It’s hard to believe that at one point Tyrone Belgarde had an attitude problem. Nowadays, the Oregonian is a valued, longtime member of the team at Knife River’s Tangent, Oregon offices. The 39 year old has been with the company for nearly 20 years, and has risen from an entry-level Laborer position on the grading crew to his current position as Construction and Estimation Manager.
“He’s one of the nicest guys,” his coworker says to us admiringly when we visit to talk to Belgarde about becoming a building trades leader.
Maybe he always was the helpful man we see during our interview, but circumstances were such that in his early days as a worker, Belgarde was a bit difficult to keep employed. His parents divorced when he was five years old, leaving his dad to deal with his addiction problems apart from the family. Belgarde and his mom and siblings moved around a lot. He went to boot camp before his senior year of high school, and graduated from South Albany High School by the skin of his teeth before returning to boot camp for his second stint. He enrolled and dropped out of Linn-Benton Community College at age 18. “I didn’t have enough money, was too immature to go to college,” he says.
Shortly thereafter he found work at an underground utility company in Salem. “It was not good,” he said. “I was a jerk and got fired – I deserved to get fired!”
Belgarde says he’s not sure what caused his transformation into responsible worker, but it happened sometime during his years at Knife River (originally Morse Brothers when he was first hired).
“It was quite a culture shock,” he says of the professional pace of jobs there. But he found his rhythm, landing a spot as an apprentice in the paving crew. “They said ‘if you want us to invest in you, to teach you how to pave, this is your opportunity.”
So he dug in, moving from Paving Crew Laborer to Roller Operator, to Screed and Paving Operator, to Paving Foreman, working jobs from Portland to Eugene. By the time he was 29, he had two daughters and a son. He now teaches occasional classes for Grand Ronde and Siletz Native Americans through the Northwest College of Construction. He honors his father’s heritage by participating in tribal events, sending his kids to culture camp to learn about being Native.
But still: “When I talk about things like vision – I don’t have a long term vision. When people talk about your five year goal – well I have a goal to get through today.”
That attention to the task at hand, perhaps, is part of what makes him a good leader. “Identifying a problem, figuring out your options, and acting,” Belgarde says, is his general way of moving through work. He places a high value on teaching, as a leader in his workplace.
And when he sees a position he wanted, he goes for it whole-hog. Take estimation work – Belgarde showed up to observe Knife River estimators for free during part of a winter, absorbing the information with such commitment that management took him on, first at minimum wage, then as a full-fledged member of the team. Now he’s a manager who is working on a $10 million Newport airport project, the only worker in his part of the office without a college degree.
He says that working in the trades has made it possible to provide for his family, and it’s satisfying to boot. “I can’t drive anywhere without seeing a driveway or a parking lot that we’ve built. You remember all the funny stuff from that site, like the person who spilled oil all over the place,” he laughs.
When he’s asked about advice for beginning building trades folks, Belgarde is hardly at a loss. “Always move forward. Always ask questions about what you need to work on. Don’t expect others to do it for you.”