Raysean Cathey never imagined a career working hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, so when the idea of working in underground construction was first introduced to him you can imagine his response. “I thought it was crazy!” laughed Cathey.
Now in his second year with SAK Construction (SAK), an underground construction company headquartered right outside of St. Louis in O’Fallon, Missouri, Cathey is enjoying his role as a Lead Miner. Raysean successfully completed one of SAK’s training programs and has never looked back. Working his way up from Laborer to Lead Miner, he has found a rewarding career rebuilding St. Louis right under everyone’s feet and he has learned it is work that is far from crazy.
Founded in 2006, SAK specializes in underground work featuring tunneling and a process called cured-in-place-pipe, which its founders helped pioneer in the United States. SAK’s workforce is about 21 percent minority and 16 percent African-American, according to Melva Pete, vice president of human resources at SAK.
Nationally, the company has over 500 employees with 300 based in and around St. Louis. They have regional operations in Washington D.C, Sacramento, Nashville, Baltimore, San Antonio, Kansas City and Phoenix with projects located throughout the country.
SAK has grown rapidly to become one of the largest privately owned companies in St. Louis, and they are constantly looking for local employees for large jobs here in the City of St. Louis. The company’s senior management team has a core belief that a diverse workforce is a key factor for its success, and they have a deep commitment to invest in the community. SAK came up with the idea to create a diversity training program focused on mentoring and training minorities and women with the skills necessary to work and succeed in construction.
Referred to SAK by one of its employees, Cathey enrolled in and completed SAK’s “Boots On The Ground” training program, which prepares participants for jobs in the underground tunnel division.
“It was very intimidating at first, but if you show up and let them see you are willing to work hard, there was always someone there to help out and offer advice,” Cathey said. “The people I worked under took the time to invest in me and teach me the right way to do things in a variety of skill areas.”
SAK said they believe long-term success in construction depends on teaching “soft skills,” such as planning and teamwork, along with the direct skills required for each position. In the end, the hope is that the graduate has a strong base from which to begin, can jump right in an add value immediately, and will build upon those skills for a future in construction.
“I was working at General Motors as a dock coordinator inputting material into their facility when a friend told me about SAK,” Cathey said. “He said if you’re willing to work hard then you could make good money!”
Cathey is currently working on SAK’s Deer Creek tunnel project, the largest new tunnel project ever in the St. Louis region. Having never done this type of work before presented some challenges for Cathey. “Everything was so fast-paced, but you just try to learn as quick as possible, so you don’t hold up production,” he said. “Once you get the skills down, then there’s the fact that your ‘office’ is 180 feet underground!”
Cathey quickly adjusted to his new work location and never looked back (or up). “Just working underground, I hadn’t done it before,” he said. “But being able to learn the different equipment and stand back looking at the work I had done is something I enjoy. I enjoy working with my hands and you can see what you accomplished. It makes you proud!”
SAK says the training program is a “win-win” for everyone involved because it provides new opportunities for the graduates and helps the company get qualified candidates.
“Many people may never consider a career in construction, or in our case underground construction, so it’s a great way for us to introduce our industry to those who may never have considered it,” stated Jim Kalishman, SAK’s Chief Information Officer. “We find that once people learn they can make a good living, while also playing an important role in building something permanent, that they stay in the industry.”
For his part, Cathey says he’s sticking with it and has found a place he really likes to work: “I like the people I work with and it allows me to make money and support my family.”