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.
She'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.