SPECIAL SECTION: Senior equipment operator pushing past the stereotypes

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By Deborah Swearingen

Editor's note: This story is part of a special section published in the Courier on March 1. The section highlights ten women working in traditionally male-dominated fields across Jefferson and Clear Creek counties.

Jennifer Espiritu is used to people telling her she doesn’t look like an equipment operator when they find out she drives a 45,000-pound motor grader for a living.

“People are shocked because of my size,” the petite 49-year-old said. “They’re expecting to see some big, burly guy. The stereotype, you know.”

Because of this, Espiritu hopes she can be a role model for others and encourage young people — both female and male — to follow their dreams. It can be challenging to step outside of that comfort zone, but those who do stand to reap the benefits.

Espiritu has worked for Jefferson County Road and Bridge for about 13 years. She lives in Littleton but works out of the south shop in Conifer. When she started with the county, she was a temporary seasonal employee, working to control traffic at construction sites. But throughout the years, she worked her way up. Now, she is one of nine senior equipment operators with Jeffco and the only female.

Though she has been operating the motor grader for about five years, she’s still pretty new to it.

“We have operators that have been running graders for 20 years that still learn new things,” said Joe Manchen, Jeffco Road and Bridge supervisor.

But he said Espiritu showed a willingness to learn and an ability to operate the machinery that has made her successful.

Every day looks a bit different for Espiritu, and that’s part of what she loves about the job. Each morning, she arrives at the shop, learns her assignment for the day and heads out to the site. On snowy days, she plows and clears snow from gravel roads in the area. Other days, she’s out forming, maintaining and capping roads. Furthermore, if there is a flood or fire, the Road and Bridge department can be called out to provide emergency support.

Overall, the job can be a lonely one, and it’s something those interested should consider.

“On most days, if you don’t have a major project going on, you’re really going to be out by yourself,” Manchen said.

Additionally, a significant amount of preparation is required. Espiritu dresses warm and said she makes sure to keep extra supplies, including spare fuel, clothes, water, food, muck boots and more, in her truck at all times.

Learning to drive a huge piece of equipment is a challenge, but Espiritu credits her supervisor and co-workers for continuing to show her the ropes in a fast-paced environment. For others, Espiritu suggests patience and cognizance.

“Be aware of your surroundings at all times,” she said, “because that machine can cause a lot of damage real quick if you’re not paying attention.

“Every road’s a challenge. … There’s different techniques to use, different approaches to use. … When frustration comes, you’ve really just got to step back and take a break.”

Operating equipment can be intimidating for anyone, but particularly so for women, who may not see many of their peers in the business.

“You know back in the older days, it was considered a man’s generation of work,” Manchen said. “But it’s not so much that way anymore. Women that are interested … need to just jump in and try it.”

Espiritu echoed this thought. She advises anyone interested to go for it.

“Do it. You may hit bumps in the road, but that’s the learning curve of life,” she said. “Just keep pressing on. … Follow your dreams. Even if they change, follow them.”