Meet a Woman of Asphalt: Seattle DOT’s Melissa Paulus
BY Sandy Lender
Melissa (Missy) Paulus is the asphalt paving and equipment pool manager, Maintenance Operations Division for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), but she didn’t start out as the boss. She started out sneaking the Tonka toy trucks from her three brothers and playing at moving dirt as a child. Then she graduated from the ANEW program in trades construction at Renton Technical College in 1992 and began her career as a laborer, climbing the ladder of success through hard work, perseverance and a love of asphalt. Recently, she took some time to share with AsphaltPro readers her story as a Woman of Asphalt.
AsphaltPro: You started as a laborer with the city and progressed to truck driver, raker and equipment operator. Could you tell the readers what aspects of those early days or early roles kept you excited about a career in the asphalt industry?
Missy Paulus: In my early years it was working with a crew and learning all the aspects of asphalt paving as well as all the equipment used. As a team, we had to work together by grinding and repaving a new street for it to come together. I knew I wanted to work in asphalt paving, but I wanted to get skills on all the heavy equipment used to become an equipment operator.
I wanted to know how to run the rollers, to know roller patterns, run backhoes for prepping jobs, the road grader and the mechanical sweeper. I wanted to know all the different asphalt mixes used for each application. My role as the asphalt paving and equipment pool manager is that I am responsible for the asphalt paving programs on streets throughout the city of Seattle as well as all the paving equipment.
AsphaltPro: Why did you pursue becoming a heavy equipment operator and what about that job is “most cool” to you? Which machine have you enjoyed working with the most?
Missy Paulus: I knew for a long time I wanted to run heavy equipment, I just needed the training and knowledge of it and at the city, I was lucky enough to have good teachers to help me along the way to my goals. It is ripping out old asphalt and restoring it to a new street.
I would say the 8-ton rollers were my favorite to run. It’s all about the crew working together to finish the job on a new street. It’s so rewarding.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers your career trajectory since joining the city?
Missy Paulus: I strategically pursued my goals throughout life. I have three brothers, including a twin, and grew up playing with trucks and Tonka toys. I knew I would operate heavy equipment from an early age and was determined to follow a career path that would help me realize that dream.
When I applied to be a laborer at SDOT, I was “one of a few women who could pass the strength and endurance test.” I persevered and focused on learning how to rake and shovel asphalt and jackhammer a curb line. I proved my strength and was able to do “everything a laborer would do.”
Six months after I started, I got a Commercial Driver License (CDL) class A and began driving dump trucks. Eventually, I moved into operating heavy equipment, running backhoes, loaders, and rollers 3 to 8 tons, which I did for eight years. Then I moved to crew chief (boss) overseeing the asphalt crews and paving jobs and equipment for several years.
It’s construction and there are not many women in this industry, but I knew I wanted to do this, so I did. I started in asphalt paving as a laborer and then truck driver and raker to a heavy equipment operator. I learned every aspect of asphalt paving and worked my way up to asphalt manager and now I manage crew chiefs and crews doing every job I once did, which also gives you a level of respect.
AsphaltPro: What challenges (or roadblocks) have you overcome along the way?
Missy Paulus: As for roadblocks, they happen but you just keep moving forward. When I knew I wanted to move into management I took several classes to get the skills and knowledge to make this move. I have always had support from my upper management and that’s a game changer to have.
AsphaltPro: What part of your education at Renton or continuing education hours relate best to the career track you’ve enjoyed? And what courses or continuing education classes/seminars would you recommend to other women looking to start a career in asphalt?
Missy Paulus: Construction work in general at ANEW offered a lot of trades to gain skills from. I knew I wanted to run heavy equipment so they gave me resources to find avenues to pursue that and that’s how I learned of getting experience on the job and the city could offer that.
I attended World of Asphalt, which has classes, and they have knowledgeable people who can give you an idea of the different jobs on a paving crew.
They have a Women in Trades fair once a year in our city with trades from every aspect of construction; it’s geared to help recruit women in the trades such as asphalt paving. I have for several years headed up our booth and now am part of a team that still participates in the Women in Trades. It’s a great tool to talk to women about careers at the city of Seattle and your personal career with the city.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers what your job as a heavy equipment operator for the city requires of you? And what your role as the manager requires of you?
Missy Paulus: When I was an equipment operator, we would grind the street for prepping for paving so I could run a backhoe for clean-up, dig out voided areas, break out curb lines, work on the prep, as well as a mechanical broom. Then on the paving day, I would run 3- to 8-ton rollers while paving. Rollers have always been my favorite equipment to run. It’s important because it’s the rolling and finish roll where your skill matters.
Coming up through the ranks gives me credibility with the team I manage now. In my role as the asphalt paving and equipment pool manager, I am responsible for the asphalt paving programs on streets throughout the city of Seattle as well as all the paving equipment. I have done every job of the people I supervise and oversee. I believe I have proven myself.
AsphaltPro: How often do you participate in training other/new workers on different pieces of equipment for the city? Could you talk about teaching and training new members of the crew?
Missy Paulus: Most equipment operators have the skills we hire for so it’s mostly how we run a paving crew and jobs. When I was a heavy equipment operator, I did help others during my career on different size rollers 3-ton to 8-ton steel to rubber tire rollers and what and when the breakdown and finish rolling is done on a paving job and following a roller pattern used. It is the knowledge of street paving. I have always felt like I had help along the way, so I try to mentor others.
AsphaltPro: Could you spell out for the readers what your role leading the snow and ice division for the city entails and tell us what about that role is the most satisfying for you as a leader and member of the construction industry?
Missy Paulus: For the last several years I have run our pedestrian program. This is crew chiefs and crews that clear and salt wheelchair ramps, sidewalks and overpasses for the public to get to public transportation and other areas around the city. Making the city safe and walkable.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position as an equipment operator in the asphalt industry? And how would you encourage other women entering the industry to hone a similar skill to be any kind of equipment operator they want to become?
Missy Paulus: To not only know the equipment but know the paving crews and job layout as well as rolling patterns. I also had books that I used to study materials on the basics of how to operate equipment and then other training skills for other equipment. I also attended classes on asphalt compaction, paving streets, etc.
There is also an equipment school where you can go to school and learn how to run heavy equipment. Go after what you want and make it happen for yourself.
AsphaltPro: What would you say was the most challenging “obstacle” you, as a female in the industry, had to overcome in the past 29 years in Seattle, and how did you overcome that obstacle? How do you think other women in the industry can incorporate that skill or habit into their workdays?
Missy Paulus: When you get into construction it’s hard work and it’s dirty and asphalt is hot, which is not for everyone. I believe that you work as hard as all the crew does even being a female, pull your weight, and have good work ethic. Be a good team member, always seeing what needs to happen next on a paving job. Work safe, work smart.
AsphaltPro: Could you share some of the differences you see in products, safety items, attitudes, opportunities, or any other observation you’ve made, that women can use in our industry today versus what was available when you started in Seattle?
Missy Paulus: We have newer equipment that we use. We have safety teams that share items with us monthly as well as a visit to our job sites. I would say the attitudes towards women in construction have changed. It’s different respect about doing your job. It’s about being part of a crew who knows the work.
I would say to be part of the crew is to learn your job. Always gain knowledge from the crews. There are always opportunities and it’s up to you to pursue them. Always keep a positive attitude.
AsphaltPro: Could you tell the readers about your family’s Christmas tree farm and how working on that enterprise assists you in your attitudes and aptitudes?
Missy Paulus: In the fall and early winter, I enjoy managing our family’s Christmas tree farm and running the coffee stand I created, CUP OF JOY. That’s for my love of coffee. For over 19 years, I have worked there and who doesn’t love a beautiful Christmas tree?
Our web page is threetreefarms.com and you can also find us on Facebook.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about teamwork. Would you like to share a quick note about a project or day when your asphalt team (or the snow & ice team) came together to solve a challenge and make our industry shine?
Missy Paulus: I helped repave Alki Ave SW and I am proud that I was one of the first crew chiefs to run “truck and pup” because the paving distance was so far. We completed our paving before the scheduled time and under budget. I was one of only a few women equipment operators in paving and the only female paving crew chief back then. We currently have more women in those jobs, which are skilled positions. My real love has always been asphalt paving. We can take a deteriorating street and make it beautiful again. There’s instant gratification in that work.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about perceptions. 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?
Missy Paulus: It is hot and really hard work but you learn so much! It’s a trade that I started in and am still in the asphalt business. It’s rewarding the work you do, and it’s been a great career choice for me. Help them to see potential in career paths such as construction. That they can do this kind of work.
AsphaltPro: What is the most rewarding aspect for you of being in the asphalt industry?
Missy Paulus: Make streets new again. Have pride in all your work.
AsphaltPro: Will you tell us about someone who served as a mentor for you? Is there any advice from your mentors that you would share with other women in the industry/other operators?
Missy Paulus: I have had several mentors in all stages of my career. I would say I had several mentors along the way in all the different trade skills I learned. They gave me the tools and guidance to learn to believe I can do it. They all encouraged me to work hard and follow my goals.
Help others when you can. It is always great to pay it forward. You can get skills and knowledge on the job if you work hard; you can have a career in the construction trades.