Conversations with ladies of the height
Neither glass nor cloud ceilings prevent women tower climbers from excelling in the industry
May 28, 2006 - In the past year there have been less than a dozen tower site sightings of women climbers. Like the elusive unicorn, from a distance, the ladies of the height are difficult to spot when working alongside their male counterparts since they're known to camouflage themselves in competence and safe working practices, and work as hard and as long as any other crew member.
So why are there only roughly 9 women in a national workforce of nearly 9,000 for-hire climbers in a profession that pays upwards of $40,000 or more a year? Physical demands? For some women, yes; but it also applies to men as well. Frightened of heights? Same answer. Poor organizational and multi-tasking skills? There's no divide there. In reality, a number of employers say that they've found some women climbers to be more organized than men - a blessing when it now takes a tree's worth of paper to manage a two-day installation project.
Women known to be capable, but are found hard to reach
Radian Communication Services' Human Resources Manager Carla Cannon believes that there are many capable women that could easily fulfill the requirements for a tower climbing technician, but potential candidates are hard to target through mainstream media.
Pointing out the demanding roles that military women are ably performing in Iraq, Cannon doesn't have any reservations about the capabilities of many women to fulfill the tower technician's position in wireless construction.
With over 400 service and product employees in the U.S. and more than 150 climbers, Radian hired their first female climber in the past three years last January in their California market. Cannon said her department is taking a more proactive approach in reaching out to qualified women.
Former South Carolina climber helps lead erectors during challenging times
A former woman climber is making her mark in the industry and helping to guide its development. Last February, Pat Cipov was unanimously elected as the Vice Chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors.
Pat, then Pat Turner, was working for a CPA in Orlando, FL in 1978 when he decided to retire when she was 28 years old. Fit and adventurous, she went to work with her brother-in-law Ron Miller who had a small tower company in Sumter, SC where she met Mick Cipov. In 1980, she and Mick struck out on their own and started a successful tower erection and maintenance company. They married the following year, easily balancing a family and business.
Pat Cipov had enjoyed climbing, sometimes as high as 750', but Mick had taught her how to operate the winch and she became the company's hoist operator in addition to bookkeeper and the many other roles that small business owners must assume.
"It wasn't a lot of fun. The winch didn't have a seat and had an extremely large muffler that was terribly hot," Cipov recalls, explaining that they had painted the gin pole bright yellow so that she knew ahead of time when to stop. Painting towers, however, was her least enjoyable activity.
Mick has since retired, but Pat Cipov enjoys the day to day opportunities along with their son John who is the nine-member firm's vice president. They primarily work in South Carolina, but occasionally work in Georgia and North Carolina.
Like many companies years ago, safety programs were comprised of common sense work rules passed down from employee to employee and safety equipment was no more than a tree surgeon's belt.
When Cipov first joined NATE in its early years she said that she was aghast when she discovered what her company should have been practicing for a safe employee environment. "Everything hit us like a sledge hammer," she said, resolving then to bring her company into compliance.
Safety seen to increase bottom line
"It initially effected our profits, but then once it became second nature it actually improved the bottom line because we were more efficient and more organized," Cipov explained.
In 2000, Cipov said, at the repeated urging of NATE board of directors member Craig Lekutis that she would be one of the organization's best assets, she threw her hard hat into the ring and was elected to the board, replacing Lekutis in his second reelection bid.
Since then she has become a strong safety advocate. "I have set a personal goal - and NATE is the conduit for it - that every tower climber is taught to work safely and that they all do work safely," Cipov said.
Cipov possesses a captivating blend of southern gentility and tough-minded professionalism. NATE Chairman Don Doty says she is as demanding as her male counterparts on the board of directors.
"Pat is a well-spoken individual, who like all of us, has had to deal with the challenges to stay profitable in a very difficult industry and has done so for over 28 years. It is her experience as a small business person that is one of the best traits she brings to the board. A majority of NATE member companies are very small businesses and Pat has the ability to clearly and concisely describe the challenges small businesses face," Doty said.
Her mentor, Cipov says, was former sales manager for tower manufacturer PiRod, Brown Sanders. "I'd ask one question and we'd be talking an hour or more. He would spend the time to explain everything in detail."
Cipov believes that women can be excellent tower crew members, but cautions that if there is a task that is too physically demanding that they should not be troubled by asking for assistance, emphasizing that men should seek the same help.
She hung up her climbing belt in 1998, but fortunately for the industry not her enthusiasm for helping to ensure a safe and profitable environment for tower erection companies during difficult times.
Decade of climbing proves profitable for Ohio inspection and structural mapping professional
Angie Shyrigh will quickly slip into her Exofit climbing gear as if it was a second skin and will double hook and safely climb up a tower with an energy that will make some men blush with envy. The petite 34-year-old Inspection Division Manager for A.R. Wireless, Inc. of Johnstown, OH has been climbing for 9-1/2 years and, like Carla Cannon, believes that more women should view the profession as a career opportunity that has limitless advancement opportunities.
Although Shyrigh has held multiple jobs over the years, all of her new positions have provided additional opportunities and salary increases commensurate with her greater skill sets. She has been with A.R. Wireless for the past 2-1/2 years where she oversees estimating and the training of proper procedures for doing inspections, maintenance and structural analysis mappings.
She no longer climbs as much as she used to, but enjoys going out in the field at least once a week.
The former painting contractor and receptionist said her brother Ben talked her into joining the industry almost a decade ago and she's never regretted it.
Shyrigh has had ComTrain, Andrew, Eupen, CommScope and NATE/OSHA 10 hour training courses to complement her years of field experience. She has worked the ground and has worked the top. The greatest height she has climbed was a 1,100' broadcast tower in Alabama.
Although Shyrigh has spent time on the road in the past, she says the accommodations worked out well since she could share a room with her brother who was also on the crew.
Grounded hubby is supportive
Angie Shyrigh is married to Dwayne Hook who is a crew leader, but his feet are firmly secured to the floor in an industrial factory. Although she says he does get concerned about her high risk exposure when she is climbing, he is accepting of her employment and is appreciative that she observes 100% fall protection.
Shyrigh is now a safety practitioner, but she says that when she first started out, her employer provided minimal training, and free climbing and riding the line was common practice. It took her a year to be able to get a cable grab, she says.
"Years ago I had an instance where I thought I was tied off. I was focused on what I had to do. I reached in my bolt bag and went to sit in my harness. I realized I wasn't tied off and I was able to grab a brace," she said, emphasizing the need for 100% fall protection.
Shyrigh believes that there might only be a few women in the industry, not because there is a lack of opportunity, but because "it might seem like a closed door. I have been accepted based upon the merits of my work. With the right tools the physical limitations are minimal."
It's difficult to generalize whether women climbers bring any additional assets to the profession such as organizational skills, Shyrigh said, but she hinted that some women pay more attention to detail where they're almost obsessive compulsive.
During her equipment installation days Shyrigh found cold climate grounding installs to be an aggravating task. Like Pat Cipov, her most annoying assignment was tower painting…and she can assure you, it's not a woman thing.
Tampa steeple Jane prefers installing collar mounts over being a cola sales associate
Like many climbers in a transient industry, Sue Paulk is between jobs, but expects to be cloud skimming in the near future when the right opportunity comes along. The 32-year-old Tampa, FL woman has been climbing for the past five years and loves the profession.
The former salesperson for Cocoa Cola has an associate degree in computer science, but found tower work in the outdoors to be her calling. She enjoys the accomplishment of working on projects sometimes hundreds of feet in the air instead of being tethered to a desktop computer.
An elevated office sans cubicles
Paulk plans to stay in the industry as long as she can, stating, "That's my office up there and it's very challenging. I would love to keep on climbing. It keeps me young."
The technician's outgoing personality is infectious and is perhaps one of the reasons that she's well-respected by her co-workers who nicknamed her Rosebud.
Paulk entered the industry after a neighbor told her about an opening with Goff Communications of Bradenton, FL. "I thought I would give it a try. What a rush it was. They provided me with some great safety and technical training," she said.
Her last position was with a company that had started a tower division that was installing Motorola Canopy systems, but the firm recently had a layoff.
An Elk River climbing belt and a Petzl hard hat are some of Paulk's safety gear of choice. She has done numerous line and antenna projects and is at home with many installation applications from installing collar mounts on monopoles and changing out tower top amplifiers to setting bolt azimuths.
To ensure that she comes home safely to her precious nine-month-old daughter, Storie, Paulk is a strong proponent of maintaining a safe workplace environment and practices 100% fall protection.
She's aware of the inherent dangers of being lax in compliance and was unnerved when 25-year-old Ricky Bosnick, a personal friend, fell 170' in January from a Naples, FL tower, landing upon a waveguide bridge. Miraculously, the climber lived, but required extensive surgery for a badly shattered left leg.
The ComTrain and Anritsu certified climber says that for a woman to work with men in the field it is important to understand their sense of humor. She has always found her co-workers to be very supportive.
Her pet peeve is when engineers design a product or reinforcement for a structure and they have no idea how difficult it is to actually install it when the technician is on the tower.
Maryland safety and technical director couldn't imagine any other job that didn't require climbing
Bookkeeper Molly Cooper's husband, Jeffrey, handed her an advertisement seeking a tower climber in 2000 as a joke when she was considering a career change, knowing fully well that she would never apply.
Fast forward five years later and you'll meet a poster child for everything good about the tower construction industry, especially for women.
"It's a lifestyle. You become hooked and then you become addicted," says Cooper who has been climbing for the past five years. Like Pat Cipov and Sue Paulk, Cooper entered the profession when she was 28-years-old, an age considerably higher than most inexperienced males who apply for a climbing position.
The director of safety and technical services for Vertical Technology Services of Hagerstown, MD has climbed 1,050' with a transformer for a high intensity lighting unit and a load line for a FM line installation.
Her entry into the industry was a baptismal by fire with four rigorous days of training on a 180' tower. One of her first jobs entailed dismantling a tower with a track gin pole.
Cooper feels at ease with any installation project at any height and moves around the tower as a seasoned professional, always maintaining 100% fall protection. Although her previous employer had a rated two drum winch with an anti-two-block system for lifting personnel, the former white water rafting instructor says she has never felt comfortable riding the line.
"I would rather climb, even if it is 600 feet or more. I'll hoof it up there so the guys don't have to wait on me," she said.
Tripped up by a cat named Rohn
During 2003 and 2004, Cooper underwent three knee surgeries in nine months, requiring her kneecap to be wired to her thigh. She is now limited to climbing no more than 250'. It wasn't a workplace accident. She was coming down her spiral staircase at home when she tripped over Rohn, an alley cat that she had rescued in a tower service company's steel yard. She found the feline close to death in freezing temperatures beneath a Rohn 25G section.
Cooper has training certifications for having completed OSHA 500, Anritsu, Flash Technology, Miller Fall Protection, Andrew Corp., CommScope and Crosby Rigging courses.
"I'm used to guys calling me girlie or tower chick, but it's not in an insulting way," she said. "It's like having 23 brothers for better or for worse."
At 5'-3" the charismatic climber says she has carried her fair share of the work on any project that she has been on. "I weigh about 120 pounds and sometimes I'm carrying equipment equivalent to my body weight when you have a winch line and your tools."
She says the biggest problem that she has had in using body strength is when she has had to tag a heavy load. "Sometimes I had to tie it to a fence post." Cooper would much rather be working aloft, jokingly inferring that ground work is a precursor to insanity.
Cooper doesn't think that working with all men is a problem for women and doesn't think they should be mollycoddled, stating, "I don't think it's a gender specific problem; it's an attitude. We're all tower guys. I'm one of the guys. I'm always cool with that. You have to do an incredible amount to reach a goal. It's a very determined mindset and we're given very little to work with."
Although Cooper has an associate degree in criminal justice, and administrative training, she doesn't believe that there is enough data available to suggest that women bring any better skills to the employer, although she will acknowledge that women are typically credited as a gender for having better organizational skills.
Director of Operations Dave Fuechsel of U.S. Tower Services of Frederick, MD is Cooper's mentor, she says. "Everybody gave me the opportunity to prove myself, but Dave provided me with information over the years to be able to see the depth of the tower industry. I could imagine you would get so tired of training people, but Dave never gives up."
What is Cooper's most annoying construction project task? "It's trying to figure out what the customer really wants because it's never in the scope of work," she said. "There are always last minute changes. Do they want true north or declination? 'We'll get back to you,' is what you get," she says, voicing an industry frustration shared by both sexes.