A certain kind of woman

Amanda Mellen, the environmental health and safety manager at Commercial Specialty Truck Holdings in Cynthiana, checks with her team to collect a list of safety concerns. She's one of two dozen or so women among more than 200 men working to build refuse and mixer trucks at the manufacturing plant. "My job as a safety manager is to be a coach, mentor and trainer," says Amanda.

Sporting clear safety glasses and earplugs that dull the crash of clanging metal, the women of Commercial Specialty Truck Holdings are as tough as the hardhats they tout on the manufacturing floor.  Representing about 15% of the manufacturing crew, these women hold their own while slinging tools alongside more than 200 men.

Although the duties of each woman on the team vary, a common characteristic runs through each one: a determination to prove their value.

That perseverance is apparent in their day-to-day work. Jennifer Savelli, the quality team lead, ensures that every refuse and mixer truck passes a rigorous quality test. Jacqueline "Tiffany" Hopkins, an assembler, lugs a wrench the length of her arm while assembling refuse trucks. Mercades Klaber, one of two women welders, lays a weld so straight it seems automated. 

"It takes a special woman to [work in manufacturing] because not everybody has that drive in them," Jennifer says. "I have something to prove because this place is a majority of men. . . . I'm going to show what I'm worth."

While every employee wants to provide value to their team, women in manufacturing set a high bar. Reaching it means fighting insecurities about their skills, gaining respect among co-workers, and proving tough enough to last longer than the bets placed on new female hires.

"Most of the guys who I work with now will tell you, 'We didn't think she'd be here,'" Mercades says. "Most of them saw me and said, 'She'll be gone in two weeks.'"

Being tough isn't only an external battle for women in manufacturing – it's equally internal.

"I think it's just a level of professionalism you have to have at all times," says Amanda Mellen, the environmental health and safety manager. "I don't mean a mask. But you have to put on a professional hat, and you leave that on at all times."

Successfully navigating that dynamic is a badge of honor for many women on the floor, but it's also a daily reminder of the manufacturing industry's realities: manual labor, male majority crews, and "shop talk." Some women can't handle those hardships while others thrive in the struggle. 

"I don't think [the pressure] was from [the men]; it was more myself. I feel like I had to have something to prove my worth," Jennifer says.  Her "something" is an efficient, built-from-scratch quality system that allows the company to maintain high standards for every product coming off the line. "I try to set the bar kind of up there so any woman on my team can see it can be done. I took stuff home for four months just to learn what I was doing. It took a little while, but I figured it out."

The quality of work is a focus not only for Jennifer, but for many women on the team. They strive to be perfect, to excel, to be valuable – and the company is taking note. Human Resources Manager Derek Beton says the number of female hires is on the rise. Before signing on the dotted line, certain women give him an "I got this nod," he says. "If I see a woman who has worked in manufacturing, I know."

Jennifer Savelli, the quality team lead, applies a custom decal for a refuse truck. She has the rare combination of precision and patience needed to properly apply the logos. "Anytime anything is wrong, the team calls me," she says. At the same time, when she needs something, co-workers jump to help. "They know I'm willing to do the same for them."
Mercades "Sadie" Klaber is one of two women on the 60-person welding team at the plant. After completing vocational training for welding in high school, she decided to pursue a career in the craft. "Everything I do has to be spot on," Mercades says. "If it's not, I'll stress about it for the rest of the day."
Amanda (right) talks with Mercades about getting better protective gear for the welders. Many welders have burns on their arms and necks as a result of the heated sparks that spray out of the welding guns. "What I do here is difficult, but I like it," says Mercades.
Jacqueline "Tiffany" Hopkins leverages her body weight while assembling trucks. Manual labor is a part of the job, which is why manufacturing has been an industry marked by a culture of male majority crews and "salty language." That's changing, though, as more women join the line.
Amanda stops to chat with Rusty Switzer, a maintenance tech, as she walks the manufacturing floor. Communication and collaboration are two key tenets of her role, but she says connecting with co-workers can take time. "It's hard to find camaraderie because of how professional you have to be," says Amanda.
Electrician Marie Carter shows a personal snapshot of her granddaughter to co-workers. As a member of the electrical department, she assembles dozens of wires into harnesses that power the trucks. "I was quitting every day when I first started," Marie says. She struggled with the pressure. "I was so scared because if you mess up, you could hurt somebody. You really have to pay attention it's no joke."
Jennifer inspects a truck to make sure it leaves the manufacturing floor without a flaw. Before she arrived, the company lacked an efficient system to monitor and resolve quality issues. So, over the course of two years, she created one.
Amanda (left) checks that the harness department has the necessary equipment to stay safe on the job. "If you have a man in a situation who throws a fit to assert his ego and authority, people are like, 'Oh, okay,'" she says. "If you have a woman in the exact same role do that, they're like, 'She's crazy. She's irrational.' So, for me, I can't lose my temper. I can't show my frustration. I have to be extremely calm and level-headed and fact-based."
Jennifer heads for the assembly line to perform a quality check. As a team leader, she's helped grow the department and 50% are women. "Women see things on a broader spectrum than men do," says Jennifer. "Their quality is much better because they want to prove that they're valuable . . . they want to be accepted." She pauses, then adds. "You still have to do the job you were hired for. If you can't, then we're going to have to find someone else who can."