Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Meet Siobhan Colleen. Siobhan is a certified rigger by trade for the entertainment industry. Since 2014, she’s rigged for concerts, musicals, TV shows, tour rehearsals and more in the Orange and LA counties of SoCal. Most notably, Siobhan worked with Technical Services at the Disneyland Resort, installed Criss Angel’s Mindfreak at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas, and supervised stage builds and safety for Volcano Live! with Nik Wallenda. Siobhan became GWO and rope access certified during the pandemic to pivot her expertise toward fall protection and confined space rescue instruction for wind turbine technicians. Since the pandemic, Siobhan has also become a voting member on the Rigging Working Group for the ESTA Technical Standards Program, a voluntary consensus that creates ANSI-accredited standards for the entertainment industry. Most recently, Siobhan became a Rigging Commando for Area Four Industries for whom she creates educational rigging videos. In her free time, Siobhan hosts Industry Explorers livestreams to show students career paths and opportunities. She also enjoys fitness so much that she became a NASM certified personal trainer and is currently developing programs for tradespeople.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a Walt Disney Imagineer. Imagineering could be so many different things: you could be an artist, you could be a scientist… it’s just got such a range of possibilities. I just knew that I wanted to make attractions and make shows, so that led me in high school to pursue theater. I was interested in robotics, but there wasn’t a robotics club. I studied calculus and got into physics, because I thought that’s what I needed to do to be on the tech aspect of things. Then I discovered technical theater. I really liked busking, which is manually doing the show lights for our high school dance shows.
I decided to pursue theater at Cal State Fullerton, thinking that I wanted to be a lighting designer and who would eventually design the lighting for shows. I didn’t know the word at the time, but I also was very much interested in show control, which is basically programming the lights, the audio, any pneumatic or Pyro effect – anything you can think of that when you hit the “Go” button synchronizes perfectly. When I was a freshman, I was working as a stagehand as a local hand, basically pushing boxes. Eventually, I noticed people working on the beams above me, and that was very intriguing because it’s super high, and it looked dangerous – and I like challenges. I tried searching for someone who would teach me how to do that. Turns out that is called rigging. I got my foot in the door and became an entertainment rigger, where we would set up for concerts, arena shows, outdoor amphitheater shows, theater shows, etc.
With entertainment rigging, we deal with shackles and slings so you have to consider the design factor and the breaking strength of your equipment. Just like anybody who does rigging anywhere, it’s the same thing – we’re just maybe hanging Miley Cyrus on a hot dog! You’re exposed a lot to fall protection, because a big part of the job is climbing. In my senior year of college, I was trying to figure out what to do for the senior honors project. I thought, “How about a beginner’s guide to fall protection so that I can write a book that’s basically all the things I wish that I knew when I started my career?” At the time, there weren’t as many online classes or webinars that you could attend, and there weren’t as many online resources for rigging. The way that I learned was through a person and it was very informal. I think on the job training has its place, but unfortunately, for me, there was sexual harassment involved.
I wrote a Beginner’s Guide to Fall Protection while also learning about rescue techniques and orthostatic intolerance – also known as suspension trauma or prolonged harness suspension. I made a YouTube video about prolonged harness suspension, which got the attention of people who wanted me to start teaching fall protection and rescue. So I was an instructor and a freelance rigger.
How did the pandemic impact your work?
COVID changed everything. When that happened, our whole industry was shut down. I became a project rigging project manager with zero projects. This past year, I’ve turned my attention toward advocating for the trades, as well as learning more about physical fitness because I’m an active person. I’m a certified personal trainer with NASM, and my plan with that is to start my brand, Knotty Tech Fitness, to help people condition for the jobs that they’re doing. Every rope access class that I’ve been a part of, even every fall protection class that I’ve taught, people are often very surprised by the parts of their body that they need to use. Everything from lengthening any overactive muscles, typically hip flexors (especially if you’re like a trucker), or maybe prevent carpal tunnel if you’re doing a lot of torquing action. So I had a pretty severe pivot in 2020. Now we’re in 2021, and entertainment is slowly returning but it’s not the same. There’s still limited jobs out there.
Would you say there are any transferable skills between careers in the trades?
COVID forced a lot of entertainment workers out of work, so I started Industry Explorers, a podcast where I interview people and ask them how to enter different industries. I like to highlight the similarities between what they’re describing and what I’ve seen in entertainment. It was my way of trying to help entertainment workers find jobs and other places. If you’re a rigger, it’s the same if you’re in the oil industry or rescue or construction – you know, physics doesn’t change. If you have that skill set in one industry, recognize that those skills apply to other industries, and figure out how to communicate that you indeed have those transferable skills. I try to use Industry Explorers as a media tool to show people transferable technical and soft skills. We talk about transferable soft skills all the time – interpersonal skills, communication skills, leadership skills – but I don’t know that there’s enough conversation surrounding transferable technical skills. For example, if you’re an EMT, then where can your career go from there? Or if you’re a lab technician or if you’re an automotive tech? That’s what I try to center my conversations around.
What is your favorite part about what you do?
I love climbing. Climbing is a lot of fun, and I feel very in my element when I’m rigging. I almost want to say it comes naturally to me, but I’ve been doing it since 2014. I love that I can put together a big 3D puzzle, like I have a small part in a large puzzle. Specifically with entertainment, when you can see the lights turn on and you see the performer on stage, and the audience is having a great time… that’s pretty immediate gratification, and it feels damn good. I even love seeing non-entertainment projects come to life. I used to live in California, they were building a new ramp on Junction 91, and I loved seeing the progress of it. There’s just something about industrial equipment and materials that I love. I love seeing the end result, whether it’s a functional thing or if it’s an entertainment thing. I love being part of those giant teams and knowing that I’ve got my little part in that big picture.
There’s the self-efficacy and the self-esteem aspect of it. When I am actually rigging, putting things together, and troubleshooting. I’m good at it, and it just makes me feel good. I really love contributing and having an impact on others. Whether it’s a show or teaching people how to rescue themselves or how to prevent a bad situation from happening… I love teaching, because I am teaching people how to be safe. Honestly, me being a woman in the room, I don’t have to say out loud, “Hey, women can do this, and women can be in the trades, too,” because they’re just seeing it in action. I hope that even my presence, whether you see me online or you see me out on a job site, has a positive impact on how we view women as a whole in society, as well as how we view women in male-populated spaces, specifically with trades. I like having that social impact as well.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
Not taking things personally is a big one. You never know what other people’s circumstances are. Frankly, I’ve dealt with a lot of toxic personalities. I’ve dealt with amazing people too, but I’ve also dealt with a lot of people who come with their own emotional baggage. I think it’s really funny when you hear people say women are so emotional. Men are also just as, if not more, emotional. You just see it as anger or frustration or jealousy, or they yell. I’ve seen guys get so frustrated that they literally can’t function, which is super dangerous when you’re 60 feet in the air on a two-inch steel beam. I think everybody has their own story, and some people come with more baggage than others. So it’s really important not to take things personally.
What do the trades mean to you, and what important lessons have you learned while working in the trades?
You never know who’s watching you, and you never know when you do something that’s going to lead to an opportunity down the road, so you should treat every day like it’s a job interview. Even if you’re already at your job! You’re already doing the work – do the best work that you can do, be a great team player, because you will build camaraderie with your team. You never know who’s going to be in a position of power down the road. You never know if someone who is currently in a position of power is watching you from afar.
I have the opportunity to travel to Europe next week, and that’s because I posted a 90-second video on LinkedIn three years ago! Three years ago, a director of marketing saw the video and was like, “Hey, she’s good on camera, she knows how to explain these concepts, she’s succinct. Let’s see if we can have her be part of our marketing campaign.” So I said yes, and I get to go to Prague to do that marketing campaign and film a bunch of videos where I teach people how to do entertainment arena rigging. The 90-second video led to that! So you just never know.
What are your thoughts on the state of the trades right now industry-wise?
I’m optimistic. I think there are three big trends. One is safety. In previous decades, if you were following safety procedures, you probably weren’t doing it 100% the way you were supposed to. People have the attitude that “we only follow these rules, because they’re the rules, and if I don’t follow them, OSHA is gonna fine me.” But the reason that I am safe in everything I do is so that I can travel the world and spend time with my partner, play with my dog, and travel to California whenever I want to see my family. That’s why I put my harness on. That’s why I put my hard hat on. That’s why I use a respirator if it gets dusty. I’m seeing this shift in safety culture. I love seeing that. When I’m teaching safety classes, one of the first things I like asking my participants is, “What do you like to do for fun when you’re not working?” You like fishing, you like hunting, you have a daughter, you have a son, you’ve got family, you have a wife, you’ve got a boyfriend? That’s why we follow safety.
The other thing is inclusivity. In online spaces, I’m seeing a little bit more inclusivity. It’s not always the most supportive space to be in when I’m in a group. If I’m in a women-only space, it’s a lot more supportive. There’s a lot more topics that are covered. Like I can ask about bras, I can ask about period products, I can ask about harnesses, I can ask about work boots, I can ask about how to handle a difficult situation – whereas you don’t get that same sort of support in a co-ed space. I’m seeing women be more included, but I also see that we have a ways to go.
The third trend in our industry is with education. There’s greater accessibility to learning, whether it’s through a learning management system or if it’s through an old school textbook, we as a people have greater access to those resources, so it’s really important for us to take advantage of that. I am so glad that today, if I want to learn something about rigging, I can take an online course. I can take many online courses, whereas when I first started, those online courses weren’t available. I was learning how to do that stuff in some dude’s garage. One time I asked, “What made you want to mentor me? Is it because I’m smart? Is it because I pick up the concepts quickly? Is it because I work hard when you take me on job sites? What made you want to invest your time and effort into me?” And he said, “Honestly, it’s because you have great tits, and I like staring at them, and I figured you’d get bored eventually.” So yeah…I prefer online classes.
How have uncomfortable experiences like that on the job changed how you approach work?
With rescue dummies, most people call it Rescue Randy. One day, I started calling one Rescue Roxy – so then class participants are starting to think like, “Oh, Roxy, go rescue Roxy.” All it took was for me to start calling an inanimate object by a girl’s name before one of my participants goes, “So if there’s a woman on our crew and she falls, do we have to wait for another woman to come on site before we start the rescue?” I was like, “oh, God.” But I get it – guys are afraid of being wrongly accused of sexual harassment. I understand that’s a fear, and if I were a dude, I would probably be afraid of that, too. However, if you’re on a crew, and you’re working at height, you all are supposed to have gone through the fall protection course. We all go through the rescue courses and the first aid courses, and there are protocols. So I’m explaining this to him: “No – remember in our slideshow when it said if you’re asphyxiated for three minutes, then you could suffer from brain damage? Hell no, you’re not going to wait for another woman to come on your crew! Where are you going to get this other woman? Is she on a turbine, like two hours away? No, you don’t wait for another female to help you with your rescue. These are our procedures – you don’t honk her tit while you’re doing it. Obviously, that would be crossing a line. That would be assault. We don’t teach that. She’s got breasts – they’re sacks of fat, man. It’s just tissue.” I have those kinds of talks.
You’ve got people who don’t even entertain the thought of women occupying the same spaces as them. Basically, for centuries, women have been told what to think and what they can and can’t do. We used to think that exercise was not beneficial for pregnant women. We used to think that exercise wasn’t good for women, period, because it wasn’t feminine. Oh, my gosh, I could write a whole report on that. You have women who are still hearing those types of influences.
If you have an old-fashioned type of guy in your family, you’re not “supposed to” help them with stuff like cleaning out the garage, because that’s what the men in the family do. If that’s something that you grow up around, then the thought of joining the trade is not something that’s going to cross your mind. You implicitly think that it’s either not possible or not appropriate. There’s subliminal messaging all over the place. Even in “women of trades” groups or any women-only group about the trades, I’ve seen posts where women will say, “I’m really interested in becoming a boilermaker, or I’m really interested in an electrician apprenticeship, but I’m afraid of sexual harassment, but I’m afraid of getting laughed at, I’m afraid that I won’t belong.” You have women who are interested in the trades, but they’re afraid. That’s another one of many things that needs to change.
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
I encourage anybody who’s entering the trades, no matter what gender you identify as, to know that there are resources out there to help you learn, and that there are a lot of people who are willing to help you. Learn from as many people as possible. There’s always more than one way to accomplish a task. If you have three people teaching you how to do the same thing and each method is different, you’ll eventually get to learn the best method, or maybe you get to come up with the best method. Don’t rely on a single source for your knowledge.
A lot of people in the entertainment industry are creating online resources and online classes and more videos on YouTube. That’s fantastic for me to see. I would have consumed all of that, and I would have gone to as many classes as possible if I were starting out in the industry and that were available to me, rather than relying on one person to teach me, especially someone who’s a narcissist, because narcissists will tell you that nobody else can help you, that nobody else is smart enough to show you the right way to do things. That’s a very manipulative way to act.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
I like spending time with my partner. He’s goofy. The other day we made macro-roni, it’s all the macros you need in a pot. Mine was 50% ground turkey. We do stuff like that, and it’s fun. We hang out at the lake with his family. It’s relaxing. I love tanning in the sun. I also love Halloween, and I love show control. I want to start getting into Arduino projects so that I can make a haunted house and have the best haunted house on the block.
Our thanks to Siobhan for making time to share her story and industry insights with us.