Always one to buck expectations, Kathleen Richardson of Alton has spent many years in what are traditionally considered “men’s jobs.” Richardson is a Level 4 operator at the Alton Waste Water Treatment plant and is studying for her Level 3 certification next year.
ALTON — From an early age, Kathleen Richardson aspired to a career beyond traditional women’s work.
“My dream as a child was to be a pilot for the Navy with the Blue Angels,” Richardson said. “But with my eyesight, there was no way I could.”
Instead, she joined the U.S. Marines Corps after high school. Now she’s the first woman to be hired at the Alton Waste Water Treatment plant. Along the way, Richardson held a number of jobs that most women wouldn’t ever consider.
“If you asked my parents, they’d say I was the odd duck,” she said. “I’ve always been very active physically and I’m a hands-on kind of learner.”
Richardson, 43, was born and raised in Jerseyville. She lives in Alton with her husband, Derrick Richardson, an Alton firefighter.
With the exception of a two-year stint as a secretary at Beverly Farm from 2009-2011, Richardson has been a laborer throughout her adult working life.
“I’m just not a computer or behind-the-desk kind of person. I loved my job but I just can’t be still — although it was nice to be inside during the winter for a change,” she said.
Richardson, 43, joined the military after high school. She was sent to work shipping freight, first in Okinawa, then at Camp Pendleton in California. When she left the military four years later, Richardson landed a job as a bag handler with TWA until American Airlines bought them.
A 10-year stint with the airlines ended in 2007, when she was laid off from American. Part of the layoff package included technical training for employees, so Richardson decided to go through a welding program at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.
“At the time, I was still married to my first husband,” Richardson said. “His stepmother was a welder ... We had a good rapport and she gave me a lot of encouragement and information about welding.”
Her plan was to go back to the West Coast and get a job in the shipyards. But when her marriage ended, so did that idea.
It was at Central Mine Equipment in Earth City, Mo., that she encountered her first real resistance as a woman working a non-traditional job.
“My foreman didn’t like me. After I took the welding test and he interviewed me he said, ‘I hope you don’t pass so I don’t have to hire you.’ He didn’t want me in his department.”
During the five years Richardson worked there, she was passed over for promotion many times.
“He wasn’t happy and I knew right from the start that I wouldn’t get anywhere,” she said. “He would hire young guys right off the street.”
She left welding and worked on a coke oven at US Steel in Granite City from 2007-2009.
Now Richardson works with a crew of six men at the wastewater treatment plan. Currently a Level 4 Operator, she’s studying for the Level 3 test in May. Richardson’s job involves hauling sludge after it’s been treated and cleaned and doing her own maintenance on vehicles and plant machinery.
“They are fantastic, a great group of guys. I can ask them anything and they’re very helpful. I had no idea what I was getting into when I got hired. I didn’t have any background in this field and there’s so much to learn,” she said.
“I’ve done manual labor the majority of my life. If a woman is interested in doing something, I say ‘Go for it.’ And don’t tell me I can’t do something. It just makes me want to do it even more.”