Science Center Story #1

by Larry Schall

15 August 2001

For several weeks now we all have been watching the beginning of what we will be a remarkable transformation of the north campus. Some of this early work has been less pleasant to observe than other parts --the removal of so many existing trees was no fun for anyone, although knowing the details of what would take their place, particularly the wonderful gardens and green spaces that will emerge, made this easier for some of us.

In the last two weeks, though, I think the activity at the site has been just plain fun to watch for almost everyone. Yesterday, the math wing came down in about eight hours and by the end of the week, I suspect all the rubble will be gone. Monday evening, on the eve of its final destruction, I walked though the wing and while I have no particular fond memories of the space --I fulfilled my science requirement by two semesters of Physics for Poets where I discovered I was neither a physicist nor a poet -- it was still an eerie feeling to be in a space so empty that weeks before had been so very filled up.

Yesterday, I saw a young African-American woman driving a back-hoe, an unusual sight in today's construction world. I wondered how this women had come to be at Swarthmore and made a mental note that if I had the opportunity to talk to her, I would. On today's morning visit, she was standing right at the gates to the site. I introduced myself and asked if she would mind talking to me a bit at a time convenient for her. I let her know I wanted to interview construction workers from time to time and that I would likely write something to the College community about each person. I shared with her that I thought knowing more about the people who were helping Swarthmore to build its new building helped make the project more real for all of us. She offered to talk to me at lunch and here is a little bit of Aja Smith's story.

Aja is 22 and an apprentice Operating Engineer. The Operating Engineers are the folks who drive the big construction vehicles that are doing the demolition, grading, and foundation work right now. She works for Gepphart Brothers, the company which was awarded the demolition contract by Barclay White, the construction manager for the College. Aja started as an Operating Engineer in May of this year, with two weeks of training at the union's site right off the New Jersey Turnpike, about exit 7 or 8. I think everyone has passed this training facility, with its prominent sign, many, many times in their lives. Apprenticeship last fours years, with training two weeks every six months as well as one Saturday a month. Rate of pay increases every six months during these four years, until the status of certified journeyman is achieved. Aja also has to pass her Commercial Driver's License this September.

So, how did Aja land this job? I know a little history of the Operating Engineers from my days as a public interest lawyer in Philadelphia. Our law firm sued the union on behalf of several African-Amercian workers who claimed that access to the union was being denied and even if access was achieved, that the union hall would discriminate in awarding jobs based on race. This was a huge case back in the early 1980's that got a lot of press and the plaintiffs finally prevailed over the union, which was then ordered to stop discriminating. Compliance was hard to come by and I believe the union was eventually placed under very strict rules for operation which mandated equal access. I think these rules are still in effect. Interestingly, Aja had never heard of any of this history, but said she would ask her grandfather. That connection is in fact how Aja found herself becoming an Operating Engineer. Her mother has been in the union since 1980 and before her, her grandfather, now retired. She told me that everyone has told her that you need to know someone to get into the union, even after passing all the tests, and she knows that her family connection was her entry pass.

Aja is the oldest of four children, living in southwest Philly. None of her siblings will follow her footsteps, she says. Her 19 year old brother works for UPS, where Aja worked before she joined the union. Her 16 year old brother and 14 year old sister are both star athletes, at Archbishop Carroll. Her brother is an All-American football player but she can't recall what position he plays --she said she would find out tonight. Her sister plays basketball with the Philadelphia Belles. Her mom and grandfather are both very excited that Aja has found her way into their profession. She graduated from Overbrook High with plans to become a chef and still works weekends at her family's bakery.

Aja was assigned this job out of the union hall and when this job is over, she will put her name back onto a list for new work. If a company likes a worker, it can ask for that person to be assigned to its next job and she hopes this happens. She very much likes her work, loves working around big machines and even didn't mind the miserable heat last week. Her job right now consists of oiling the big trucks for other engineers and driving smaller ones herself. She started on a bobcat, then a roller, and drove the back-hoe here for the first time on a real job. Aja comes to the College on public transportation, a trolley and two buses. On a good day, 75 minutes door to door.

I enjoyed talking to Aja and certainly hope she finds her way through the long apprenticeship. She will here a couple more weeks; please look for her and say hi.

return to Home Page

Send message to the chair of the Science Project User's Group, Rachel Merz (

last updated 8/15/01