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Embracing diversity for success in heavy equipment

March 20, 2024
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SMS Equipment has a long-standing commitment to maintaining a diverse workforce. While much of the work their employees do is in rugged environments, women have no off-limits job. In this edition of Experts Corner, Heavy Equipment Technician and 2nd-year Apprentice Elizabeth Sheane shares her story about discovering her passion for what many consider a man’s job.

What made you choose a career in heavy equipment?
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What made you choose a career in heavy equipment?

After graduating from high school, I worked in a customer service job for two years. One morning, I woke up and asked myself why I was doing this. It was a typical 9 AM to 5 PM, five days a week, nonessential job, and I hated it. So, I just took a leap of faith, applied to a trades program dedicated to building women’s skills, and was accepted. Once that ended, I pursued enrolling in the SMS Equipment Pre-employment Apprenticeship Program for Heavy Equipment at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, AB. That’s when I discovered my passion for heavy equipment.

What was your first day of work like?

I started in the shovels department, working out in the yard with two other apprentices who were men. It was mid-December, minus 35, and we started at 7 AM, right after our safety meeting. I had never done anything like this before and had no idea what to expect.

In my first week, there were two Komatsu PC2000s out there – one needed a full undercarriage swap, and the shop was rebuilding the other. It was fully hands-on when I set foot in the yard, with, ‘Here’s a torque wrench. Go under there and start taking off trackpads.” I felt empowered from the second I stepped into SMS Equipment’s work environment, where I put my skills to the test and worked hard from 6 AM to 6 PM daily. I loved it. I fell in love with it so fast that my mom teases me about it sometimes.

What are the challenges and how do you cope with them?

I’d been working with primarily women before I got into a trade, so this was a big switch. My class at Keyano College was mainly men, which was initially intimidating. I wouldn’t say I was scared, but sometimes I felt out of place, and to this day, that feeling never really goes away. Part of it is that my colleagues aren’t sure how to act or what they shouldn’t say to me, because today’s society is more conscious of the conventional standards within the industry. So, this is something you learn to grow around, and once you get to know each other, things warm up. The men I work with at SMS Equipment are all great people and easy to get along with. Through our mutual collaboration on the job, they now include me in their jokes and treat me like a friend, which I wasn’t expecting.

The women’s trades program I participated in had excellent speakers guiding such topics. Their main advice was that if something happens that you’re uncomfortable with, maintain your composure and say something, whether it’s to a supervisor you’re close with or even just another co-worker you’re friends with. Knowing that I had the phenomenal supervisors I did when I started with SMS Equipment assured me that I always had a support system behind me. So that has been fantastic.

What strengths do women bring to this kind of workplace?

My memory and detail orientation are strengths I bring to the role. Many of the women I've worked with find that these are skills that also contribute to their success. For me, it's remembering precise torque specs on a final drive. That's just the way my brain is wired. Even though it's go go go, I am prone to remember the little tiny things.

I get to exercise this skill even when I’m in school. My classmates often ask me, “Do you remember what the instructor said about a topic? It wasn’t in the book.” One of my classmates actually said I’m a walking study book.

What’s your advice for women entering this profession?

Take the leap! If the person I was three years ago had met the person I am today, she wouldn’t have believed it. Sometimes I wake up and say, “Wow, this is what I’m doing?” It’s just wild to see all the different pieces of equipment I work on and all the different people I meet. And the two guys I started in shovels with are honestly my best friends. I couldn’t imagine where I’d be now if I weren’t associated with them.

The bottom line:

SMS Equipment has a long tradition of recruiting talented people like Elizabeth who dare to break down traditional barriers to pursue their passion. When there’s diversity in a workforce, everybody benefits, which goes for service and maintenance as well as the office.

This article is part of the March 2024 edition of our Expert's Corner Monthly Newsletter. Stay in the know with the latest insights, trends, and exclusive features directly delivered to your inbox. Subscribe now to receive our upcoming newsletters and stay connected with industry expertise and innovations.

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