Meet a Woman of Asphalt: Aggregate Industries’ Tracy Richard
BY Sandy Lender
As the quality control technician for Aggregate Industries Northeast Region Inc., a division of Holcim, Tracy Richard has taken on a host of responsibilities, including driver safety training within the company and mentoring others who wish to become Women of Asphalt (WofA). Her road to a successful career in the asphalt industry began in her early thirties and she has encouragement for other women considering a similar career change.
AsphaltPro: What was the catalyst for joining the construction industry as an apprentice laborer in 2010?
Tracy Richard: My twenties were a tough time for me after losing my mother. I was kind of late to the party, and I did not take my career goals and future seriously until my early thirties. I wanted to find a job that was emotionally, physically and financially rewarding that I could enjoy doing every day. Being stuck in the same old routine punching a time clock in a crouton factory for minimum wage was monotonous, and I felt as though my life was going nowhere and my hard work was not paying off. I am grateful for the experience because it was character-building.
I spoke with a friend of my family, and he mentioned that I should apply to Aggregate Industries because they were hiring. I sent in my application and was surprised when I received a call back for an interview. I was candid regarding my past and very happy that they called me back. They offered me a position as an apprentice laborer in the construction division, and it felt as though this job would be a great fit. I was excited and scared at the same time. Leaving a job when you have been there for a while and counted on a steady income can become a big challenge. I feared the unknown, but I am extremely satisfied with my decision, and I have no regrets.
AsphaltPro: What did you find most rewarding about the laborer role? And what about that entry-level role would you encourage women who are joining the industry to “look for” for their advancement?
Tracy Richard: I find that the most rewarding part of the laborer role was it was a career move, not just a job. I liked seeing the things that I built come together. I felt like I was part of something bigger. I realized that this was a multi-faceted company with many positions that complemented one another. I could see that I could move up in this company. I like being a part of a team; as they say, “there is no I in team.” Everyone needs to work together to complete the job at hand, which is how Aggregate Industries works. This role is a viable career path for future applicants looking for a change. There is room to grow, which is always an important factor when searching for a new job.
Individuals just starting out should look for those employees who take their job seriously and are willing to take the time to teach. Make yourself noticeable in small yet profound ways. Take the extra step to listen to your peers because they have been in this position before you. They can help keep you safe and move forward while learning this trade. It does not begin and end with me; it’s about succession. The best thing that I can do for the industry is pass on my knowledge and wisdom to newcomers. We all age, and once I hit the finish line, there needs to be another “me and you” just starting down the path. This mentoring is the least I can do for the company that has provided my family and me with a good, stable life.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers your career trajectory and what challenges you’ve overcome along the way?
Tracy Richard: My career trajectory is like a newborn. First, you learn how to crawl before you can walk and run. This path is a mirror image of my job. I first learned basic things like good housekeeping and how to use the equipment safely. Learning to follow the proper steps and safety protocols is essential when learning this job. Some of this work can be dangerous or intimidating, and a lack of awareness of your surroundings could lead to severe consequences. Once you get past the initial learning process, it becomes a matter of developing the skills you need to succeed. Then you look forward to what’s next, and you keep growing and learning. Every job is different and requires a specific set of skills to master.
When I started doing this job, many people were not used to working with women, which was a bit difficult to handle at first. In this day and age, female empowerment and diversity are so apparent throughout this company and the industry.
Some of the work obstacles I had to overcome also trickled into my home life, such as adjusting my sleep schedule to work nights. This time change can be difficult for anyone as the whole world is awake and moving about, and you’re trying to sleep to get rest before your next night shift. Working nights might prevent you from celebrating birthday parties or weddings because you may need to sacrifice sometimes during the paving season when it is all hands-on deck. You may miss out on certain things, but once you learn to prioritize and look at the bigger picture, you can see the results of your hard work paying off. There are also pros to working at night like less traffic, no 90° ambient temperatures working over 300° asphalt.
AsphaltPro: What are some of the day-to-day responsibilities that you most enjoy as a quality control technician?
Tracy Richard: I enjoy every aspect of this job, but each season has different priorities. During the winter season, we don’t pave unless there is an emergency repair, so I am usually in the lab doing mix designs with a team of people. I also set up the milling project workbooks that require field inspection. I have recruited and trained female laborers to perform milling inspections for our larger projects. They report all milling issues to the construction manager and me.
With this experience in milling operations, communicating and directing trucking companies, our management team asked me to participate in a truck recruitment effort. I have been a certified Smith Systems driving instructor for Aggregate Industries over the last seven years. I conduct annual driver training instruction for multiple divisions with employees ranging from laborers to managers, and this includes prioritizing and scheduling. Being a Smith Systems instructor for the company is truly one of my passions and has helped me grow personally.
Once the paving season begins, I’m out in the field doing paving inspection and testing. This time is the most challenging aspect of my job as I’m responsible for the quality and workmanship of multi-million-dollar highway paving projects. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has a Quality Assurance Specification that applies incentives and disincentives for field quality characteristics such as pavement thickness, in-place density and smoothness. I’m constantly communicating with our quality control plant inspectors, construction managers, paving superintendents, forepersons, roller operators and MassDOT inspectors to ensure that we deliver the highest quality product. I’m always striving to do my best and achieve bonuses on the projects I work on. Regardless of the season, I love going to work every day, and I take pride in all my accomplishments.
AsphaltPro: What part of your communications studies best relates to your career track?
Tracy Richard: Although short-lived due to my father’s illness with MS, my college studies relate to my job by giving me the ability to speak with others. It enhanced my communication skills. I always wanted to continue my education, but unfortunately, I could not complete my degree. I see the skills I learned in college helping with my extra responsibilities with training others, such as communicating in meetings and public speaking with Smith Systems driver training. I gain most of my knowledge through hands-on experience.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position as a quality control technician in the asphalt industry?
Tracy Richard: I would say that the most significant skill that I bring to my job is communication and my passion for quality. Communicating properly leads to everyone being on the same page and getting the job done right. Getting the job done right the first time helps my company be successful, which allows my success. I am very conscientious of what I do to minimize costly mistakes. Efficiency is key while making sure that safety is always first. Women entering this industry should not be intimidated working side by side with men.
One must learn how to communicate with others of different backgrounds. We need to understand that communicating with one person is not necessarily how we would communicate with another. You must understand the audience.
AsphaltPro: What would you say was the most challenging “obstacle” you, as a female in the asphalt industry, had to overcome in the past 12 years, and how did you overcome that obstacle?
Tracy Richard: There are a few obstacles I had to overcome. It was a matter of breaking the glass ceiling and showing the men that I, as a female, could do the job right alongside them. I had to work extra hard to prove myself in a predominately male industry. I was new to the industry, and not everyone was willing or able to teach and train someone new. When you add the female component, it becomes a bit more complicated. I looked for the teachers and gravitated towards them.
When I first started, women were more in the office and not in the field. Now things have come so far, and I am lucky to work for such a great company that offers women the same opportunities they offer men. You do not have to come into this company being president; you just have to show up and earn your spot.
Some of the old-timers weren’t as used to women doing the same physical work as the men. It wasn’t meant to be malicious towards me; they were trying to be gentlemen and didn’t understand what they didn’t know at first. My goal is to get the job done as a team and work together.
The parent company for Aggregate Industries is Holcim, a Forbes top 100 female-friendly company of 2021, and I am proud to be part of that. For newcomers, it is not about gender-specific roles anymore; it’s about being a good worker and part of a team. If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. You must be your number one advocate, and people will have more respect for you. Respect yourself, work hard and have humility. You need to remember to look for the teachers. Every job is achievable if you show up with the right attitude and mindset. You will get far by learning and listening. Be the best you can be, and the rest should come naturally. Remember, you are not alone; you are part of a team.
AsphaltPro: What is the most rewarding aspect for you of being in the asphalt business?
Tracy Richard: I enjoy seeing the finished product because I know how much hard work and effort goes into inspecting and testing the aggregates, HMA and paving. I really enjoy driving around and pointing out different projects that I have worked on to my family and friends, and it makes me smile with pride and satisfaction.
I enjoy the fact that some customers and MassDOT engineers specifically request me for their projects. When we hit the end joint on the last night of paving a multi-million-dollar project, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I love to hear feedback on challenging projects, especially when it is a favorable outcome.
I’m not going to lie; sometimes, I get choked up when completing an especially challenging and taxing project. I have so much passion for what I do, and I am thankful for it. There are too many people these days who do not enjoy their jobs, and I am glad I’m not one. I have 100% pride in my job and the people I work with.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is an incorrect perception that we, as an industry, can re-educate young people about to encourage more women to consider a career in the asphalt business?
Tracy Richard: Too many people perceive that this is a man’s job in a man’s world, but it is just like the James Brown song says, “But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.” Another misconception is that people think you need a college degree to work in asphalt quality control. You just need a high school diploma, driver’s license, motivation and willingness to learn. Last but not least, incorrect perceptions would be that some people think that certain positions get paid from the neck down, such as laborers, which is so untrue. Drive, motivation, sound decision-making and learning are vital qualities for any role in this industry.
AsphaltPro: For the WofA mentorship program, what do you feel is a useful goal of the program for the mentee? What aspect of the program would you recommend to a woman who is thinking about signing up to be mentored?
Tracy Richard: That would depend on who the mentee is. Each mentee has a specific interest or skill set they want to improve on. My role is to help my mentee with inspiration and knowledge of general and specific types. I am here to encourage my mentee and help guide her in the direction she wants to go to reach her goals. I am excited to be a part of this program, and I wish it were there when I started. Mentees should use the mentor as much as possible. Reach out to your mentor and let them know the specifics of what you need as an individual. Set up a plan with your mentor, list your goals, and make time for virtual or in-person meetings.
AsphaltPro: For the WofA mentorship program, what is a benefit for mentors like yourself?
Tracy Richard: As a mentor, I try to make myself available as much as possible. This program provides growth for me and the mentee. Guiding and inspiring my mentee will help to keep it fresh for me and help both of us reach our goals. It is easy to become complacent and rest on your laurels, but that’s not for me. If you want to continue your personal growth, this program can help do that. Those who do become a mentor will find that it is rewarding. Mentoring others can teach you a lot about yourself. Remember that you were once in their shoes, and it’s good to pay it forward.
AsphaltPro: What kind of time commitment does the WofA mentorship program demand of you as a mentor and why is that commitment “worth it” to you and your employer?
Tracy Richard: I guess that would depend on my mentee’s specific needs and how much time they are willing to commit to it. I believe it’s easy to commit to something you believe in. If I can help them with networking, job opportunities, or even something going on in their lives that affects their job, then I am here to listen and provide advice and guidance. I can be a sounding board and a good listener. I strive to offer courteous, constructive criticism.
History does not have to repeat itself; learn from your past experiences. With time comes experience, knowledge and wisdom that a mentor can pass on to their mentee. Mentors should share their knowledge and how they evolved in this industry. This process makes it worth it for myself and my employer, as we are sharing our knowledge with the newcomers to keep this industry moving forward while evolving and adapting in a positive direction.
AsphaltPro: Which aspect(s) of the Smith Systems driver training program do you most look forward to when training the groups of drivers each winter and which aspect(s) give you the most apprehension?
Tracy Richard: I look forward to meeting the new people within my company that I do not run into generally in my day-to-day role. I enjoy getting to know my coworkers on a more personal level while instructing them. I am not here to teach them how to drive, it is more about teaching them how to drive safer and avoid certain situations. At times, I like to step outside of my quality control role and challenge myself. Sometimes I get nervous instructing the first few classes but after that I get into a rhythm. I want to make sure that I am doing my best as an instructor. My goal is to educate my coworkers to become more aware of their surroundings and be safer drivers.
AsphaltPro: How was the Smith Systems driver training incorporated into Aggregate Industries safety culture?
Tracy Richard: The Smith Systems driver training was incorporated just before I started teaching it. It was an Aggregate Industries corporate initiative to reduce vehicle accidents and promote safety. In lieu of having Smith Systems provide a certified instructor to train our employees, the company decided to have some employees become certified Smith Systems instructors. I was a construction laborer when I was chosen to become a certified Smith Systems instructor. I had a weeklong intensive training course.
I am glad that I was selected, and I feel that this is such a rewarding experience. I have recertified every two years since 2015 and trained individuals in my company using their lesson plans and videos. Every time I recertify, I learn something new, which is helpful when teaching others. I enjoy this immensely, and it has improved my driving both professionally and personally and has saved my life on many occasions.
AsphaltPro: Will you tell us about a person who served as a mentor for you?
Tracy Richard: It is hard to narrow it down because many people have personally and professionally inspired me.
The first would be my father, Paul Richard. Even though he worked in an entirely different industry, he taught me how to work hard and give it my all. He encouraged me to be the best I could be. My father was diagnosed with MS at 47 years old and had to retire. Although his career was cut short, he taught me how to handle myself with grace and dignity. My father is still one of the strongest men I know, regardless of his condition and career status. He is a fighter and has taught me to fight and never give up. I have a special place in my heart for him, and I am so grateful that he is my father.
Another person who inspired me is my father-in-law Charles McCombs who passed away from cancer in 2018. Chuck taught me that I could do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. He always believed in me and always said to me, “Tracy, I know you, if you say you’re going to fly a plane, then you’re going to fly that plane.” Every time I reached a goal, he would tell me that it was another feather in my cap. After he passed away, his company created a special award named in his honor for employees that stand out. I miss him dearly, and I continue to try to make him proud.
On a professional level, there are countless people, but I will narrow it down to two. The two that would stand out the most would be Mike Nichols and Mike Whiffen. They saw my potential and gave me the opportunity in quality control. They have invested in my professional and personal growth. I have had a few not-so-nice managers in my lifetime, and it is a breath of fresh air when you have managers who are willing to advocate for you and remind you that you are a valuable employee capable of great things. They continue to push me to do my best, and they are my two biggest supporters. I have tremendous respect for them, and I am grateful for them mentoring me. I would not be where I am today if not for these people and many more in my life, and I am ever so thankful. I would also like to thank my friends in quality control, construction, paving, milling, and MassDOT who have helped me along the way. Of course, I need to mention my family, who have been here with me through my worst and my best. They are always looking out for me throughout my journey. Family has always been one of the most important things to me and the entire reason I do what I do.