In a parallel life, Ellen Way and her New Wave synth pop duo might currently be doing nostalgia tours through the US and Europe. She might still be rocking the shredded tights or pegged jeans, and a hairstyle with shaved sides and pink highlights.
Instead, she’s commandeering scores of construction crews and running interference between developers and architects, city planning officials and job site foremen, as she builds yet another downtown Los Angeles high-rise. One of the few top women in an industry awash not only in male bosses but the brusque machismo that oozes from them, Way has spent her lifetime breaking down barriers.
I’ve known Ellen since her rowdy Boston days – when she dropped out of college and then left her stable but expectant family in Michigan to join her sister. We reconnected recently and I thought she’d be perfect as a profile: a badass woman in a male-dominated industry that nevertheless valued the wisdom that came from experience.
But it was only after talking to her that I heard the story of someone who spent most of her adult life unsure of just where she would end up. That sense of purpose is something that becomes more vital after we cross a certain age threshold. With a career that is still very much in the ascendant, I thought Way might be a good person to offer some perspective on it.
Cheaper by the Dozen was a celebrated book of the late 1940s and made into a film twice (once in 1950, and again in 2003 with Steve Martin as head of the 12-child family). It also left a profound impression on young Ellen Way.
“The main character was an efficiency expert and that always fascinated me. I always loved the idea of doing things in the quickest possible manner,” she says.
That instinct proved perfect for construction, which she happened upon shortly after landing in Boston. In quick fashion, through her sister’s job at a catering truck on a construction site, Way found herself one of the first women to join the laborer’s union in Boston in 1979. She took to it immediately.
“I can visualize things pretty well,” she says. “I am physically strong for my size. Consistently when I would hand someone something heavy ... They would assume based on my size that it wouldn’t weigh as much. And a couple of times they almost fell.”
There was something else about the work, though, as well.
“The more conscious component was rebellion,” she says. “This is not something a girl does. And I’m going to prove that’s not true.”
She rose through the ranks, from laborer to carpentry journeyman, all the while thinking this would be nothing more than a side gig she could return to throughout her life.
“I always flirted with doing something else,” she says.
She joined a fishing boat in Alaska in 1985. And then she moved to San Francisco in the late 80s, where she joined a couple of bands (the aforementioned New Wave Synth Pop band – a duo – and a seven-person outfit for whom she played guitar and sang vocals). When her bandmate moved to LA, she joined a year later.
But working as a cocktail waitress lost its appeal quickly and she called up the local union, quickly getting a job. This time, construction stuck. Her skills advanced, yes, but she was also rewarded with more demanding work – rising to superintendent responsible for quality control and the ensuring things got done in time.
She counts LA’s massive Staples Center (in 1998) and the revamp of the storied arena, The Forum, among her projects. With each site she was learning more and more: about steel construction, about LA’s seismic requirements, about managing financials and the budgets.
“I’m probably slightly ADD. Physical labor helped me focus when I was young,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older and got more responsibility, one of the great things about my job is ... that there are 10 or 15 things that I need to get done at any given moment … Some days I feel like sitting at my desk, and some days I feel like walking around ... and both are critical to getting my job done. It’s a combination of all the problems are the same, and they’re all new.”
That feeling of finding the job that completely suits you is reason enough for Way to keep going—and it’s something her industry tends to reward. At her previous job, she had a consultant in his mid-80s and a project manager who was in his 70s.
The company, “saw the value of their experience,” she says. “Though they maybe can’t run circles around everybody, sometimes it’s better to just run a straight line. When you know where you’re going you tend to walk in a straight line.”
There’s the matter of her genes as well. Her father, now 85, no longer practices medicine but works as a health care consultant.
“I saw his parents retire and wither away,” she says. “My life expectancy is probably 100 … over 100. What am I ... not going to do anything? If I quit at 75 I’m going to do nothing for 25 years? That’s a long-ass time. That’s a whole other retirement. I don’t think retirement is particularly good for anybody.”
There’s still things for her to learn—like wood framing or how to build a factory—and younger colleagues to mentor. And then there’s this idea she has for a new kind of performance piece, involving a programmable piano and her singing cabaret … The next 50 years are looking promising, indeed.