The day starts early for Michelle Phillips.
“The alarm goes off at about 4:30 in the morning. I pack my lunch and get myself together and head out the door. It’s a 45 minute to an hour commute for me to get to work,” she related.
“I start out at 6:30 am and pre-trip my truck,” says Michelle. After lifting the massive blue hood and climbing up onto the bumper, “Yep, looks good,” sliding the dip stick back into the engine of the Kenworth. While wiping the oil from her bare fingers on her jeans, Phillips continues, “We look for anything leakin’, broken, loose or missing,” still examining the engine. After the suspension, brakes and all the fluids are checked the tires come next.
Reaching into the cab under the seat, Michelle grabs a short handle sledgehammer used to check the tires on her dump truck and trailer. With her hair pulled into a ponytail and sticking out of the back of her ball cap, she swings the sledge bouncing it off all the tires to make sure the air pressure is good. It’s all part of the pre-trip inspection done every morning before she heads out with either her dump truck or cement mixer on assignments given to her by operations at Klondike Concrete Company in Chugiak.
On most days, Michelle explains, “I head out to a gravel pit, I haul concrete materials for our concrete plant so they can be mixed and put into mixers to be taken out for delivery to jobs.” Not only does she drive a dump truck with a trailer, “Some days I actually do get put into a mixer when we’re really busy. They will pull me out of my end dump and pup, and put me in a mixer truck. That was a skill I learned about three years ago. It’s been super beneficial. I think whenever you can learn something new, it’s a great idea to put into your belt and take on a new challenge. I’m always up for those,” says Michelle.
Michelle, a mother of two children, is a lifelong Alaskan, born and raised in Anchorage and that’s where her driving career started.
She later transitioned to the valley. Michelle holds a Class A Commercial Driver License and has been driving trucks for over 30 years.
Like many students who graduate high school, Michelle was undecided on a career path. Michelle’s mom had a friend who owned a trucking company and was looking for a female driver. Michelle reflected back at that time, “He always said they always take better care of their equipment than the male drivers. I met up with him directly out of high school. He taught me the ropes, showed me how to operate an end dump. After a while, he started teaching me to run equipment, dozers, compactors, and loaders. Eventually, and end dump and pup, which is an end dump with a trailer, or an EDP as we call it.”
Taking a short break in driving to start a family, Michelle resumed driving saying, “I became a single parent, and it was the best way to make money for my family, put a roof over my head, feed my kids three good meals a day and that’s what I’ve done all these years ever since.” It was during this time she earned a nickname, Michelle said with a grin, “It was back then when my kids were younger, they called me Mother Trucker, being I was a single Mom.”
It’s not always been an easy road for Michelle in this line of work.
Earning respect at times has been a challenge for her in a mostly male-dominated career field. “It can be difficult earning some respect from some male co-workers. Not always. I feel like it was more difficult in the beginning than where we are today, for sure. I have worked for employers that I ended up leaving because it was,” pausing to choose her words, “better for me that way.” After a thoughtful pause, she continued, “I have a saying that I used to live by, which is: I work for a company for about five years. I learn their bad habits, and they learn mine. So, I move on.” With enthusiasm in her voice, says, “But now, I work for a terrific company, Klondike Concrete. I think I have finally found my home. I am hoping to retire from here.” Michelle is the only female, other than the ladies that work in the office, at Klondike. Finishing her thought she added, “I get great respect from everyone at Klondike. It’s very comfortable.”
Michelle has been in the construction business for over 30 years and has been involved in many projects. Knowing she had a hand in those projects gives her a great sense of joy and satisfaction. After thinking a bit, she said, “We poured the Eagle River bridge, I was a part of that, and that’s going to be there for a long time. Every time I drive over it, I think, I was a part of this. We also did a 600-ton continuous pour for the Brett Memorial Ice Arena in Wasilla, and that’s just fabulous. Six hundred tons is a lot of material, and that makes for a very busy day. It was a huge thing to do but very rewarding in the end.”
Working hard long days comes with the job of being a driver and heavy equipment operator.
“I work 10-12 hours a day six days a week in the summer. We cut back a little in the winter. I still get about 10 hours a day, four days a week, but it’s a real blessing. I can run loader, I can run the mixer now, I’ve run side dumps, belly dumps, and EDP. EDP is my favorite, it’s a little more challenging.” Finishing her thought she adds, “And, just the fact it’s up to me to make sure the job gets done gives me great satisfaction. For me and my general day, knowing I did my best for the company, I can go home and put my head on the pillow at night and know I did exactly that.” Michelle added, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
As with any job, there always are challenges. “Traffic by far is the most challenging,” says Michelle. Driving defensively and being in a constant state of alertness is a must. With increasing traffic in both Anchorage and the Mat-Su, the traffic challenges have increased. “In the big picture, I have to also be worried about traffic and forward thinking to make sure I can predict and judge what a car in front of me, around me or behind me might do. 103,000 pounds doesn’t stop on a dime,” Michelle says.
Over the years there have been several close calls. No accidents, fortunately, and the outcomes turned out okay.
Michelle related an experience she remembers vividly. “I had a car turn left in front of me, and all I could see was a little kids eyes staring up at me. I had both feet on the brakes, and I was standing up in my vehicle just prayin’ I was gonna stop. Luckily, it all ended well. It can be scary. You gotta pull up your bootstraps though and get back in the seat. Cuz, if you don’t, then you might never get back in the seat.” Taking a deep breath and continuing, “I had a couple close calls where my boss has shown up and said, you want us to take the truck home? I said no, I’ll take it back because if I don’t get back in there, I probably never will.”
She encourages other women by saying, “I think it’s a great opportunity for other women to get involved. It feels scary in the beginning, it’s a lot of responsibility. But, times are changing, and women are taking on bigger and better careers. I think this is very rewarding, it provides for your family and puts a roof over your head. I think it’s a great opportunity for anyone, but especially for women.”
As Michelle reflected on her career as a truck driver and heavy equipment driver, it’s very apparent that she loves her job and the company she works for.
With as many years she has invested, it’s unlikely she will change careers and stop doing what she loves. She jokingly added, “I thought about working and doing something different. This started out as a job, and it’s turned into a career. I don’t think I could ever work in an office. That’s because I probably end up hitting someone over the head with a shovel. So, being in my own truck, behind my own wheel is probably where I should be.”
It didn’t take long after meeting Michelle who is 5’4” and 50 years old to realize she takes her job very seriously. Her upbeat attitude, work ethic, love of driving, and great relationships with her co-workers and employer, has helped her to be successful in a job surrounded with men. With a smile and a laugh, Michelle said, “Being a woman in a so-called man’s field, I push myself to try a little harder, stay a little longer, and do a little better. But, at the end of the day, I’m just like the rest of ‘em. I put my work boots on one at a time.”