Heavy Equipment Operator Takes Pride In Helping Build Her Community

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Rachel Ratican, construction equipment operator
An apprenticeship at the operating engineers union, I.U.O.E. Local 103, helped Rachel Ratican get her start. (Credit: Courtesy Randy Ratican)

Rachel Ratican wants her kids to understand the power of pride — pride in helping your community and pride in yourself when you do a good job. 

She discovered her pride and strength as a heavy equipment operator. She has been an apprentice for four years and is on track to be a journeyman by the end of this year after she earns the 6,000-hour requirement.

She works with United Construction Services (UCS) in Muncie, Indiana, a job she started less than a year ago. She worked with E&B Paving for about three years before that.

Her job is to run heavy machinery, which means running everything from a dirt/asphalt roller to an excavator.

She says being versatile is the key to being a great operating engineer.

Why did you get into heavy equipment operation?

My father was a major part of wanting to be in this line of work. I saw him so proud of what he was doing and all the great things that he helped build. If we ever went by a place where he had done work, he would always point out what he'd done. He would always have a smile on his face!

I wanted that for my children; I wanted them to see a strong woman who did her part to help the community the way my father did.

But this wasn’t what I thought I was going to do as a career. I thought I was going to be a nurse. I loved helping people, so I became a certified nursing assistant or CNA. I quickly realized that I wanted to earn more money and to have a less physically demanding job. I turned to the International Union of Operating Engineers, I.U.O.E. Local 103.

Turns out earning a good wage and not going into debt was the best choice I’ve ever made!

What does a typical day as a heavy equipment operator look like?

On a typical day, we start at 7 a.m. We have a safety meeting and then we get our assignments, including what equipment we will be running and what section of the job we will be on. I do my walk-around — checking the tires/tracks, checking all my fluids — and then I start my machine.

If I’m with the pipe crew that day, I ask what size pipes and inlets we need, and I start taking everything down to where we will be working that day. I also bring down stone throughout the day to fill the trench. After the day's work is done, I go back to the yard, park my machine and grease it.

What do you like most about your job? And least?

I love the fact that I’m outside all day. I’ve never liked being cooped up indoors. The people who I work with are amazing and they are very knowledgeable. It’s a team out here. We do what we can to help and teach each other to make the job better and easier for everyone.

The winter months can be hard sometimes, if there is less work to be done, but if you save through the year and budget like you normally would, it’s not bad. Plus you get to spend time with your family.

What’s the most common misconception about your job?

The biggest misconception about my job would probably be that we just dig ditches by the side of the road and we're not very intelligent. It takes a decent amount of math skills to figure out how to calculate how much of a certain material we will need, and all the conversions are different.

We don’t just dig ditches by the side of the road — we build baseball, football and soccer fields. We also do pipe work.

There are a lot of things that go into being a good operator.

What do you wish you knew about the job before you got into it

I wish that I would have known that the job would be so mentally taxing. You have to think about every little thing that you're doing or about to do.

People's lives are in your hands. You have to be on top of your game at all times so you do not hurt anyone around you. We like to say: "Always keep your head on a swivel!"

How did you train to become a heavy equipment operator?

I am going through the I.U.O.E. local 103 apprenticeship and training. It’s a trade school program where they teach you how to be the best you can be.

As apprentices, we have to acquire 6,000 hours in class and on the job. We also have to have four proficiency tests — those are hands-on tests —  either on a skid steer, backhoe, bulldozer, grader or forklift/ lull. There are others you can earn, but these are the main ones.

We also have classes, where we learn about the history of our union and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) standards to help keep ourselves and everyone around us safe.

We also have classes through Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, so that when you graduate and become a journeyman, you will also have earned a certificate in applied science.

Why would you recommend that someone go into this line of work?

I would recommend this line of work because you don’t have to put yourself so far into debt just to earn a living wage. The I.U.O.E. Local 103 trade school offers you time to learn on the job. You will learn with real experience and make decent money at the same time.

Can you describe one particular moment or day on the job that gave you real satisfaction?

The day that we finished building a group of fields for Anderson High School — the  junior varsity softball and baseball fields, varsity softball and baseball fields, practice soccer and match soccer fields and a tennis court. It took us months of looking at plans and moving so much dirt, making sure that it was the right dirt and cutting everything to grade. It was a long process, but seeing all the work that we did and how great it looked, it was well worth all the hours we put into it.

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