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Women in the Industry - Becky Caldwell

April 2, 2020 by Sarah Beidleman

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s History Month, SWANA is highlighting women in the industry who have shown their dedication and hard work. In this male-dominated industry, each woman has had her own unique experience and we would like to share some with you.

Becky Caldwell is the Solid Waste Programming Manager for the Middle Tennessee area. She is a nationally recognized expert in the field of solid waste resource management and solutions. In her current role, she is responsible for finding and facilitating resources for managing challenges across a diverse thirteen-county region that includes high density urban, suburban, and rural constituents, working towards an integrated management plan to protect the region’s air, land, and water resources. Her experience across more than 20 years in the industry, includes ten of which were served as the City of Franklin, Tennessee, Director of Sanitation and Environmental Services where she was responsible for budgetary, planning, operations, and safety for four residential collection divisions, commercial collections, special events, transfer station operation, and disposal planning.

She earned her Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) and holds certification from the SWANA in Integrated Solid Waste Management, Collection System Design and Operation, Transfer Station Management, Recycling Systems, and Household Hazardous Waste Management. She serves on the organization’s national faculty, training across the country. Ms. Caldwell is currently serving her second term as the President of the Tennessee Volunteer Chapter of SWANA.

We talked to Caldwell to get her perspective on her time in the industry.

How did you get into the industry?

Becky Caldwell (BC): I started working in utility billing at the City of Franklin, Tennessee, which sparked interest from a customer service perspective. The Solid Waste Director at the time, who was a man, took a chance on me and I accepted the opportunity to transfer into the solid waste fleet shop where we managed the repairs and maintenance for the solid waste trucks and equipment – my passion grew from there as I progressed into leadership roles. I am proud that when I left the City, I left it better than I found it.

Now I serve as the Solid Waste Programming Manager for 13 counties and 52 cities in the Middle Tennessee area.

What is it like being a woman in this industry? Were there a lot of other women when you first started?

BC: Being a woman in the solid waste industry is fun because every day is different. When you look at the breadth of our industry from safety training, customer service, fleet maintenance and repairs, administrative, financial, routing, and other operations functions, there’s something for everyone.

When I first started, there was one other woman in the department, and she was actually the administrative assistant who answered the phones and took care of two-way radio communication. After that, we added another woman to dispatch, and we even had women driving local collection vehicles when I left, which was pretty cool. The number of women in the industry started to increase 10, maybe 12 years ago. When I left the City of Franklin, I was the department director, had an office manager, an administrative assistant, a driver, and a dispatcher, so out of a staff of about 45 I had 5 women, including myself, so it's still not a huge number, but it's much better than zero or one.

The introduction of recycling into our world brought more women with it. At the time, many teachers were women and I think the connection between recycling and education brought more women to our industry.

Did you feel like you had to prove yourself?

BC: For sure, I think as women in a man's world regardless of the industry, if you decide you want to make it and you want to be successful, you realize you have to learn more. I don’t want to say this and sound like a know it all – I will never know it all because there's so much to it – but the point being, if you don't know your stuff and if you don't do your homework on the front end, then you can’t have that professional industry specific conversation with someone. Sometimes you're going to be discounted just because you aren’t a man.

What progress have you seen being made in the industry?

BC: We are smart enough to know we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every idea or challenge. We start where we are with a service or concept and progress from there.

When we are capable of actively listening to the professionals who are hands on in providing services to our public, we can learn from them. For instance, as we saw more injuries from heavy lifting in the collection function, we recognized the value of automated collection trucks. From that, we have not only protected more solid waste professionals, from injury, but we have increased productivity and cut costs associated with providing services

What progress do you hope to see for the future?

BC: We continue to find our industry listed in the national top five (5) most dangerous jobs, year after year. Our foundational purpose is to protect public health, therefore, just not showing up isn’t an option.

Understanding time is most important for running an efficient operation, scheduling and following through with safety training is something I would challenge any solid waste professional to do. The value of simple safety reminders, on a regular basis, may be the difference between saving a life or not. If every leader in this industry scheduled time to demonstrate safety measures during a weekly safety meeting, the time spent there would far outweigh the time it takes to respond to an incident, provide support for your team, and follow-up with required reporting based on the circumstances.

Who is your role model?

BC: My grandfather – he was a life-long educator, he was a Kentucky high school basketball coach, he was a leader, and he was a Marine.

When I was growing up in Eastern Kentucky, my grandfather would talk about this book called The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Essentially, it’s a story about the adventures of four (4) animals (a mole, a rat, a toad, and a badger) that represent various life stages, through their respective character in the book. As the characters identify individual shortcomings in each other, they have the courage to be honest, but respectful and supportive of each other; all the while teaching foundational lessons of how to treat others (good social skills for any age). My grandfather found the good in everybody – he invested time in people and relationships. He would identify a person’s strengths, tap into those skills and help individuals in their quest to be their best self.

I learned the importance of always doing your best, the value of forgiving others, and the ability for each and every person to make the world a better place, if they choose to.

Do you consider yourself a pioneer in the industry? If not, what do you think it takes to be a pioneer?

BC: I recall my first several WASTECON conferences – if I wasn’t the only woman in attendance, I was one of only a handful. Salespeople were often looking for the “man who brought me” – I learned to respond with, a respectful “you’re lookin’ at him” and proceed with my list of prepared questions about whatever it was they were selling.

I would like to think I’ve made a difference for women in this industry. Not so much now, but reminding myself at that time, I was invading their space (“their” being the men in the business) helped me gain perspective. As with many male dominated industries, coarse language words and comments about women are sometimes common. Some people consider it rude, but I learned some of those behaviors are “normal” in a man’s world and if I was going to survive, I had to make sure the men understood me and my boundaries. I had to find the balance between allowing them to have space to be themselves, by verbally confirming some foul language didn’t offend me, to using my voice and speaking up when I had something pertinent to say.

Slowly, over time, the “panic” of being within hearing distance of a woman became less and less; most men found a way to change their own behavior to be appropriate with mixed company.

To the women who offend easily, this is still a male-dominated industry and it’s a tough business. Don’t expect to get along with everybody or make friends everywhere you go. You have to work hard, build relationships, and earn respect from those that built this industry. Learn to be comfortable in your own skin and the behavior of others will not be so bothersome to you. 

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

BC: In general, our industry offers the ability to leave things better than you found them. Paying it forward and giving back is something I strive to do, on a regular basis.

Any professional, over time, looks back to see where they started, where they are and what got them to today. Two career accomplishments that come to mind:

Paying it forward…I transferred to the fleet maintenance shop, at the City of Franklin, at a time when the culture was clearly not suited for women, or minorities from any category. Some of the men treated you with respect, as they would a mother or sister, and others treated you as if you weren’t worthy of breathing the same air. There was a young black man working part-time as a helper on the back of a rear load garbage truck. He was a single father who worked hard and focused on doing a good job to provide for his kids. As the culture changed, I watched that young man grow and I’ve watched him continue to learn as the industry evolves. He has earned the leadership position he currently holds, and I am proud that I have been part of his journey.

As managers, we know there is a tipping point between training and micro-managing. I believe managers and leaders alike have to spend time with those team members responsible for daily operations, to better understand what’s needed to achieve the mission. I often spent time working directly with new managers for a period of time, then retreated to being available, on-site, and finally, wandered away to be available when called. One of the best days in my career was when our team was working a special event in the downtown area. I was in my office on Saturday morning to serve in that space of being available, on-site, if needed. This same young man, now 15 years older than when we first met, showed up in my doorway, with a smile on his face and respectfully said, “Boss lady, go home or go do whatever it is you do on Saturdays – we got this”. There were times we didn’t agree and times we’ve stood tall to support each other, but watching him grow has been one of my greatest accomplishments.

Giving back…This may sound cliché, but SWANA has been a tremendous resource for me throughout my years in this industry. I have met professionals in every area of our business, learned about any topic of interest, and earned many certifications. Teaching certification courses for SWANA has been one accomplishment I’m most proud of. I am currently certified to teach Integrated Solid Waste Management Systems, Collection Systems, Transfer Station Systems, and Recycling courses. Each time I teach a course, I meet more folks who continue to build on the foundation of our industry and this organization. While my intent is to help them prepare for a certification exam, I hope they gather information or meet someone different during each class. More important, this is a way to give back, but it is also where I learn as much as I hope the attendees learn from me. This opportunity is a win-win.

What advice do you have for other women entering a male-dominated industry?

BC: Never stop learning. The industry changes fast, there’s always something new happening.

Create, maintain and grow relationships. This industry may seem like it’s big, but we are all connected to each other, trying to meet the same goals.

Don’t forget where you came from – always be mindful and remember those folks on the “front line” providing service in a necessary industry that is often ignored until there’s a problem.

Find your balance. The key is to remember not to be offended, don’t take anything personally, this is business.

Be humble. Nobody knows it all and it takes us all. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; but remember to listen to the answers.

It hasn’t been easy, but it has been fun!



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