Tanya Claxton, excavator operator

Tanya_Claxton.jpgTo Tanya Claxton, operating an excavator is not just digging holes or trenches, it’s creative work.

“You look at a bare bit of land and you’ve got plans in front of you and you’re able to view them in 3D and create something and see the finished product,” she says.

“I reckon that’s one of the best things about being an operator, because most people just look at a piece of grass or a hill and say, How are you going to get something out of that?”

Claxton attributes her unusual view from the cab to her training in fashion design, which she obtained a degree in at Wanganui Polytechnic. It’s safe to say not many digger operators can claim such a qualification ­­– or such an eye for creative excavation. 

Born in London, Claxton migrated to New Zealand at the age of seven and spent the next 15 years in Hastings then Waipukurau. Returning to Hawke’s Bay after gaining her degree she joined Waipukurau-based Infracon CHB as a traffic-control person for what was intended to be a few weeks but graduated to excavator operator and stayed for two years.

She then went to London where she tried unsuccessfully to break into the fashion industry.

Next stop was Fiji to team up with boyfriend Dave Wilkie who had taught her the excavator ropes at Infracon. In Fiji she worked as a digger operator and also a supervisor on a wharf project for 10 months before returning home with Wilkie and rejoining Infracon.

That was two years ago. Claxton says she made “no clear decision” to enter the construction industry, but that she likes working outdoors in the sunshine, doesn’t like working with females (they can be over-sensitive), and does like working with males.

“To start with it was a bit strange, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says.

“They’re just really nice people at Infracon, good fellows, and you can have a laugh. Most of them have been really supportive. I love working with the people I work with.”

In Fiji Claxton operated a 35-tonne digger, but at Infracon she’s on a 12-tonner because these mobile machines form the bulk of the company’s fleet. Her excavator is equipped with an extra-long (four-metre) arm and swamp tracks because, although she does whatever job comes along, much of her work is to do with rectifying flood damage – road washouts and slips on back roads and farms.

Last October Claxton showed signs of being a gun operator when she placed in the top three in the Contractors’ Federation Hawke’s Bay regional excavator operator competition. She’s watched the national final at Manfeild, likes what she saw, and wants to compete there. So she’ll be out to win this year’s regional contest “to prove a point to myself that I can do it”.

She confesses to having been acutely nervous at last year’s regional competition, both from the “look, there’s a girl” attention she received from the crowd and from her awareness that some seasoned male competitors might be resenting the presence of an inexperienced woman rival. In the end, she told herself to “just do it”.

“I’m still learning. I’ve really been an operator for only four years and there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know. I’ve still got heaps to learn,” she says.

Apart from wanting to win that competition and to have children at some stage, 28-year-old Claxton hasn’t mapped out her future. She still does fashion creation but only in the evenings and at weekends. Even the early starts and cold-weather work she dislikes can’t put her off being an excavator operator.

“I’m a creative person and an excavator operator is creative. That’s why I like it.”

Next: Felicity Glenie, civil engineer

Contractor Vol.33  No.4  May 2009
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