My Nontraditional Path

Growing up on a farm helped me to understand that, more than a daughter or a granddaughter, I was a pair of hands. Chores needed to be done and it did not matter who did them, male or female. We were a team, and success meant seeing the number of tasks we had completed together. 

I found out early on that I didn’t have the stomach to work in the medical or veterinarian fields, food sensitivities kept me from the culinary world, and working in a cubicle, staring at a wall all day, wasn’t something that sparked my abilities or creative energy. I need to be outside, working with my hands while seeing life around me evolve. 

After high school, I started my journey in nontraditional careers — meaning jobs that are traditionally filled by one gender — as a dump truck driver. I hauled plenty of dirt and gravel. Afterwards, I decided to work filling vending machines. 

This time, the early 1990s, was the start of government efforts to provide more opportunities for minorities working in careers that had many job openings but lacked workers. These kinds of jobs were not attractive to women, especially without benefits. 

In 2001, I began my career as a water and wastewater operator. What I love most about this career is that I can use all my senses. The sights, sounds, and smells of the equipment will tell me a lot about the condition of the facility — each one has unique qualities with its own aesthetics. 

My job includes many roles. I find myself performing the duties of a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic, a janitor, an IT technician, an administration clerk, a chemist, a biologist, a general engineer, a landscaper, a dump hauler, a snowplower, and a public relations expert. One really never knows when they are going to stumble upon their own hidden talents. 

I use many nontraditional parts, tools, and equipment. For example, a typical syringe that a veterinarian uses to administer vaccinations is what I use to clean out the gunk of tubing. I use PVC piping for more applications around the plant than I use it for plumbing. Innovation means finding the products that will fit best, save time and money, and just plain work. 

In 2018, I was part of a group that traveled to a small village in Guatemala to drill a well. The village was in a remote area, so getting all the equipment there took many trips. The equipment was not always in good shape. Our drilling rig cracked the hydraulics box, which leaked fluids. We used a bucket to catch the fluid and reused it to keep going. Then there was the fact that we might not even reach water because of the rocky soil. In the end, we hit water. 

The seven of us women in the group were part of the drilling, but only minimally. There were numerous times I was tapped on the shoulder by a male to be relieved of the task I was performing. 

Years ago, getting started in nontraditional jobs, I remember it being awkward because I was told I was “doing things with a woman’s perspective and not how the guys did it.” I was told to just do it their way. I went along with that thinking. 

The truth is, however, there is no “women’s way” versus “man’s way” of doing things. 

Finding the confidence to say that, while not being negative around co-workers, is an innovation technique in itself. I have had co-workers ask me if I was done with my monthly yet, or how long was I going to milk a broken nail. Sometimes I just had to grin through it. 

I see one girl to every five boys who come through as interns. I want to bring awareness of this career to young women. Through a St. Cloud Technical College program, I encourage young adults into nontraditional careers. 

We all bring our own talents to the duties of any job. I have incorporated respecting my co-workers into my role and try to set an example. If more women enter the field, they will create a more united coalition and productive atmosphere. 

Careers are limited only by those who limit themselves. 

In 2013, Renee Oelrich (she/her) won the Laboratory Operator of the Year Award given by Minnesota Wastewater Operators Association. 

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