"You’re not sitting in an office; you’re building America.”
As a teenager attending Brashear High School, Kerianne Mamula didn’t have a clear picture of a career for herself.
“I wanted to do something with computers, but was basically undecided,” she says. She worked for a while as a caregiver for mentally challenged adults, but found it emotionally draining.
She began to consider the career of her father, an operating engineer running and steering such heavy machinery as backhoes, bulldozers and cranes that are essential to constructing highways, bridges and buildings. It wasn’t something she’d ever pictured herself doing, but she signed up to take the entrance exam.
“It was about a day-long test. You work on a computer testing hand-eye-foot coordination, use a joy stick to move things around on the screen,” Kerianne recalls. “There’s also basic knowledge, lots of math, fractions. Math wasn’t my best subject, but I did OK.”
Apprentice operating engineers attend five weeks of classes each year – three in summer, two in winter – at the Western Pennsylvania Operating Engineers Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center in New Alexandria, Westmoreland County. (Heavy equipment mechanics – who are also in high demand – also train there for four years.)
The rest of the time is spent shadowing journeymen – that is, seasoned operating engineers. Early on tasks include, among others, oiling machinery. Her first job was oiling a crane that helped to build the Rivers Casino.
“It can be stressful in the beginning; you’re trying to do a new task efficiently. But you’re still learning and everyone understands that,” Kerianne says. Over time “you get to see how all the jobs fit together, and learn all that’s involved in putting a building up.”
Base pay for first-year apprentices as of 2014 was $20.42 plus significant benefits, with increases as apprentices proceed through the program. At the end of the program, an apprentice becomes a journeyman with a base wage of $29.04, with more possible depending on overtime. Add in fringe benefits and a journeymen operating engineer earns more than $36 an hour.
After two years a journeyman, Kerianne said she’s “run every machine you can think of. The one that was the hardest is now my favorite: the ‘dozer. You need to keep the blade at a certain height to keep the grading level. It’s challenging to get the feel for the machines.”
In her free time, Kerianne used to take kickboxing classes, play softball and spend time with her husband, Carlo, who is also an operating engineer. Together they enjoy hiking with their two labs, Tank and Roscoe, and biking the wooded trails in North Park and South. Lately, however, the couple has been getting ready for their first child, due in September. They’ll take some time for family leave, but Kerianne looks forward to return to her work in a few months.
“I have a really cool job that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” she says. “It’s fun. You’re not sitting in an office. You’re moving the world; you’re building America.”