you, walking a 5-inch beam makes you concentrate very much!" Actually, she's not surprised she took to construction work so well. She remembers following her dad, a missile machinist, around the family's home as he repaired and fixed things, or built a patio. "I knew I liked to help my dad around the house," she says simply. "I never did like the housecleaning part."

After the Vandenberg job was finished, a co-worker suggested that Lee think about joining a union. She managed to get into the six-week training program run by the Laborers International union, which was actively recruiting women, and ended up as one of two females out of a class of 22. There was one catch: Each applicant had to pass two grueling endurance tests. The first involved moving a pallet of 90-pound cement sacks 30 yards and back. The next required that each trainee move a stack of 10-foot by 2-foot wooden scaffold boards. Lee, who credits her lifelong love of sports for her strength, passed both tests.

During the next month and a half, she and her classmates spent eight hours a day learning how to lay pipe, pour cement and asphalt, landscape, and how to use a cutting torch and power buggy, a vehicle used for transporting equipment.

At the end of the course, Lee was the first in her class to be given her laborer's certificate, the only woman out of 18 people to graduate in 1980. "I never thought about it as far as being the only woman," she says now. "I'm a physical person and these were physical challenges for me. I just felt proud to graduate."

Right away, she was hired by a pipeline outfit in Long Beach, where she was once again put to the test. One day, her foreman drove her to a nearby manhole and lifted the cover. He gave Lee a light for her hard hat, a bucket of cement and water and told her to go underground and fill the pipeline seams until she'd worked her way back to the crew. "Eager beaver that I was, I said 'no problem,' " she recalls. "He dropped me down there and put the manhole cover back on. It was was pitch black and I could hear him drive away." As "eerie" as it was down there, she finished the job, proving herself to both boss and co-workers.

Lee worked about two years as a laborer, then took a hard look around. What she saw was a group of men who'd been doing it their whole lives and were "physically burnt out." The prospect frightened her. "I thought, 'I love construction but don't feel I'm physically strong enough,' " she remembers.

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