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Female engineer is standing out, blazing trails through drive and determination

Even as the Construction industry becomes more diverse daily, Brenda Davis strikes a unique figure on the job site: an African-American woman who’s only 18 years old and barely a year out of high school. But once she puts on her hardhat, Brenda instantly becomes a member of the team. Or as she puts it, part of the family of Operating Engineers 324.“They actually treat you like family.

Even when you’re new on the job site, they treat you like family,” she says.

Brenda’s journey to becoming an operating engineer began when she took a mandatory class in 10th grade that included computer simulations of heavy machinery. Brenda found herself in the seat of forklifts and excavators, driving and operating them virtually, and she fell in love right away.

“The class was only an hour long, but I’d come back afterwards, and I just fell in love with heavy equipment,” Brenda says.

Having graduated Cody High School as valedictorian, Brenda is always striving to improve her skills and knowledge of the construction industry. That includes career and technical education through the Randolph Career Technical Center and at the Operating Engineers 324 campus in Howell, where she practices on all types of machinery, from bulldozers to the excavator, which is her favorite “because it does the most digging.”

Today, Brenda is part of the OE324 team at a job site in Ann Arbor, where they are constructing a building for Toyota. Her goal is to become certified in operating more than five heavy equipment before she turns 23. At 18, Brenda is already certified in two, the indoor and outdoor forklift.

Her drive to excel, her mental toughness and her readiness to stand up for herself are setting Brenda up for success, say her educators.

“She’s always been a stand-out, having played the role of master student in her carpentry class,” Randolph Principal Krista McKinney-King says. “She has a strong mindset and learned how to effectively advocate for herself, sometimes during unfavorable situations.”

McKinney-King says Brenda is an exceptional role model for African-American youth and for women, showing them that they can succeed in the skilled trades. For Brenda, being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated profession isn’t a factor.

“What a male operator would go through is what a female operator would go through,” Brenda says. “On the job site, I see no difference. Everybody gets treated equally and I get treated with respect. They teach me and I feel like one of them, like part of the family.”

She encourages students of all ages to take a serious look at the skilled trades, a career that is in high demand in Michigan today with businesses looking to fill 15,000 job openings every year. For young students wondering what being an operating engineer is like, Brenda says she would encourage them to see jobs like hers as a path to a good career. Though she’s driving a big heavy piece of machinery, it’s pretty similar to a video game, she says.

She encourages young students, especially those who want an alternative to college, and young black men to join the skilled trades because they’re a gateway to a good-paying career that can keep them out of trouble. Operating engineers earn good wages and benefits, and many become leaders in the construction industry and even start their own businesses.

Brenda’s mentors and instructors are helping her grow as an operating engineer. She credits her powerful drive to succeed to her family, especially her mom – her “favorite person” – who pushes her to do more and reach higher. She calls her dad her role model because he taught her the value of hard work and believing that she could accomplish anything if she set her mind to it.

“She showed very clearly that she has a ton of potential as an operator,” says Operating Engineers 324 Instructor Krystle Schnell. “The level of motivation and dedication that was demonstrated by what she went through, just to make it to and from the training center each day, speaks volumes about her character and values. She demonstrated good natural ability, understood the concepts presented to her for safe efficient operation of equipment, and was not afraid to speak up when she had a question.

At one point she was clearly frustrated, struggling to achieve what she wanted out of the machine she was working with. She had reached the point where a lot of members would be throwing their hard hat, cussing, and be blaming everything but themselves for the results they were looking at. Brenda was able to step back, re-evaluate, ask questions, and go back to it with success rather than letting it beat her.”

The middle of seven children, Brenda puts 100 percent into the task at hand and finds joy in everything she does.

“There’s no secret to what I do,” Brenda says. “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything. Just do it and go for it yourself.”

She finds the positive in every situation – even when she is surprised, like learning that operating engineers must be on job sites well before sunrise.

Brenda’s youth is no barrier. To succeed in the field, Brenda says operating engineers must have exceptional communications skills, be on time and on a mission.

“You have to be ready to learn and you have to trust yourself and your coworkers,” she says. “When you’re on a job site with heavy equipment, you have to trust that everyone around you is doing their job and you have to trust yourself so no one gets hurt.”

Though Brenda may be a trailblazer now, she and other female skilled tradespeople are opening the door to more women in construction.

Operating Engineers 324 and the Randolph Center are promoting the need for women in the skilled trades through programs such as Ladies in Hard Hats and NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction), and showing them how they can build lucrative and rewarding careers operating heavy equipment and other specialized areas in construction.

Brenda says her greatest reward in her job is “knowing that she’s part of building something that will be standing for years.”

Randolph Center Principal McKinney-King says: “Brenda is truly one of our most prominent success stories, and we know her best will get even better!”