Digging Deep into Diversity: Caterpillar Celebrates Women in Construction with All-Female Operator Skills Challenge

women construction equipment operators enjoying themselves after a skills challenge at Cat's Women in Construction celebration

This isn’t Cat’s first rodeo. I attended Caterpillar’s first Global Operator Challenge way back in 2019, watching the western dealer regional finals and interviewing some of the best machine operators in the country. Cat held its second Global Operator Challenge in 2022-2023, and more than 10,000 operators representing more than 32 countries around the world competed. From those, Cat flew in nine of the world’s best equipment operators to compete at CONEXPO-CON/AGG last year — inside Operator Stadium — a 70,000 ft2 outdoor demonstration arena that was the crown jewel of the biggest construction tradeshow in America.

Dig a little deeper into the CE website archives, and we can find news of Cat dealer rodeos way back in 2011 when dealers held 12 western state competition events where operators earned cool prizes and were crowned best of the best, all while showcasing the awesomeness of pro operators and the coolness of construction equipment. It’s safe to say Cat has thrown loads of rodeos, but something big has always been missing from these skills celebrations. 

“We realized at Caterpillar after hosting so many of these different events that a lot of times women were not getting the proper opportunity to really showcase themselves,” explained Sarah Bobbitt, senior marketing consultant at Caterpillar Inc.

Like many trades, women make up a small fraction of the workforce in construction — especially when it comes to equipment operators.

“We wanted to do something about that,” continued Bobbitt. “We wanted to celebrate women in some way, and that’s why we’ve brought them here today. We’ve developed an event to bring them together. We’re going to test their skills through different challenges with our machines, but above and beyond that, we brought them together to celebrate them. To let them be motivated. To let them network. To let them meet each other. These women may have never had the opportunity to even be around other female operators, so we brought them all here to North Carolina to make lifelong connections.”

Cat's Women in Construction Celebration all 18 operators

The Compact Equipment crew had the honor of attending Caterpillar’s first Women in Construction Celebration March 13-14 in Clayton, North Carolina. Cat dealers invited 18 female equipment operators from around the United States and two from Brazil to Cat’s Edward J. Rapp Customer and Training Center to compete in equipment skills tests, learn about the latest industry trends and network with peers. The event was an amazing two-day celebration of women in construction — both from the perspective of pro female operators and Caterpillar’s own workforce of amazing women. Along with skills challenges, competitors participated in a panel discussion where they shared best practices, discussed managing a successful career in a male-dominated industry and talked about the importance of recruiting more female operators and technicians into the workforce.

“I think that the culture has really taken a turn in the last five years specifically,” said Alexandra Smith, heavy equipment operator at Donald Hebert Septic and Site LLC (Pelham, New Hampshire). “There’s a lot more women who I know and that I’ve talked to that have decided that they’re going to pursue a job in construction or are interested in learning about it. I’ll even bring my girlfriends out to the jobsite. I tell them, ‘If I can do it, why can’t you?’ It’s why I started my Instagram page — to find other women like me and to show other women that they can do it. And now here we all are — the same type of women together — that’s how we’re going to shift this culture.”

Women Workers FTW

Cat's Women in Construction Celebration female panel talking
Kenzi Tackett, operator at Beaver Excavating Co., shares her career experiences during a panel discussion.

America needs more construction workers, and women are an underutilized resource that the trades need to start attracting and retaining. Although construction employment has been rising nationally, contractors are eager to hire far more workers. According to a March 2024 employment report from Ken Simonson, the chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America: “There were 407,000 unfilled positions in construction at the end of January, which was a near-record level for January,” citing the government’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Around 10 to 11 million people work in construction in the United States, but according to a 2023 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 10 percent of those construction workers are women. It’s an industry that hasn’t done much to embrace the strengths and smarts of female professionals. 

“I feel lucky that I work for a company that values women and promotes diversity and brings us all together, but I’ve seen it. I grew up in agriculture. I know that the good old boys club still exists,” said Bobbitt. “I also know we’re breaking boundaries here today, but there’s still work to do. So, we’re here inspiring the next generation of women and inspiring the next generation of operators in general.”

The 18 women that competed at the event were certainly inspirational. The diversity of competitors showcased that many avenues women are navigating to make construction a career. Some were born into it.

“I started in construction in high school, but I grew up in a family of tradesman all the way back to my great, great grandfather,” explained Kenzi Tackett, equipment operator at The Beaver Excavating Co. (Canton, Ohio), speaking on that panel of women operators. “I was never told that construction wasn’t a viable option for women. It was more like: You need to go into the trades. I heard that so much growing up. I have pictures of me at three and four years old on the side of the dozer out in the dirt digging. I knew growing up that I wanted to do construction.”

Cat's Women in Construction Celebration Chelsey Holdosi being interviewed
Chelsey Holdosi, operator at J. Browne Excavating in Maryland, gives an interview with a local TV station.

Other operators never expected to end up behind the joysticks of a piece of off-highway construction equipment.

“I actually went to college and got my bachelor’s in math and statistics, and I was supporting the Navy for a few years,” said Chelsey Holdosi, project manager, estimator and equipment operator at J. Browne Excavating (Leonardtown, Maryland). “While I was doing that, I started at an excavation company. I was programming for them, creating processes and apps for them to be able to distinguish patterns and be able to do better estimating, providing the guys with more information on how to do various tasks easier. With that and my husband working at the same company, I just fell in love with it. Not only with doing my nerdy code stuff, but I actually started to get the opportunity to play in the dirt and to get my certifications for septic installations and various other systems. What’s really cool about the place I work at, J. Browne Excavating, it’s a woman-owned business.”

The Three Different Skills Challenges

 All of these winding career paths led 18 highly skilled female operators to the Edward J. Rapp Customer and Training Center to compete in a variety of grueling equipment skills tests over a nine-hour period. The challenges included expert operating on three different machines — a small excavator (Tons of Fun), small wheel loader (Rock ‘N’ Roll) and a compact track loader (Hammer Time). How difficult were these challenges?

Cat's Women in Construction Celebration excavator challenge 3

“First up is our excavator skills test,” explained Jason Hurdis, Cat global market professional. “It’s a 315 Next Gen excavator using the Caterpillar integrated payload system. We have the bucket uncoupled, so contestants must first use a coupler [to attach the bucket]. Couple the bucket, travel down the berm, load an articulated truck to a set payload, return down the berm and then remove the bucket again. Then we have a CTL challenge — a compact track loader using our new next Gen 265 compact track loader where they have to navigate the course using multiple functions on that CTL as well as all of the Ease of Use features in order to complete that course. And then the third and last skills test we have is using a 938 Next Gen wheel loader with payload. So, the operator has to move a set number payload across the course, drop the bucket, put on a set of forks, grab a pallet with two tires on it, navigate a completely different course accurately and precisely, place that pallet with the tires, back away, re-grab it, travel back through that same course and then accurately place that back in time.”

Cat's Women in Construction Celebration excavator challenge

These challenges were intense, and even more impressive, all 18 female operators completed each of these three skill tests using equipment and technologies that in some cases aren’t even on the market yet. For example, Cat just announced its Next Gen 255 and 265 compact track loaders in the fall, and units have not even shipped to dealers yet. 

“Every piece of equipment that we have here today is new to me,” said Holdosi. “It’s Cat’s newest technology, whether it’s a new hydraulic coupler on the excavator or now the wheel loader has a joystick option for movement. Then of course, we have the brand new 265 track loader. The adjustment has definitely been different, but I’ve found that I understand why they have made these technology changes to the equipment. It’s definitely made [operation] easier, and the wheel loader challenge was definitely the most fun so far.”

Cat's Women in Construction Celebration track loader hammer time skills 2

Each of these skill challenges were time based (lowest time wins) with extra time added for penalties such as running over cones, incorrect payload amount or forgetting a test component (like properly beeping your horn at the articulated dump truck while loading dirt during the excavator challenge). Dubuque, Iowa’s Kait Burds was eventually crowned overall champion. Burds is a civil foreman and equipment operator at Mortenson Construction. She’s holding the two trophies below.

winners of the Caterpillar women in construction celebration
Big winners from left to right: Azaria Biven, Kait Burds and Kenzi Tackett.

“Women are a huge untapped pool of talent, so companies and small businesses need to get creative about how they get them into the workplace,” said Burds. “I’ve seen a lot of progress with Women in Construction Week and Instagram influencers. People are getting exposure on a level that they haven’t before. Now we’re getting into our schools, letting people know that it’s possible. I never knew that it was an opportunity for me, coming out of high school. I was going the college route. I didn’t pay much attention to it when I was younger, but just last week we were in Mojave High School talking to their junior and senior girls letting them know that this is an option. Moving forward, it’s only going to get bigger and it’s only going to get louder.”

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A Big Win for the Industry

Cat's Women in Construction Celebration women high fiving

Cat honored all 18 female operators at its Women in Construction Celebration, including their families, friends and host dealers, who attended and cheered from the sidelines. Caterpillar also gave individual awards for the best times in each skills challenge. Burds won the small wheel loader skills test, Kenzi Tackett won the compact track loader skills test and Azaria Biven, foreman and equipment operator with Midwest Paving Inc. in Indianapolis, won the small hydraulic excavator skills test.

“These 18 operators are equal to any male operator I’ve ever worked with,” said Hurdis, who also helps run Cat’s Global Operator Challenge. “My personal feeling is the difference between male and female operators is that females are a lot more precise, they’re a lot more accurate in every motion and everything that they complete it is to the letter.”

Cat even invited renowned Air Force fighter pilot, retired Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Barlette, to deliver an impressive and inspiring keynote during the opening lunch, sharing lessons learned from her years in the cockpit that she now applies to everyday life. Each female equipment operator had similarly uplifting stories and insights to share, and their words are finally starting to get out there.

“With events like this, our message grows,” said Rondalee Wilke, equipment operator at Burgess Civil LLC (Tampa). “I know when you look at a construction site, it can seem extremely overwhelming. I always like to view it as a relay race. You just start, do your part and tag the next contractor, so I guess my advice would be to keep it simple. Go in and test out the waters and know your decision’s never final. You can do anything you want. The decision you make to go into construction is the same decision you can make to go out of it. Just know that if you can run a home, you can run a piece of construction equipment.”

Keith Gribbins is publisher of Compact Equipment.

The 18 Amazing All-Female Operators

From Cat’s Women in Construction Celebration with Local Dealer Sponsor

Cat's Women in Construction Celebration sign
  • Kait Burds, Ziegler Cat
  • Daiane da Silva Candido, Sotreq
  • Jordyn Ledford, Stowers Cat
  • Shayla Sublette, Warren Cat
  • Azaria Biven, MacAllister Machinery
  • Ana Gonzales, Thompson Machinery
  • Misheala Brozovich, Wagner Cat
  • Amanda Miles, Gregory Poole
  • Rondalee Wilke, Ring Power
  • Letti Ortiz, Holt Cat
  • Miranda Menchaca, Holt Cat
  • Mackenzie Tackett, Ohio Cat
  • Chelsey Holdosi, Carter Machinery
  • Rachel Riggs, Empire Cat
  • Megan Riley, Empire Cat
  • Alexandra Smith, Milton Cat
  • Whitney Poulin, Milton Cat
  • Carla Vitoria de Araujo Marques, Sotreq

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