TULSA — Hard hat and goggles on, golf cart rolling, dust flying, office trailer behind, steel girders ahead — Tammy Ryals is in her element: the catbird's seat at a job site. She's a construction manager for Flintco, working with senior construction manager Jeff Smith on a Muscogee (Creek) Nation casino complex. The 2 ½-story, 420,000-square-foot project is on the Arkansas River on Riverside Drive at 81st Street. She took four hard roads to get here. Ryals, 47, said the success she is enjoying now should encourage others who find themselves on the same paths, the ones trodden by older-than-traditional college students, women in still-male-dominated industries, minorities, and the disabled or health-challenged. As a construction manager, Ryals balances the scope of a project against time and cost. She handles billing, coordination between sub-contractors and Flintco, and things like planning, estimating, allocating, assigning, tracking, communicating and troubleshooting. The number of workers on site varies, up to 250. There were about 100 people at work on a recent day. Ryals makes sure the project comes together on time and within budget.
Back roadsShe's in her 10th year with Flintco, the 15th year of her construction career. She's worked for Birmingham, Ala.-based Rust Engineering on a nuclear power plant for the Tennessee Valley Authority, on a NASA Advanced Solid Rocket Motor facility in Mississippi, and on other exciting projects she never imagined as a high school graduate not considering college and heading right to work. "It's fun. I have never once regretted going into the construction industry,” Ryals said. It took her a while to get started, though. She graduated from Muskogee High School in 1978. She worked a union job at Corning Glass Works in Muskogee for several years. When Corning closed in 1987, the union offered retraining at Indian Capital Vo-Tech School — and that's where she started down the first road, the one taken by older-than-traditional college students.
Long road to college"I went to do cabinetry — my dad had a cabinet shop — and we wound up building a house, which piqued my interest because I loved puzzles and putting things together,” Ryals recalled. That led to an associate's degree in construction at Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee; she was one of the first women in the program. She transferred as a junior to the University of Oklahoma, where she graduated in 1992 in her early 30s, with a bachelor's degree in construction science. It turned out that she "got” math and geometry, which she disliked in high school, after all. "I didn't go to college until I was 28. I didn't really think I had it in me,” Ryals said. Math "made sense at that age. When I was in high school, the math part didn't make sense. Going back to college at an older age was very beneficial. If I had done it when I was younger, I don't know that I'd have made it.” The road of the nontraditional college student, more unusual because almost no women were in construction studies, led to Ryals' second hard road: the one through the construction business, where women were absent from leadership positions.
Detours in the roadThere was no roadblock. She got a job. But there were typical-for-the-time detours. "Being a female in a male-dominated field, in the beginning, including at Rust and at Flintco, it was a tough row to hoe. You had to earn the guys' trust and, as they say, ‘make a hand,' ” she said. She didn't finish this sentence: "When you go through college and learn those things, and then they want you to type a letter for them, it really ...” No matter now. Ryals' work and leadership have been recognized by construction trade groups. The last project she was on, the Koweta Indian Health Facility in Coweta, now providing health care for members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and other American Indians, won prestigious national and state "Excellence in Construction” awards from Associated Builders and Contractors and several "Build Oklahoma” awards for excellence from Associated General Contractors. Ryals was the lone construction manager.
Historic roadRyals' third hard road started in history, on the Trail of Tears. Cherokee ancestors made the trek to Indian Territory in 1838 when the U.S. government forcibly relocated the tribe from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas. However, her own path as a minority hasn't been as rocky as the others. Flintco, which is American Indian owned, actively mentors other American Indian-owned businesses it deals with. Ryals said having an Indian heritage herself gets her "a lot of respect from the Native American jobs I've been on.” Ryals' fourth road to success might have been the hardest of all.
Dangerous roadA car wreck a few years ago crushed the bones in her right ankle. Where others might walk the short hike from the construction trailer to the casino, she hops onto a golf cart. Workers know to keep aisles clear because she could come barreling through any time. The wreck and permanent damage to her ankle left her devastated — she didn't want to be a burden to anyone, or be in the way on a job site. But she overcame such concerns and learned to deal with her limp. It wasn't her first health crisis. She found lingering strength from dealing with the cancer and hysterectomy she had at age 22.
High roadRyals said she tries to be a mentor to young women on the job site, as well as people with new and unexpected physical disabilities. As a Cherokee Indian, she said she is extra sensitive to challenges faced by other minorities. And she said she holds nontraditional college students in high regard. She's been there — on all four rocky roads. "I have been through the School of Hard Knocks and I have been around the block a time or two, and I'm a success,” she said. And she loves her job, especially since it changes every couple of years, as projects are completed. "With construction, the day you start a job, you're working yourself out of one,”' Ryals said. "No two days are the same. Most people do not have the opportunity to enjoy going to work. How many people can drive down the road and say, ‘See that? That's what I do.' ”
Construction manager•Pay range: $50,000 to $70,000 per year. •Education: Bachelor's degree in construction management. •Professional accreditations: Offered by Construction Specifications Institute, American Council for Construction Education, Construction Management Association of America, others.