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Truck Loads of Change with Kathy Tuccaro

Date Published: November 2, 2021

Kathy Tuccaro, was faced with a decision–take a leap of faith and train to be a heavy equipment operator or risk falling back into a life of uncertainty and pain. Kathy’s story and the outcome of her choices will inspire you. Listen to Kathy as she discusses why more women should join the trades and how organizations and male peers can help create an environment that welcomes and promotes diversity in non-traditional roles.

I’m excited to be talking about this idea of courage, having the courage to choose the right career for you even when that role is traditionally held by people who don’t look like you. Everyone deserves joy and fulfillment in their work. We have this vision to be one of the first contractors in North America that looks like the society in which we operate. It’s great to see more women in construction. We desperately need more. We have a special guest, Kathy Tuccaro, and she’s going to share her journey. Kathy, welcome to the show.

Thank you for having me.

Let’s jump into it. You have an incredible career, Kathy. Tell us a little bit about your history and why you’re so motivated to help other people by sharing your experiences.

I got a little bit of a story. I was a nurse for thirteen years. When I was in the age of 42, I had a massive crash and burn mental health-wise. That was due to literally a lifetime of untreated trauma and abuse from years gone by. I suffered from a few suicide attempts right after that issue. My way of dealing with it was to not deal with it. You know how you put it in that ball, then you pretend that didn’t happen. It happened not a long time ago, career ahead of me. Whatever happened in the past happened in the past, that’s it. What that did was it that left me with this deep-rooted, low self-esteem from all these undertreated issues. I finally escaped in 2007. I remember I got on the bus and I had a 36-hour drive from Yukon to Edmonton.

On that bus, I called for a job, I called my friend for a house and a place to stay. In that second, when I got those things lined up, I immediately put on that mask and shifted and saying, “It doesn’t matter. I’m a survivor. I’m a tough cookie. It’s all good.” I go back to nursing and within a year, that was it. I show up on the night shift and I’m looking at my sheet. I’ve got ten people to take care of. You’ve got to understand I’m 42 and I’m mentally exhausted. I’m putting one foot in front of the other to get a paycheck, but am I mentally capable of work? No. I look at my sheet and I couldn’t read my list anymore. I knew right then and there that I was completely done and that I couldn’t pretend that I was okay. I couldn’t pretend that I’m a tough cookie.

I went from the medical unit down to the psychiatric unit in my scrubs. I quit my job. In between the two, I lost my mind and literally, it’s as if that 40 years of pain came gushing out. From that moment, I ended up going to talk to a psychiatric guy. He sent me to treatment. He said, “No happy pills are going to make a difference in your life. You have to look at your life.” This was in 2008. That was the beginning of my career choices that have led me to drive the biggest truck in the world. There’s another story in that, but we’ll get to that later.

Was there an event or was there one particular thing that led to you saying, “I’ve got to make the change,” or was it that moment when you were in the hospital in your scrubs looking at the list? Was there anything else that was going on? What did it feel like at that moment when you made that decision to make a change?

Change doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a series of events that occurred that led me here talking to you. The biggest event was, although I went to get the help that I needed back in 2008. It wasn’t enough because I had 42 years of layers upon layers that some were deeply enrooted, I had absolutely forgotten about what had happened. When I came back to nursing after and I ended up relapsing, I began to drink. I was such a wicked alcoholic. I had no idea how to deal with all these emotions of things that were going on. I ended up losing my career. I ended up losing everything I own. My sixteen-year-old daughter wouldn’t talk to me. I slashed my arm in a drunken moment that I do not remember.

I ended up completely homeless on the street standing beside Toothless Joe. This was my defining moment because he’s all drunk and happy and I’m seven days of complete depression shuffling my feet like a zombie wondering, “I’m educated. How the heck did I end up homeless? How does this even happen?” What happened was Toothless Joe slapped me on the back. He goes, “This is the life. Live it, love it.” When he did that, that was my moment because I call it a God smack because time slowed down. I saw crystal clear my very dismal surroundings and I’m looking around and I’m thinking, “What did you say? I don’t care what you think is okay, but this is not my life.”

I even stomped my foot. I turned around and I went to detox at the hospital. From there, I went to a women’s program called Wellspring through the Mission in Edmonton. It was there that I started to live. You live in a house for a year and you have recovery treatment on anger management, boundaries, codependency, self-esteem, all these things to unlearn all the lies that were fed into me and relearn who Kathy was. The biggest part of that was accepting it. Through them, they had suggested that maybe taking care of other people wasn’t necessarily a good idea. Maybe I should learn to take care of myself first and to look at other career changes. I ended up going to a career planning workshop. This is where after three days of aptitude tests and personality tests, let me tell you one thing, how do you change careers at 42?

It’s very difficult. I was a nurse for thirteen years. That’s all I knew. That’s all I loved. My whole identity was in that nursing hat, my uniform and my scrubs. That’s who I am. Take that away, I was empty, raw and vulnerable. I didn’t know. After this career, the third day, the lady comes up to me and she gives me my sheet back. In big block letters, it said, “Heavy equipment operator.” I laughed so hard, I just about fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “That’s the most ridiculous career change I’ve ever heard in my life.” I give her back the sheet and I said, “I’m 42. I’m a woman. I don’t even like equipment. I’m not mechanically inclined. That’s a man’s job. Your test is wrong.”

She gives it back to me, puts a hand on her hip, raises the eyebrow and gives me the look and says, “If only you believe in yourself a little bit, Missy, you’d see the test is right.” She puts on this video by Les Brown called It’s Possible. I went from sitting with my arms crossed thinking, “This is BS. There’s no way I’m going to be a heavy equipment operator. That’s ridiculous,” to opening up my mind and my heart thinking, “There are possibilities. I am a good driver and maybe there are other avenues that I could explore.” I entertain the thought that “Maybe I’ll give it a try.” She sent me to Women Building Futures, which is by far the best place in Canada. Every woman looking for a career change should go there.

The first day I walked into the doors, I was blessed because Imperial Oil happened to be there. Talk about coincidence. They were offering a pilot project that had never been offered before in Canada, bringing women into the site where they sponsoring a twelve-week course. It was $18,000 per woman for the course. They were taking sixteen women. That’s a big commitment on their part. One hundred seventy women applied. I applied and I got picked. The only reason I got picked is because I was one of the few women that were so bound and determined. I had nothing left to lose. I went above and beyond to make sure that I stood out, that I got fixed. Ultimately, I did. I took the sixteen-week course. They didn’t hire everybody. Out of the sixteen, they hired eleven people. I got hired and it changed my life. Operating equipment is awesome.

We do a lot of work with Women Building Futures. It’s a great organization. I did a panel with the executive director and in a sidebar, before we got off the stage, there was a bit of a conversational. What’s the main challenge? Great women in great jobs, new roles and get them going. She shared with me that one of the challenges was staying in the role and that many of the women who are placed in the construction industry leave the industry after a couple or a few years. That turns into a conversation around leadership in terms of organizational preparedness for women in non-traditional roles. I know you worked with Imperial. Can you tell us a bit of a story about what it was like working with Imperial? Did you face adversity or challenges entering the organization and being in a non-traditional role? In other words, did you get pushback and nonsense from some of the guys?

Given my history, that was my biggest concern because there are so much violence and so many issues. I grew up in fear. Entering a role where it’s mostly male-dominated. At the time, I was the third woman hired on my crew. It was intimidating, but the desire to change my life overruled any fear and insecurity that I had. Regardless if I was shaking in my boots, I’m doing this. Also because it was a golden opportunity. This is an opportunity of a lifetime that I could get there. Once I got to the site, they don’t prepare you enough in training because we train on small equipment. For the readers, I drive literally the biggest truck in the world. On the first day on site, I’m standing there. The picture of the cover on my book is literally my first day there. I got this green hat and I haven’t even been on the truck.

I’m standing beside the stairwell and the tire. The tire alone is 14 feet high. I am 5’6”, so it’s more than twice my size. I’m standing there and I got my thumb in the air and I’m crying in the picture because I’m looking at this thinking, “If only Toothless Joe could see me now.” To give you a better visual, imagine you’re in a pickup and you’re on the road driving along and over the crest of the hill, you see a two and a half-story high monster of a machine. It’s weighing in at 2 million pounds of metal, carrying 400 tons of dirt on its back. It’s coming barreling down the road at you. These things go 70 miles an hour. Do you not hope and pray that the operator is having a good day and that operator is focused on the road and not the problems at home? You sure do. To get back to your question, getting into the role at work, Imperial has been phenomenal. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, it’s your skillset. It’s how you do your job, how safely you approach your work. That is more important than whether you’re a man or a woman.

Organizationally, it’s interesting how the unconscious bias bubbles up. There are a few ways that can manifest itself. One thing that I haven’t caught myself doing is you’re in the office and it’s time to go for lunch or whatever, and you go round up a few of the guys. What ends up happening is, without even knowing it, all the guys are going out having lunch because a lot of the men are project managers. A lot of the women are hanging out at lunch and we’ve got women that are project coordinators and project managers. For whatever reason, there’s no thought about we should think about it as an employee lunch as opposed to, “I’m going to go get some of my friends.” This idea of being thoughtful about those sorts of things in the workplace is important. Another story that I’d throw out there is the statistics that men will ask for the promotion when they’re only half ready. Whereas a woman will wait until she’s totally ready for the promotion.

Being in a management role, you get a long queue of guys out the door thumping on their chest and asking for the promotion. Part of the change that you need to see as a leader is being aware that women will not always ask. Maybe what we should do as leaders are go tap some people on the shoulder and say, “We’ve got this opportunity. We’d love for you to put your name in the hat. Let’s have a conversation.” Being aware of those biases is important in the workplace. What I took from your story with Imperial is that they did not let any of the nonsense to occur. Give a little bit more color on what it means for them to have zero tolerance in terms of this nonsense.

It starts from the get-go because when you’re in the interview process, there are four sets of pairs of managers who are interviewing the person. You’ll sit in one, you’ll be with two people and then you’ll jump to another meeting room. You’ll be with two other people and you do that. The manager’s group up after that then they decide. They interview eight people for every person that they hire. They really choose the best of the best. I’m not saying experience-wise, I’m talking attitude-wise. I’m talking are willing to learn. Even though you have twenty years of experience, can you accept constructive criticism? That is where they’re at because they create a community of family. I’m there half of my life since I’ve been there for the last years. This is my family. They create an environment where you feel safe to voice whatever it is you have to voice. If there’s any comment at all, any feelings of discomfort, the case is looked at and you’ll be fired. There’s zero tolerance and that’s any type of harassment, any type of verbal, anything. They’re amazing.

The key takeaway from that is you cannot allow that to occur. When you see it in an organization, you have to root it out. That’s the only way forward. Another question for you. Mental health is not something that’s talked about often in the construction industry. There’s the stereotype of we’re going to be tough and we’re not going to talk about it. I know that you’re very passionate about it because obviously from your story. Can you talk a little bit more about why mental health is such an important topic?

It all boils down to that moment when I was at the nursing station and I couldn’t read my sheet. That has stayed with me because I wasn’t taking care of my own mental health. I’m taking care of everybody else’s and that led me to crash, burn and unravel. Why it’s so important to me is because people are almost bred into believing that you can’t talk about these things and you have to live behind this white picket fence. It never occurs to people that maybe their coworker might not even have a fence. Maybe they might be so far off the left-field looking for a goat trail to get back home because they’re lost because life is hard. I’m talking about putting on that mask at work that everything is fine when in reality it’s not.

I’ll give you an example. The biggest part for me for that was at work, when my book was about to come out, I wrote the book for women in shelters, women that are struggling, domestic violence, people with sexual abuse and rape and all these things, that frame of mind. It was about to come out and I realized that everybody at work is going to know. I couldn’t sleep for three days. It bothered me so much because all the people at work knew was that, “Kathy was a nurse and look how happy she is. She’s a bubble of light.” That’s the way I am because that’s it’s not a mask. It’s because I’ve dealt with all my trauma and I’m good now. When I realized that, on the third day, I said, “Don’t tell me these big tough guys don’t have problems. Maybe their brother committed suicide. Maybe their mom died of cancer. Maybe they were assaulted when they were young and nobody knows.”

I went in front of my crew and on the big TV screens that we have in the meetings, I put the cover of my book on there. I said, “Do you see that book? It has nothing to do with mining. This happened to me when I was young. This happened to me and that’s why I wrote the book. I want you to hear it from me, not from a third party.” I said, “I’m not asking you to read the book. What I’m asking you to do is that if you know someone who’s struggling with depression, who’s struggling with suicidal tendencies or with past sexual abuse, trauma, whatever it is, maybe pay it forward to them. Maybe all it will take is one sentence in that book that will click and they will go take the next step and go get the help that they need.”

There’s 170 of us. It was very difficult showing myself vulnerable in front of my own team, but by doing that, what that did was open the door to conversations about other things than how’s the weather and what’d you do on days off? People are not talking to me, but they’re talking amongst themselves about real things. I had people from every single department, even people from the corporate office contact me to say, “My kid’s struggling right now. I’d like to buy your book and hopefully something will be there and it’ll help inspire them.” To me, that is priceless because now people are recognizing that it’s okay to admit that you’re not okay. It’s okay to say, “I’m having a rough time. I got some stuff going on at home and my kid’s struggling.” It’s okay to share that. It makes you real.

Certainly, in the construction industry, there are a lot of men in the industry and men don’t do well with being vulnerable and sharing their feelings in many instances. There’s not a lot of that by nature of the composition of the workforce. It’s even more rare to see vulnerability in leadership. I’ve got a bit of a theory in our industry. I’m educated as a professional engineer. I distinctly remember one of the very first classes I took at the University of Alberta. There was this whole conversation about as a professional engineer, you’re expected to have the answers. It’s your job to have the answers. People will look to you for the answers. You go through university and for 4 or 5 years, you get it pounded into your head that you’re supposed to have the answer. You get oaths and you’ll see this whole thing that goes on with the young engineer graduates, they don’t know anything other than what’s in a textbook.

They’re scared to say, “I don’t know.” You’re scared to say that on some technical question into a permanent beam or something on structural analysis. You can’t even drag, “I don’t know,” out of them there. To get vulnerable and stand up in front of a group and talk about childhood trauma, that’s a whole other piece. What I’m taking from your story is that leaders should model the behavior they want to see. If you believe that mental health is a key issue in the workplace, you should be comfortable with being vulnerable and talking about your own challenges. Is that what you’re saying? Maybe unpack that a little bit more.

It’s exactly what I’m saying. From the big company that we are, every morning, we sit in a safety toolbox for 50 minutes. Over the past few years, there are different kinds of leaders that show up. Some will be there with the big tough guy image and this and that. It’s a power trip thing. You’ll get the other one. You immediately shut down. You immediately say, “No, I’m not listening to that guy,” or you get the other one who’ll come upfront and say, “My wife is dying of cancer right now. I’m struggling. If I’m not always there, please remind me or please give me a call or talk to me.” They even admit to using employee assistance program themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. By them being vulnerable in front of the crew as a leader, it automatically breaks down your own walls and say, “That guy has got some guts and I respect that. I’m going to follow that. I’m going to be right there and I’ll do the best that I can be to help him.” There’s a big difference.

That humble leadership where it’s okay to say you don’t have the answers. You don’t have it figured out and you’re relying on the team to help you get there. That’s a powerful way of leading for sure. What would you say to women that are considering a career in the trades? Before you answer that, a little bit of context. The construction industry is at a crossroads around the world. There are not a lot of people in junior high who are excited about going into the construction industry. There’s declining enrollment in the trades. The need for construction work is increasing exponentially. It attracts the population and we have an aging infrastructure in Canada. Our need for great people is off the charts, yet there are not very many people going into it. What would you say to people considering a career in the trades and more specifically women considering a career in the trades?

I’m going to speak from my own personal experience. My time in Women Building Futures, take that as a great example because I’m coming in there as a nurse and totally unaware of anything in the trades because I’m shut out of my whole consciousness. When I got there, I was surprised. Those sixteen women that were picked with me that I spent twelve weeks with, one was 26 years staff sergeant veteran from the Edmonton Police Force. One was a Red Seal chef that has worked all over the world. Another was two people from the military. We had a lady from the post office, a postal worker. We had a housewife and we had myself. Every single case, every single woman in there, it was going on shaky grounds, but the desire to change, the desire to try something new and some of them are still working there with me. They think it’s the best career change ever.

For me, what it has done is it has personally given me a voice learning to speak on the radio. I’ve never had a voice. It was very difficult for me to even say, “Boo.” Now, you can’t shut me up. The biggest, most single important thing is that it’s given me self-confidence. I can accept challenges now. I believe in myself. It gave me a spine. I have a backbone and say, “I can do this.” That to me is priceless. Now I run a whole bunch of different pieces of equipment. I’m training on the grader. It’s 24M. It’s the biggest grader in the world. To get on that thing has been so challenging. I make 100 mistakes a day, but I don’t give up. I keep on trying. I go watch YouTube videos, but it’s learning to work through your own mindset. I made that decision years ago that this is not the career for me, I wouldn’t be where I am now. By looking at your own biases and saying, “Why am I stopping myself? What is it about me that I need to work on to change my point of view?”

It broadens your whole horizons on the opportunities that can come your way. I can’t even begin to tell you the change that has occurred in me because of this job. It’s empowering. Anybody that’s looking for a career change, it might be scary, but it’s not going to kill you. It’s worth the challenge to say, “I maybe 43 or 45 or 50. It doesn’t matter. It’s not too late.” You say it’s too late. Whatever you tell yourself is what’s going to happen. If you say, “I don’t care about my age, it’s a number. I’m going to try this. I’m going to live the last fifteen years of my life operating the coolest equipment in the world,” then you do it. You can say, “I’m 50. I’m too old to change. I’m going to stay in my job that I’m miserable at because it’s comfortable.” There’s a big difference. It’s all in how you view it.

I want to go back and revisit this. You’ve got this very compelling story, a crucible moment. You find yourself at Women Building Futures and you get a job with Imperial. The thing that’s interesting that I want to dig in a little bit more is Imperial had this view that as you call the person, the big, tough, loudmouth guy. I sometimes refer to that as the bro culture. They’re all slapping each other on the back, making jokes, giggling, tee-heeing and whatnot. A little bit frat boyish. It seems to me that behavior is completely unacceptable in the world of Imperial.

They prepared their workplace for women in non-traditional roles with that kind of a leadership position. The question for you is, what would have happened if you had showed up and that wasn’t the environment and there was a whole bunch of loudmouth guys making dirty jokes? What would your response have been? The sad part about this is that that’s the reality for many women in the trades. What would you have done personally if you had experienced that and what would you say to other women who may experience that in the workplace now?

At the time, I was shaking with my self-esteem. I was very vulnerable. I was learning that I can do this. That all the lies that have been fed into me, I’m useless, I’m a waste of skin, and I’m a piece of crap. I pollute the air with all the lies, it was still there. When I would get on equipment, it turns out all the instructors would say, “Are you sure you’ve never been on equipment before?” Everything that I do, I was natural at it. It just came. Operating and loading a truck from an excavator, I’ve never done that before. I’m loading as if I’d done it prior. The instructor was literally jumping up and down. He was laughing. He says, “You’re awesome.”

That inspired me to go, “Maybe I can do this.” Having gone into a place that wouldn’t be like Imperial, I’m not sure if I would have been able to last at that time. It hadn’t been very bile. I was learning to have a voice and stand up for myself. It’s not as a place where an environment where that even comes up. It’s not an issue. I can’t say that I would quit because I’m a very determined person and determined to change. I would have probably found a way to deal with it because, as I said, my desire to change my life, it overruled everything. It’s hard to describe for me because I have this fire inside that pushes me, that drives me every day to keep doing more and be like, “I’ve got to do this.”

Not everybody has that. Ultimately, the answer to that is basically women who are getting confronted in this, you have to stop and look at yourself first and foremost. Where do you stand? What do you need to change? What do you need to work on? What are your weaknesses? How can I fix it? How can I grow? That is what enabled me to be where I am. It did. That time away to self-reflect and deal with the issues, it was a very important foundation.

What I’m taking from that is if the workplace was not ready for someone like you, you probably wouldn’t have persevered and stuck with it. Many wouldn’t have and many would have left because life’s too short to deal with the frat boy who’s in your face. In some other instances, it could even lead to a relapse from a mental health standpoint and triggering events. You got to be very thoughtful about the workplace that you’re designing and the workplace that you’re building from a cultural standpoint as a leader of an organization. That’s a powerful story. You’ve got some exciting things coming up in your future. Tell us about what you’ve got planned here.

First, when I wrote the book, that was the initial thing. I was going to write a book and get my story out, that’s it. I’m not thinking anymore of it, but now, one thing has led to another. In my book, yes, it’s a little bit of my story, but I base it on the emotions that go with it. Chapter one is about fear. I talk a little bit about what I was growing up. I talk about fear itself. I give suggestions and solutions on how to deal with that. There are 4 or 5 questions at the end of every chapter for the reader to look at themselves and start doing some work on them. I got fear, loneliness, despair and all these things. People have been commenting on my website that they wanted more questions.

I started The Dream Big Workbook, which accompanies the book. I’ve released chapters 1 and 2. I’m working on chapter three. There are twenty questions per chapter. There’s a lot of reflection things. It’s for the person who wants to figure themselves out and change. I got that on the goal. I do a lot of charity work. I was down in Grenada. I found out that through my book, there was a lot of sexual abuse going down. I had time off. On my days off, I used to work 10 and 10, but now it’s sixteen days on. I was down there and I was in a church with 138 students. A lot of these kids are being sexually abused and it’s awful. The love that they have is beautiful. I’m looking at them and I’m thinking, “I can’t give them my book. It’s not appropriate. I got to write them a book,” because you can’t change a social structure yet.

My ultimate goal is with the money from the books is I’m going to be building an orphanage down in Grenada, specifically for them and for building a safe haven for women. I released the book that I wanted to write for them. It’s called The Mystical Swordsman of The Sugmad. It’s a Sanskrit word. It’s a young girl’s story of abuse and how she cries to go out for help. God comes to her in the form of dreams and gives her the tools and all that. It’s good. I’m very proud of that. This book has led me to speak for Caterpillar. That brought me to India for Caterpillar. It was an all-expense-paid trip to India. I did a whole bunch of things there.

It was phenomenal. I went to Singapore for Caterpillar Africa. Now that my book got released in French, the Ivory Coast, which is all French, I’ll be going to Africa over there. I’ll also be working because Caterpillar started a pipeline over there so little girls that are going to get water. They don’t get raped and killed on the way. Caterpillar built a pipeline from the pumps all the way to the villages, which is phenomenal. I’ll be working with the International Organization Women of Africa while I’m there. That’s exciting. My book has been out in Spanish. I worked on the media kit. It’s finished and I’m exciting. The CEO of Finning had introduced me at the Cat Women Conference a couple of years ago. He said, “The minute your book is out in Spanish, you call me and we’ll get you a book launch down there.”

I messaged him, “Sebastian, here we go.” He said, “Get me the kit and we’ll start working on the mining communities down in Chile.” That’s phenomenal. This is the best of all best. The Ellen Show called me. They were holding my book in their hands but then COVID hits, so now everything is on hold. I’m not sure what’s going to come out with that. I also want a couple of awards for being an ambassador for women and heavy equipment. Through the company called Constructech down in Chicago, there’s another company that works with them and they’re producers down in Hollywood. They called me wanting to have me as a cast member on a reality show all about equipment. How cool is that? I told the producer, “Are you sure? Do you realize the equipment that I run? You can’t run that on an open road.” I’m going down to Malibu to meet them.

The question for all of our readers out there, what is it that you want to do? What drives you? What gives you joy? It is in that journey where greatness lives. Now, look at the great things you’re doing. Kathy, your story is an absolute inspiration to me. You’ve shown us that someone can have a career in a role that’s traditionally held by people who don’t look like you. You have the courage to make that choice. Look at the great things you’re doing. You’re going on TV shows and traveling all over the world. You’re an inspiration to many. I can tell that you have found joy. I hope that you’re a great inspiration for all of our readers. It’s been great to talk to you.

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