Thea Zander: A Tradeswoman With an Eye for Adventure

Thea Zander OTI Blog

For someone who loves hard work, Thea Zander is surprisingly positive about the times in her career when, as a Carpenter, she’s been without a job for a month or so.

“I love that part of it!,” the superintendent says. “They’re like, we’ll see you in a month and I’m like, perfect, road trip! When you’re a Union Carpenter you can go anywhere and work if you choose to.” It goes to show that, even within the established schedules and important protocols of the building trades, there’s still ample room for adventure.

Despite a level of commitment that led her to be named “Safe Person of the Year” by her Walsh Construction peers, Thea Zander finds time to go off the beaten track to help community rebuilding projects.  After Katrina struck New Orleans, Zander joined an all-female framing crew with Habitat for Humanities to apply her skills to post-hurricane relief efforts.

Growing up in Montana, Zander spent high school doing housekeeping at a resort. She attended the University of Montana for a number of years, studying environmental biology and archaeology before leaving to live the ski bum lifestyle for a number of years.

Later, while living in Olympia, Washington and working for a tree company, a carpenter friend steered Zander to Walsh Construction. Zander’s first job in the trades entailed building dormitory housing for a college as a laborer.

It was the first time Zander had ever contemplated a future as a tradeswoman. “I’d never considered construction,” she says. “I always thought it was just – well, rednecks and beer.” But: “When I became a Laborer I felt I’d found my niche,” she says. “I loved the organization part of it, and the constant movement.“

“The guys were so decent,” she remembers. “Decent, smart, and hardworking. I thought I really like these people.”

From her entry-level Laborer apprentice gig, Zander became a Carpenter Apprentice, Journeyman Worker, a Crew Lead, a Foreman, Assistant Superintendent, and finally stepped into her current position of Superintendent.

She’s clear on what her priorities on the job. “A great leader is somebody who is knowledgeable about what they’re looking at, they understand structures and interiors and how they go together. Organizational skills, and then communication skills – you need to be able to talk to people in the field and have them understand what you want from them.”

Zander counts her honor years ago as Safe Person of the Year among the most memorable moments on the job. “It was huge for me just because it was a vote by all my peers,” she says. “It just meant a lot that they thought that much of me.”

As a woman, and an out lesbian, Zander deals regularly with common perceptions of who can be a building trades worker – often dealing with demands to “see the superintendent” with a cool “you’re looking at her.”

But within the trades she’s rarely felt unsupported by coworkers. “People in the trades don’t care [about your sexual orientation],” she says. “What they want you to do is their job.”

And once you’ve seen Zander on the job, there’s no question about who is in charge. Zander coordinates crews of architects, engineers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, drywallers, roofers, and more in a harmonious performance that a recent blog post on the Walsh Construction likened to a symphony.

To women who are thinking of a career in the trades, Zander – who often volunteers for Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. — would counsel careful forethought – and a predilection for physical labor. “It’s hard work, but it’s very tangible, you can see what you’ve done every day,” she says. “Respect your coworkers. Treat them with respect and they’ll do the same. If they don’t, just walk away from them.”

For those looking to rise the ladder as she did: “Work hard and keep your eyes open. Watch the process. The more you know the more marketable you are. If you do the best you can and give it 100 percent, things will just work out.”

As for what the future holds for Zander, think more road trips – she’s only a few years away from being able to retire comfortably. Yet another bonus of a career spent doing what she loves.

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