Danielle Zoller-McKenzie has union Ironworking in her blood — she grew up with a dad, brother, cousins and uncles in the trade. But while her family didn’t discourage her from pursuing work in their field, she wasn’t exactly encouraged to try it, either. “They thought I was going to be too small,” she says.
But a summer job as a hodcarrier – or “hoddie”, as she was dubbed by the masons she worked with convinced her she was more than up to the task. “The camaraderie is what I really liked,” she told us. “My brother worked there too. To be a woman and a hard worker is a different kind of feeling than you get than just being a ‘woman worker.’ The praise you get from working really hard, it’s just a big deal.”
After graduating high school, she worked in the shipyards, confirming her love of working in the trades. She applied to the Ironworkers apprenticeship program, and after a year of waiting – somewhat impatiently, she adds — she was in the door.
“I knew when I got into this trade that it’s a man’s world,” Zoller-McKenzie says. She was treated differently by coworkers, held to a different standard. Everyone in the program could see the double standard, but she opted to focus all the more intently on her work in the face of adversity. “It’s always paid off for me to take the high road,” she says. “Although that may not be my first instinct.”
Zoller-McKenzie started her career back in 1998 working on bridges and rebar projects. After two years, she came to Carr Construction, and has worked for the same company ever since, drawing on an enduring network of supportive co-workers rather than surfing from job to job. She says she values security over novelty: “I’d rather wait out the slow times.”
In 2000 as an apprentice, she became eligible to start work on her welding certification and passed the initial training in only three weeks. She pressed on, getting incremental raises and working hard as a “grunt,” as she puts it. She passed her journeyman’s trade certification in 2002 and has since advanced to her current role as superintendent. Through the years she took a number of OSHA classes and is now starting to teach apprenticeship training classes herself.
“I got lucky as a female,” says Zoller-McKenzie. “Because I did make friends and they took me under their wing.” (Continuing in the tradition of paying it forward, she’d like aspiring Ironworkers to know there’s now a smart phone app to aide with the math-heavy art of angle finding. Yes, it’s called Angle Finder.)
Her work has afforded Zoller-McKenzie some memorable times. She’s had a one and a half day welding assignment turn into a gig that lasted over a year, and a job in Terrebonne, Oregon for which she got to do her work 150 feet off of the ground.
The job is not without its downsides – Zoller-McKenzie says the weight of working outside in all weather conditions is getting hard to bear as her body ages. And she says she’s had to sacrifice any semblance of a “normal” family life: “The crazy schedule of this job demands pretty much 15 hours a day.”
But she likes this work. Zoller-McKenzie’s career path has taken her from journey-level worker to crew supervisor — nowadays she also performs crew foreman duties as needed, delegating tasks and being responsible for safety compliance.
She’s proud of what she does. She makes good money and, as she tells us in our interview “the kind of fun you can have on a job is unbelievable.” Looking forward, she has plans to pursue her OSHA safety supervisor certification, and would love to work as an engineer for that agency one day.
This multi-generation Ironworker’s advice to new female tradeswomen? “There’s always going to be some guy who will blow you off because they don’t believe women should be in this job. Have a thick skin. Accept what is, and find the positives.”