Women in Tunneling

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Ashley Heckman, Regional Manager, Aldea Services, Inc. #WomenWhoTunnel

By Glory Rohde posted 06-06-2022 02:12 PM

Women In Tunneling is featuring exemplary female representatives of the tunneling industry in order to amplify their experiences in the underground field. In June 2022, we introduce you to Ashley Heckman, Regional Manager, Aldea Services, Inc.

What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?

I am a tunnel engineer on the design side, but since I work mostly with Contractors, I have a considerable amount of construction experience as well.

How were you introduced to the tunnel industry, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?

I completely tripped over it, actually. I was a geologist at the USGS and I was told I would never get a job as a “just a Geologist”, which of course offended me, but I took the advice anyway and decided to get my masters in engineering. I visited Colorado School of Mines and met a wonderful woman named Shannon Mann (the Assistant to the Mining Department Head and the one person who knew everything about the department), and she was so kind, informative and just all-around awesome (really, one of the best people I have ever known), that I knew that was where I was supposed to be. I took a Tunnel Project Management class my first semester as well as Intro to Rock Mechanics and WOW… the big machines, the large-scale excavations and the ability to take what I already knew about geology and engineer things with it? I was sold. All the intricacies of tunneling at my fingertips – I was instantly in love and knew that was my future.

People outside of the industry don’t tend to understand exactly what the job entails. What is it like to work on underground projects?

Well, like anything in life, there’s ups and downs, but I think most everyone in our industry is passionate about what we do and can’t even imagine doing anything else. Sometimes it’s hard, grueling, in fact, but other times, when you’re in the zone and you are solving problems on the fly or have just come up with a plan or design that worked like a charm…its exhilarating! To see your designs come to fruition or to work together with people to solve real problems – there’s nothing like it! And that’s just working from the surface – being underground and getting to see a part of the Earth most people don’t ever get to see is my favorite part of the job. To me – the only place the world truly makes sense is underground.

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

I think I am most proud of the relationships I have built in this industry. I tend to be an introvert and over the years have had to learn the ways of the extroverts. It didn’t come naturally and was sometimes painful, but the reward of having people I know I can rely on (and who can rely on me) is priceless. I think that as we progress in our careers, it becomes more about doing a good job for the people we work with than for our own gratification – once those relationships are in place, you’ll do what you must to come through for them.

Even though the number of women has been increasing over the years, the tunneling industry is still considered a male oriented environment. What do you think are some of the factors or obstacles—either societal or sometimes even self-imposed— that deter women from entering the underground career force? And what can we do as an industry or as a society to encourage more women to join?

First, let me say, I think things have generally improved since I entered the industry 20 years ago, but as with most big paradigm shifts, things could always move a little faster. As much as I hate to admit it, I think there’s still a stigma associated with careers that are “manly” or not very “lady-like”. Spending a day underground and tromping around in muck boots is not the ideal for a lot of young ladies I have met (despite my every attempt to persuade them otherwise). I also think there’s a level of intimidation still when a woman enters a room full of males, whether they’re learning math or in a construction meeting - anywhere you are the “odd (wo)man out”, it's not a feeling most women are comfortable with. It takes a special breed to walk in, guns blazing and say: “let’s do this”. I think the encouragement the women need from us comes early-on, like high school or during their undergrad, to show them the possibilities and how great our industry is. We may not get them all, but the ones who are even toying with the idea of a technical career might just find their calling and be the next “let’s do this” girl.

How do you tap into your inner leader? What advice would you give on having the courage to honor your voice and to speak out and contribute your influence?

Honestly, I have always lived by the “sink or swim” mentality; it needs done, you do it. The only advice I have goes back to relationship building. If you can stop thinking about yourself or how you feel about a situation and instead think about the people relying on you, your voice, your strength usually just surfaces. It’s way easier to stand up and fight for your people than it is to fight for you alone.

Looking back, what two pieces of advice do you have for your younger self?

Spend more time listening, observing and learning than speaking; the speaking will come later, when it needs to.
Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done or that you can’t do it.

What do you hope the future holds for yourself, for the industry, and/or for other women who will be a part of tunneling & underground construction?

I hope we can stop spending as much time as we do in costly litigations.
I hope we keep this industry inclusive to everyone.
I hope we keep pushing technical boundaries.
I hope we can spend more time communicating and educating than arguing.

Do you know someone who would fit on this list of exemplary #womenwhotunnel? Nominate them by emailing: marketing@smenet.org