Two Female Crane Operators On The Same Site “Never Happens” — Until Now, That Is

By Dominique Times The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Two female crane operators on one construction site????? It is the scene in Waikiki right now where WOMEN are playing a pivotal role in the development of the new 40 story Hilton. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Orange cranes standing over 400 feet tall alongside the new Hilton high-rise under construction in Waikiki this week weren't an unusual sight.

Invisible to passers-by below, however, Brita Nykreim was operating the crane on the left while Danette Nako'oka was in the cab on the right -- women at the controls of two colossal machines hoisting heavy beams and concrete on the same work site.

Having the two tower crane operators on one construction site was a rare occurrence in the industry, according to Jackie Garner, president and founder of Garner Construction.

Garner Construction is a subcontractor to Hensel Phelps, the company building the Hilton's new 40-story high-rise on the corner of Kalia Road and Paoa Place. While on-site Tuesday, Garner said she was thrilled there were two women operating the machinery, something she hadn't seen in all her years in construction.

"There's two women on this job doing high-rise work," Garner said. "Two women in tower cranes, that never happens. I've never seen that in my life."

Angela Chinen, a crane instructor for Operating Engineers Local 3 on Oahu, said its the first time she has heard of such an occurrence anywhere in the state.

"I don't know that it's ever happened in Hawaii before," Chinen said. "I've seen women on construction sites, but not very many in tower cranes."

She said Operating Engineers Local 3 has 60 members who are licensed tower crane operators, and only four are women.

Garner, 64, started in the business 37 years ago in an apprenticeship program and established her own Seattle-based company 25 years later in 1991.

Garner said she entered an apprenticeship program during a time when the federal government was setting hiring quotas to push construction unions to open their doors to more women and minorities.

"Some of the men saw it as women coming in to take their jobs," she said. "Even more so with tower cranes because it's one of the more prestigious pieces of equipment on-site. It's hard for people to give that position up, especially to a woman."

Garner said she was fortunate to find a mentor willing to teach her.

"When I started out, there was one gentleman out of the 3,000 people where I was working who took me under his wing," she said. "If you were a woman in trades and you didn't have somebody to kinda help you through -- well, I wouldn't have made it. There's no way I would've made it."

However, Garner said in recent years she has seen significant improvements for women in construction.

"The job's not glamorous, not glorified; it's a lot of hard work. It was terrible in the beginning but way better now," Garner said. "There's a whole new generation, and men are used to seeing women on job sites. They're seeing them as people who could be their sister or cousin or daughter."

Having Nako'oka and Nykreim working together in tower cranes at one work site is proof of change, she said.

Nako'oka, 58, spent 31 years working on construction projects on Oahu -- from the Beretania Street police station's parking structure to high-rises in Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. For five years she also worked as an accredited crane instructor for Operating Engineers, where she said she trained 150-200 workers every year.

She entered construction when she was 27, and within a year was 400 feet in the air training in tower cranes. Like Garner, she said she was lucky to have found a mentor.

"A lot of women I saw that got treated badly got intimidated enough that they left," she said. "But I didn't get intimidated. I kept fighting."

It is common in construction for fathers to pass on knowledge and expertise to sons who then enter the business. The daughter of a welder from Lahaina, Nako'oka comes from generations of construction workers, but that didn't shield her from being treated unfairly or inappropriately on work sites, she said.

Over the years Nako'oka said she has experienced physical, verbal and other abuse from male co-workers, often facing job discrimination and accusations of sleeping with superiors for job promotions. She said she kept quiet about most incidents out of fear that speaking up would affect future job prospects.

"I've had men hit me, tease me for having my period, and they made me walk five blocks to go to the bathroom," Nako'oka said. "I've been picked up by my shirt, called names and told I was a (expletive) whore. And I wasn't the only one. I saw other women being treated the same way."

Although she was qualified to operate many kinds of cranes and equipment, she was offered only temporary positions, filling in for men who were sick or on vacation, she said. While on the current Hilton site she is the sole operator of her crane and she acknowledges there has been progress in the industry, Nako'oka said overall not much has changed for women in construction.

There are three women shadowing her at the Hilton site -- women she described as "tough cookies" with bright futures in construction. Working alongside Nako'oka is Nykreim, 44, vice president of Garner Construction. A former Marine, Nykreim has been working with the company for 20 years and considers Garner a close friend and mentor.

"When she (Garner) went through and had her experience, it made things easier for me," Nykreim said. "There was plenty of the good ol' boys club because no matter where you go or what you do, you still have to prove yourself. You have to have a thick skin to be part of this, 'cause if you don't the gals aren't gonna make it."

Nykreim said her experience in construction has been a wonderful journey and that she feels obligated to pass on her knowledge to the next generation. She, too, was being shadowed by a young woman interested in becoming a crane operator.

"We have to help people in any capacity, especially if women want to get into this, because they're few and far between," Nykreim said.

"I went for years and years without seeing but one or two women," she said. "So being on this project and knowing that there's two gals just gettin' it is awesome."

BY THE NUMBERS

Number of crane operators in the U.S.: 46,490

Hawaii average wages: $41.80 per hour

Average annual salary: $65,000

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