No. 1 Must-Have: “A phone call or text from my kids so I know they are OK.”
For someone who seems to have stumbled into construction by a fluke, Debra Harris, a retired supervisor at C&D Hughes Inc., has still managed to impact the lives of every person she worked with.
Harris got her first construction job while she was working in a deli as a young woman, and a foreman came in looking for traffic regulators after all of his had quit. Since she had the next day off, Harris grabbed a friend to go with her and took the job. She worked that traffic regulator job, her job at the deli and another at a party store until the end of the season. “It was time to be laid off,” Harris joked.
But she enjoyed the work so much, the next spring she called back and asked for another job. The rest was history.
Harris worked as a traffic regulator for about three years, then became a laborer and received training at the Laborers Training and Apprenticeship Institute. Then, when she got the chance to drive dump trucks, she jumped at the opportunity and got her commercial driver’s license.
Now, having been a supervisor for 15 years, she considers being promoted to supervisor of the joint crew as her biggest accomplishment. Especially since Harris is the only female supervisor in the company’s history. “Being the only woman in the field with all those guys, I think that’s a big achievement. And to be able to last for all those years out there,” Harris said. “I’ve worked on dirt crews, I’ve worked on the concrete patch crew and I‘ve worked on the joint crew. The joint crew — that’s where I wanted to be, and that’s where I ended up for a lot of years.”
Although Harris was the only woman in a crew of men, she says she never felt any disrespect, though she sometimes felt like “mom” to the 20 or 30 guys she was working with. “My aspect of the job was to keep the crew running smoothly while the other supervisor on the job kept the job going smoothly,” she said. “Mr. and Mrs. Hughes always put me in a position to show my strength and not my weakness.”
Harris considers safety to be the biggest challenge to the industry right now, though she does report that she has seen some improvements over the course of her career. “We’re getting away from having to work at night, especially on the freeways,” Harris said. “They’re looking out for the construction worker a little bit more and less for the inconvenience, because no matter what, the motorist is going to feel inconvenienced.”
Amid labor shortages, Harris has been working to encourage the young people in her community to investigate construction as a possible career avenue. “There is a very high dropout rate and a very low graduation rate from our high schools. And I’ve tried to let the people know that there’s jobs out there like this, and you can get paid while you train and you have a great future,” Harris said. “Just because you don’t go to college does not mean that you cannot get a high-paying job.”
She especially thinks more women should seek out construction because of the good benefits, pay and lack of a requirement for college. “It’s not all shoveling and digging holes,” Harris said. “There’s plenty of other things that a woman can do out there that are not so taxing on them.” Though, even the taxing activities shouldn’t be a problem: Harris remembers after she had just started working at C&D Hughes when she brought her 28-year-old granddaughter out to a jobsite: “She was a very, very hard worker; she could out-shovel all the guys!”
In her free time, Harris likes being with her grandchildren who range in age over 30 years and keep her plenty busy.
Though retired and only working part-time now, the impact she has had on the company is hard to overlook.
“She successfully co-ran our most profitable division for many years. Deb is well known and loved by our field employees, as well as our office staff,” said nominator Cheryl Hughes, president and owner of C&D Hughes. “She has been an integral part of the success of C&D Hughes Inc.”