Two Women of Asphalt: Meet Ajax’s Jewel Eggleston and Renee Aguis
BY Sandy Lender
They started in different roles but now work on quality control/quality assurance (QC/QA) from two angles to place award-winning pavements for the Southeast. QC Lab Technician Jewel Eggleston and Roller Operator Renee Aguis are just two of the team players for Ajax Paving Industries of Florida LLC, headquartered in North Venice. Here they share what brought them to the asphalt industry and what makes them proud to be women of asphalt.
Ajax Paving Industries of Florida is an equal opportunity employer and boasts a number of women of asphalt, including Project Manager Jessica Kiesel, who will be featured in an upcoming edition of AsphaltPro. This month, let’s take a look at the way Eggleston and Aguis handle QC for a company that has served more than 2,000 clients and garnered more than 500 awards.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers your career trajectory since joining the asphalt industry and what challenges you’ve overcome along the way?
Jewel Eggleston: I was all around the asphalt industry for years. I drove truck as a transport driver and delivered asphalt from local plants for three years. Then in the late ’90s, I became a QC plant inspector.
I started with Ajax Paving Industries of Florida in 2007 as a quality control lab technician. The most rewarding aspect is the relationships I have formed with our outside sales customers and our plant employees. We have become family-like over the years.
I used to watch the TV show “That Girl” with Marlow Thomas. I always wanted to be “that girl.” She had her own apartment, had a job and was self-sufficient—didn’t need help from anyone else. That show was my motivation.
Renee Aguis: “My career in asphalt began at age 41, in 2014, accidentally. My first career was as a stay-at-home mom of my first three boys. I was the wife of an asphalt man, so I did have some knowledge at the beginning. At the dinner table, he would explain to the boys and me the different details of his day, what the machines did, etc. I recall at the time I did not understand the terminology he would use. Therefore, I would look up some of those complex words so I would have a better understanding of what he was saying the next night.”
In 2013, after welcoming their fourth son, Aguis suffered from postpartum depression. “With four kids, one income, and very little to no self-esteem, my husband encouraged me to go back to work.”
Finding a job after being out of the workforce for 17 years wasn’t easy. Aguis’s husband asked his foreman to help out. At the time, Ajax used a labor service so they brought Aguis on as a flagger for the crew. She says the crew thought her shy and insecure nature, combined with the humidity of Florida and high asphalt temperatures, would keep her asphalt career short.
“Of course, I had to prove them wrong. As a result, I was asked if I would like a permanent position. During my hiring process, the crew had a few people not show up for work. My foreman asked me if I would like to learn to back roll. Honestly, I was petrified of getting on that roller but I wanted to be helpful. As apprehensive as I was I climbed up on that roller and had my first on-the-job training of how to operate a roller.”
It took the foreman about 30 minutes to teach her the basics. “I was attentive and guarded and rolled at a snail’s pace. I remember being told, ‘all you have to do is go back and forth and make sure you cover the whole mat.’ That is when I did what I am known for; I asked my first question why? In my months of flagging, I had watched all three rollers and what they could do. It took a short time to learn how to maneuver all three but I wanted to know why? What is the purpose? Once I was taught what the purpose of the machine was, I started to become more comfortable. However, I also did enough research to know to not get too comfortable and to stay alert at all times. One wrong move and you could either hurt yourself or, worse yet, someone else.”
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AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers what your job as a QC lab tech for Ajax requires?
Jewel Eggleston: Taking asphalt samples from the trucks, running the necessary tests to make sure our mix meets the necessary mix design standards, test liquid asphalt contents, compaction of mix, etc.
AsphaltPro: Why did you become a QC tech in the lab and what about that position is most rewarding to you?
Jewel Eggleston: I was encouraged by other people in the industry to get my level 1 and level 2 asphalt certifications, which opened the door for me to get into the lab. I find it rewarding to put out a good mix and quality material. It makes me proud to see locations around town where we laid our mix. I am excited when it rides nice and looks great.
AsphaltPro: Could you share with the readers what your job as a roller operator for Ajax requires?
Renee Aguis: My current position at Ajax is lead roller operator, also known as the breakdown roller. My job as lead roller assists in achieving density and sealing the mat behind the screed. A lead operator must remember several factors:
- They should keep up with the speed of the paver.
- The current weather conditions factor into how long the asphalt will take to cool off.
- Every operator is taught differently, but I make sure to pinch and seal up any joints and handwork first.
Part of my daily routine is to do what we call a 360 walk around. At first glance, I check the obvious things that are essential to a productive day such as the condition of my cocoa mats. Is the roller clean? I also check my fluids such as oil, hydraulic fluid and diesel fuel, and water. I also check my lights, brakes and scrapers. I also check for the operator standards, which are located in a black box on my roller. Every piece of equipment should have one. The operator standards are reminders and sheets with information on how to properly care for your piece of equipment.
I operate multiple rollers.
- Sakai vibratory and oscillating roller
- Bomag 5 to 8 roller or known as a steel wheel
- Nine wheel or traffic roller
My favorite is the cat nine wheel and the steel wheel is also used as a finish or back roller.
AsphaltPro: Why did you become a roller operator? What about that position is “most cool” to you?
Renee Aguis: As I stated earlier I was striking out everywhere trying to find a job so it kind of was an opportunity I ran with. I enjoy the daily challenges of improving my skills. Becoming an operator has given me the confidence that I have lacked in myself for most of my life. The coolest part of my job is the different locations. I am not in the same place every day. I have joked in the past that there are times I have the most beautiful view from my office. It could be along a beach one day and the next by the railroad tracks. Strange opportunities arise unexpectedly like the time we got to meet Steven King.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position in the asphalt industry?
Jewel Eggleston: You have to be able to work well under pressure, have people skills to handle face-to-face interactions, and the ability to multi-task.
Renee Aguis: My special skill is my ability to ask a lot of questions so that I can fully understand the purpose of my job. By knowing what my machine’s purpose is and what’s expected of me I can perform my job from the training I acquired by watching other operators and listening to their advice. There is not a lot of time for one-on-one training. You more or less learn as you go. So my advice to any woman out there is you can learn any job on an asphalt crew if you ask questions and remain focused.
AsphaltPro: Jewel Eggleston commented that the field QC technicians work with the roller operators to set the patterns from the QC tests. Could you elaborate?
Renee Aguis: At the beginning of each shift, we have a safety huddle or a beginning of the day/night meeting where we discuss the plan. When it comes to density I mostly confer with my QC and the rest of my rolling team. I usually have a partner who will run tandem with me on the Sakai and then we use sometimes the nine wheel and then my back roll operator. Usually, my QC gives us a pattern and we try it on the first pass; he will check to see if it’s correct. If not, we will tweak it a little bit and sometimes he will ask for my partner or my advice on what we think we should do.
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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?
Jewel Eggleston: It is not just a man’s world; women have proven they can work in the industry, too. There is so much room for advancement in the construction industry. I encourage all women to be a lady when you need to be and be a badass when necessary.
Renee Aguis: The stereotype that women do not belong on a construction site but rather in the kitchen or home tending to the children has been around for ages. Not all women are meant to live that life. Just like not all men are meant to do vigorous labor.
Women have a lot to offer in the construction field. They have long attention spans, good focus and are extremely good problem solvers. Rolling requires focus and paying attention as well as knowing how to operate and maneuver the machine. Safety is a big factor.
Women also think differently than men and can probably give another perspective on a job. For any woman, I would encourage them to try something that is out of their comfort zone. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment whether you are perfect at it or not. Working on an asphalt crew has given me confidence that I never thought I could feel. I am close to 50 now and I know that there’s nothing that I won’t try at least once.
There are many rewarding aspects of being in the asphalt business. One of those aspects is the proud feeling I get when I drive down the road that I participated in making with my team. Another rewarding aspect is being part of a team. Everyone’s position on our crew is equally important. Without one person doing their job the correct way the road would not come together properly; we all have to work together for the final product.
Finally, probably the most rewarding aspect of being in the asphalt business is hearing and seeing how proud my son is of me, to hear him tell his friends, “my mommy built that road, she runs a roller.” I hope that I am teaching my son that no matter who you are whether you’re male or female, black or white, you can do and accomplish anything you put your mind to.
Jewel Eggleston listed Plant Manager Rickey Stevens as a mentor from her asphalt career. “I liked the fact that he wanted to see the daily reports and had an interest in the quality of the mix that was going out. The quality of our mix represented all of us at Ajax Paving Industries of Florida and we want to provide our best mix possible to our customers and our paving crews.”
Renee Aguis listed Luke Van Tassel, a tack truck driver from the first crew she worked with, as a mentor from her asphalt career. While Van Tassel didn’t immediately warm up to the idea of having a woman on a construction site, sharing with Aguis that he wouldn’t want his wife or daughters working in field conditions, he came to recognize she was good at her job. “He was one of the men that took the time out to explain to me in detail in words that I could understand exactly what it was that my nine wheel did. He has since moved away and has a new job but we do keep in touch; he was one of the first people that I called when I was promoted to lead operator.”