Project superintendent Tonia Jackson

In Her Boots

Project superintendent Tonia Jackson opens up about loving the dirt, managing her crew and being a woman in construction—and she pulls no punches.
By Rachel E. Pelovitz
February 28, 2023

This time last year, Associated Builders and Contractors predicted that the construction industry would need to attract nearly 650,000 additional workers on top of the normal hiring pace to meet the demand for skilled labor in 2022—and would need 590,000 new workers in 2023. For more than two decades, women have represented from 9% to 10% of the construction workforce, while women in construction account for just 1.5% of the total U.S. workforce, earning 81.1% of the salary of men in the same positions, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For Women’s History Month and Women in Construction Week, Construction Executive is going to the source.

Tonia Jackson has been in construction since she was 19 years old and has stuck with it for more than 30 years at 10 different companies. Most recently, in 2020, she started at Craig & Heidt Inc. Civil Constructors, located in Houston, as an equipment operator. Quickly promoted to project superintendent, Jackson has not only survived in a labor-intensive, often overlooked position, she has thrived, battling for every opportunity. In this exclusive interview with CE, she describes her rise at Craig & Heidt, what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field and what she loves about construction.

Why did you choose construction and, specifically, equipment operation?

I had started out as a nurse, and then, my brother committed suicide in 2005. I wasn’t attached to a hospital or facility and I kept my nursing license (I had an associate degree in nursing), but my career path changed. I couldn’t save him, so I wasn’t doing that anymore. I decided to see how far I could go in construction.

I started getting my feet wet as a welder’s helper—for a really good welder. He started teaching me to fit pipe. Then, I moved from that to the dirt crew, checking grade. That’s how I figured out where I wanted to be: in the dirt. I liked equipment, and that’s where I met my ex-husband, who taught me a lot about how to be an operator. The only way you’re going to learn to run equipment is to run equipment. Somebody can sit there and teach you all day long and you can go to school for it, but until you get on that piece of equipment, run it and know what it will do, you haven’t learned. It’s literally hands-on. Craig & Heidt hired me as an operator, running front-end loaders, bulldozers, trackhoes, excavators, rollers, whatever. I’m a jack of all trades. When you start out running equipment, you start on the smallest stuff and work your way up to bigger equipment. Then you move to a bulldozer or trackhoe seat, which is hard to do—especially as a girl. They don’t like to give those seats to girls in this industry. I think you should be able to run all of it if you consider yourself an operator.

What is it like to be a woman in this industry?

It was tough for a while, because I got passed over a lot of times when I shouldn’t have been. I was more experienced than some men that came in after me, and that’s how the industry is. It was male-dominated 15 years ago, and it still is. It’s a lot of old-school men. Many of them don’t want to teach you because they are so leery about you running stuff and taking their jobs.

How do you handle that atmosphere?

You just brush it off and keep going forward. When I was pregnant with my last child, I was 27 and I was on a job. I worked until April 14 that year, still climbing scaffolds and hanging tight, and was laid off literally four weeks away from having a baby—I gave birth to her on May 16.

I always thought I would one day be a supervisor, but it took a lot longer than I thought. There’s a lot I learned to do being on the ground as a laborer. And whenever you see men come in with less experience than you but making more money on bigger equipment that you also know how to run, it makes you feel passed over.

What’s the culture like at your current company?

Craig & Heidt is different. My last company, for instance, would never have had a woman supervisor, because the men on those crews were all old-school supervisors and operators; that was just how that company was going to be. But Craig & Heidt is totally about giving the job to whoever has the most experience. It’s just that simple. So that’s what the company has done with me—it’s given me an opportunity—and I’m doing my best not to screw it up.

Now that you’ve been made a supervisor, how are you managing your crew?

I let the guys run the equipment and do the job. I may get out and help with some layout. I may train somebody to help them learn to run certain things. I teach them to run the smaller stuff, so they get off the ground—because moving upward is always your goal. I have a great, great crew. I brag on my guys all the time. I know that I can leave the jobsite if I need to, and they will continue to work. I don’t have to babysit. I wouldn’t want anybody else’s crew.

Were they accepting of having a woman as a supervisor?

When I first took this position, there were three men that had been with the company for some time, and all three of them quit. They would not work for a woman. I wanted them to stay, because they were really good hands. I even talked with them and said, “This isn’t going to change anything in terms of our relationship. It’s just a title; I’m not going to treat you differently.” And they weren’t having it. It hurt my feelings, actually.

After that experience, have you thought about how to get past the stigma of being a woman?

I think there are some men who are never going to get past that stigma. But I’ll tell you the difference. My crew is younger. I have a younger generation on my crew and none of them have a problem.

You think it’s a generational issue, then?

I do. Absolutely.

Is there something that companies can do to change that?

They need to have an anti-discrimination policy. There are lot of women just like me, that have worked themselves into a position in which they should be supervisors—but they can’t get over that little hump. The company won’t budge, or the project manager won’t speak up for you.

They should also hire more women in the field. I’ve worked in the field a bunch, and women are scarce. And, if there happen to be women in the field on a job, they aren’t given the same opportunities as men.

What can contractors do to recruit women?

Offer them the opportunity for advancement. No one wants to stay in a labor position. If a company doesn’t want to offer a woman the opportunity to be superintendent, then they should allow her to take safety courses and become safety personnel instead. It’s just about the opportunities.

Considering the challenges you have faced, why have you stayed?

I absolutely love construction. I absolutely love the dirt. I like to be outside. I’m not an office person; that’s not my cup of tea. I like meeting new people. I like meeting new clients. I like to get the job done, and I like to see the result of what I do.

I’m a picture taker, so I’m always taking “before,” “during” and “after” pictures. It’s always cool to see exactly what you build.

Before I came to Craig & Heidt, I did the Ship Channel Beltway 8 Winding project. To see that go up and know you were a part of that project is neat, because you see your work completed and in use, you know?

What motivates you?

My daddy is probably my biggest role model. He’s the one that taught me how to work hard. My daddy is 71 and he still works. My mom was also a hard worker. I’ve worked my ass off—on the ground, checking grade, pumping water in the freezing cold with muddy boots on—to get where I’m at. I’ve worked my way into this position. I didn’t just get it handed to me. Hard work pays off. And I’ve taught my kids the same thing.

Tell me more about your family.

My oldest daughter, Kimberly, was in the U.S. Army and is still in the reserves. She has two kids. My son, Devin, did two tours in Afghanistan and one in Africa. Now he’s working as a mechanical engineer while going to school and raising two kids. My youngest daughter, Kathryn works for Mercedes in Alabama. She is 22, so she has a dog and no kids.

I have a fiancé, Tony, and four cats. He is manager of a concrete plant for Lehigh Hanson Inc. We met on the job. You never know how close you’ll get in this industry.

What qualities make the best leaders?

I think you’ve got to be personable but stern. Don’t give no crap but don’t take none, because they’ll test you in this industry. It’s all in how you treat your people. What you put out there, you get back. I think that’s true in a lot of aspects of life, period.

Which is your favorite project that you’ve worked on?

The Lehigh Hanson project in Brookshire, Texas. We built heavy-haul roads and pads for a new concrete plant. It was a really good project that included a lot of dirt, lime and mixing of the soil to harden it up. Just a big dirt job—and that is my favorite kind of project.

Having achieved your goal of becoming a supervisor, what’s next for you?

I’m going to take a project management course. I’ve already taken a crew leadership class, and this is the next step up. I said to [Craig & Heidt] Owner and President Sam Craig, “Any classes you want to send me to, I will go.” Everybody in my position needs to know these skills.

Do you have any advice for women thinking about a career in construction?

I would like to see a lot more women in construction. Be pushy. Tell them you want to move up in the company. Tell them you want to learn. Be aggressive. That’s something I should have done back when I was younger, but I was shyer than I am now.

You’ve got to be tough. It’s not for the faint of heart. I mean, you think you can do this job and then you get out in the field—and then your body aches, your legs hurt and your arms hurt. You’ve got to be all in. Perseverance is everything. Just keep pushing, and if you want it bad enough, one day it’ll happen.

by Rachel E. Pelovitz

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