If you met Shannan Bell, 26, with her petite stature, mane of luxuriant dark hair, blue eyes, careful makeup, and pink manicured nails, you’d probably stereotype her as someone who works in the beauty industry, or a trendy office – but you’d be so wrong.
This bubbly young woman operates heavy machinery for a living, currently working with Fulton Hogan on the Huntly section of the Waikato Expressway – and she’s pretty good at what she does.
Shannan was brought up on small farm blocks but with little exposure to machinery. She remembers playing with Furbies, dolls and her dolls’ house.
There was a spark of interest in mechanical engineering at school, but after leaving school at age 16, she was studying for her Level 2 and 3 Certificates in Accounting, aiming for an eventual career in accounts.
She vividly remembers the first time she had firsthand experience of some heavy machinery.
“It was November 24, 2010, during a study break; and I spent four hours in the dickey seat of a dump truck while a friend was driving,” she says. “I loved it! It was so much fun and so exciting.”
Accounting was forgotten, much to the horror of her grandparents, and Shannan started to operate heavy machinery. By age 17 she had her full licence, and has since added Class 2 and Class 4 vehicles, and a Wheels, Tracks and Roller endorsement.
“I learnt on the job when I started,” says Shannon. “I hate to think how bashed and battered those machines were; I was always breaking parts.”
Shannan has been with Fulton Hogan for the last seven years, working on huge projects such as the Tauranga Eastern Link, and the Ruakura Inland Port Stage 1. For the Huntly Extension project, her “baby” is a Komatsu D65-PX, which is a 22 tonne bulldozer with a blade almost as high as she is – and seat covers with pink, sparkly butterflies. She does the finishing work, and at present is building up the road level.
In this male-dominated world, Shannan gets no special treatment for being female. She’s up at 5am, and in the summer she works 10-hour days in the heat like everyone else, and doing the job as well as them. She does get a reasonable amount of stick but after all these years, she rises above it.
“It just doesn’t bother me anymore,” she says. “It’s usually from new people who think I won’t be able to do the job, and when I just quietly get on with things, they stop. My regular team are like family though.”
She’s unashamedly a “girlie girl”, wearing a bright pink safety hat, because she “loves pink”.
“I haven’t changed who I am just because I’m surrounded by males,” says Shannan, which would explain the clean glossy hair, makeup, painted nails, and sparkling nose stud.
Some days Shannan spends 10 hours in the Komatsu’s cab, and she admits she has to watch what she eats to stay in shape.
“It’s a world of pies and sausage rolls, but I still bring in my spirulina and salads.”
She does enjoy walking on the beach with her two fox terriers, and cooking and gardening are also high on the leisure agenda. There isn’t much leisure time though with her work.
“I’d love to be able to sleep in on a Sunday until nine or something,” says Shannon. “But I’m so used to the alarm going off at 5am that I wake up early every day now.”
Four years ago, her bosses entered her in the National Excavator Competition, the Waikato Regional Event, at Fieldays. This involves operating a digger through an obstacle course against the clock. Competitors pour glasses of beer from a bottle strapped to the buckets of their diggers, and show off their ability for fine manoeuvring of these big machines with other challenges.
“I came seventh this year,” says Shannan. “And I’m really pleased with that. I usually operate a bulldozer, so I have to hop into a digger that’s a make and model I don’t use, work out all the controls in about a minute, and then start.”
Naturally, there’s a bit of talk and a stir when people realise she’s a girl in a traditionally male world, and there’s been some media interest, but Shannan stays focused.
“I will have to get off the gear soon,” she says. “It’s been eight years, and I’d love to move into civil engineering, and be the boss!”
This means going back to study for a degree, but it seems a natural progression. Having worked at the coalface from the plans of civil engineers, she already has an in-depth knowledge of how it all works and how it is actually put into practice.