The Wild Ride Continues

Another school year approaches and it seems like yesterday that I just graduated from the apprenticeship, although it’s been three months now. I must admit it has been a jam-packed quarter of a year! I was honored to be chosen by my JATC as this year’s “Outstanding Apprentice”, which meant I was given the opportunity to attend the 2011 National Training Institute (NTI) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once a year, IBEW electricians (who also teach) gather together and open their brains to hone their instructional skills and abilities. It’s really quite amazing when you stop and think about it. Our instructors come from working in the field and transform themselves into people who teach others about their trade and livelihood. Most of the people I spoke with at NTI work 40+ hours a week “in the field” and then devote themselves to teach two nights a week throughout the school year. These people are dedicated! Many have been doing it for years and years and what drives them is the sole desire to help others along.

I became lost in a sea of Journeymen and Masters of my field and it felt incredible.

In our classes and workshops, we examined our challenges in the classroom as instructors. Luckily, I had the chance to teach one of my own night classes before NTI began, so I had a brief introduction of what was to come. Teaching is an entirely different aspect of our trade, yet it is one that encompasses all of our collective experiences. As instructors, we draw on examples that occur in the field to aptly illustrate the theories and concepts that are covered in our books. It takes creativity, imagination and humor to keep a class going strong, not to mention the vast depths of knowledge and understanding of the material to be covered. It’s challenging and fun.

I met other apprentices who had recently “topped out” and were chosen as their Local Union’s “Outstanding Apprentice”. We exchanged stories and learned about all the differences between the various geographical regions throughout our National JATCs. It was inspiring to feel a part of something much larger than yourself, working toward common goals and being together in the struggle. (This is a recurring theme I have felt throughout all of my exposure to the organizations behind the electrical industry.) I hope to maintain the connections to these other “newbies” so that we can help one another navigate through all this new territory, together.

Matriculation!

Dearest Readers,

I am thankful and grateful and proud to announce that as of June 1st 2011 (that’s today), I am no longer an Apprentice Wireman with Local 26 — my dues receipt now says Journeyman Wireman! What an accomplishment. Looking back, I still remember starting out in this program… the apprehension, the proving of wit and skill, the meeting new people, the not-knowing, the anxiety before a test, the grades, the nights at school that seemed endless sometimes, learning of new terms and words that only make sense to other electricians… and more recent memories… the meeting new people and the long conversations with old friends, the “shop talk”, the comparing of notes about this job and that, the extension of skills and knowledge to others just starting out, recognizing that blank look when you say “I need 10 lamps” and finally giving in to say “yes, 10 bulbs”. 😀

Five years is indeed a long time, but MAN! The satisfaction of finishing is like nothing else. When I bump into fellow apprentices who will be walking across that stage with me on Saturday, there’s a little glimmer in our eyes that communicates it all. No need to go on and on, because we all know it deep down inside. We’re proud of what we’ve learned, all that we’ve been through, and we can all say “It’s been a heck of a ride!”

These days at work, I’m still learning: that I must embrace my codebook to size things right the first time; how to balance the energy levels of my crew… motivate when necessary, antagonize for fun, have teaching moments when we can; how not to blow my top when it’s really not necessary; how to keep an eye on falling levels of various material that my guys need; how best to prioritize multiple projects that all have very close deadlines. Now that’s a far cry from learning to identify: 1/4-20×3/4″ bolts, 1/4″ fenders, 3/8″ flats and the fact that “strut” is also another name for “kindorf” or “C-channel”. Yes, we’ve come a long way!

Congratulations to every one of my peers, and here’s a toast to the next chapter!

Nearing the end…

This past Thursday was a monumental moment. I had a chance to see my peers all dressed up, ready and excited to graduate. We even had a mini-reunion with many of my classmates from day school. The school arranged for us to have a pre-gathering where individual and group pictures could be taken and information dispersed. I received a letter that informed me that my “top-out” date is June 1st. That means that I will officially become a Journeyman three days before graduation! On that date, I shall pay the difference in dues at the hall, and I will henceforth receive Journeyman wages. I recently explained to someone what this last raise increase means in layman’s terms. Currently, 5th year apprentices are paid approximately $31/hr. As of your top-out date, that jumps to $40/hr. For those unfamiliar with hourly wages, what that translates to is a jump from $60,000/year to $80,000/year. With that kind of income, it pays to be a good, well-trained skilled worker. Many of my fellow apprentices have had the good fortune to buy a house, new vehicles and start a family, even in their mid-twenties! I can not complain either: I’ve been able to build up a comfortable cushion of emergency fund savings, a personal IRA, an annuity account through the Local, and have maintained the repayment of my student loans and mortgage costs, purchased two used vehicles, and have shaped up an incredible credit score!

These are exciting times.

What makes it all the more exciting is that there are so many opportunities ahead. There is no such thing as feeling like union construction is a “dead-end” job. Not only are there a variety of work responsibilities out in the field, like being a sub-foreman, foreman, service truck electrician, superintendent, project manager, estimator, or company owner, but there’s also the behind-the-scenes individuals who work hard to keep everyone moving. The instructors at the school, the administration of the JATC, all the personnel and leadership at the Local Union Hall… the list goes on.

Very exciting times.

When we all gathered in a group for these photographs, I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride and dignity. It was a struggle for many to get through these five years, and yet we made it. Through personal sacrifice and diligence, we stood together, hundreds strong. We congratulated each other and shared a few moments of joy, suited up and posing for the camera. And whether or not others will admit it, I know for a fact I was not alone in feeling that pride in our accomplishments.

EWMC: What is it?

Yesterday, I returned from an annual conference to which I was invited to attend as a delegate from our Local. The Electrical Workers Minority Caucus works throughout the year, through local chapters around the country, to inform the IBEW membership about the goals and achievements of our union. The chapter that Local 26 has set up is called the “Minority Coalition”, and it was through this chapter that I had the privilege to be a delegate.

I was amazed at the amount of familiar faces that I saw, mostly from the Women’s Conference last year. Additionally, I met my talented brothers and sisters from across the country, ranging from LA to Houston to Long Island, and of course NY. I saw people young and old, apprentices, journeymen and retired members who have remained active. I saw the type of diversity amongst our faces that I dream one day will represent the IBEW on a full scale.

Personally, I made new friends from across our lands who have similar objectives for the well-being of our Union. I have found hundreds of individuals who have different answers, opinions and perspectives that have helped me in my personal struggle and goals. There is a cohesion that exists through a tapestry of wisdom and skills that I feel many of our Local’s members don’t even know about.

I am also excited to announce that there is a strong effort to promote the cause of our Young Workers in the IBEW. Over the last few months, a few of us at Local 26 have been working on the formation of ARC-DC, Apprentices Reaching our Community. We have learned a great deal about our organization on a grander scale, and have faced challenges and hurdles that are not unique to us alone. If I learned anything from these conferences it is that we are not alone. There is a growing wave of support that exists from the AFL-CIO down through our IBEW and regionally that tells me that solutions can be shared and we can learn from the many successes of our brothers and sisters everywhere.

I am honored to have been a part of something larger than myself. I hope to bring a sense of urgency and pride back to my brethren and share in the insights that have inspired me.

November Rush

I've heard a few times now the terms “upper-classmen” and “lower-classmen” referring to our apprentices. Considering I'm thirty years old, I thought those terms were behind me. I never really associated those words with our program, until very recently. I was reflecting on how busy the holiday rush always is for me, and this year even more so. My next two months are marked up weekend to weekend and then my last semester of night school (and of the apprenticeship as a whole) begins.

Day-school (lower-classmen time) was filled with anxiety. Week by week, our stipend checks depended on the ability to pass a test. All spare time was spent either studying material or being worried about whether or not the material stuck in our brains. There was little time or energy to consider other aspects of the trade — what the future may hold, or what options are available, how the organization as a whole works, what benefits we have as employed members, etc. Least of our concerns was how to give back to the very community that has been bolstering us up through these years.

Then came night-school (upper-classmen time). A HUGE breath of relief. No more tests! Yes, attendance still counts, but that's easy enough, considering all else we've been through. The freedom to choose what courses are important to us on an individual level helps tremendously in the realm of being interested in the material — learning for the sake of learning. The release from the grip of anxiety is so sweet, and frees us to open the field of vision and see all else that surrounds us.

Now, as I look forward to these next few weeks, I see that my realm has opened so far and wide, that my time is being filled with activities that do give back to my community. Volunteer opportunities arise, simply through the few connections I've made so far, and by being present and available. With service does come a sense of value and fulfillment that is matched by no other, and I am thankful for every opportunity that arises.

It’s That Time of Year…

September seems to have flown by, and now we are midway through October. Already. On the job and around the school, conversations with other apprentices remind me that certain other years are going through the process of “transferring” from one company to another. It’s a mixed bag as to various feelings about the matter. Depending on which company you’re currently with, the transfer time is either a blessing or a blessing in disguise. You never know what’s on the other side of the fence. You may think you’ve got it good where you’re at, and then realize in a month with your new contractor that you HAD NO CLUE what good really is! Or you might land yourself in a mud pit. In the middle of December. Mud in December? Is that possible? Yes ladies and gentlemen, it surely is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My point is even if you find yourself in a mud pit in the middle of December, there is always something to be learned from the situation. You might come to understand that you really enjoy working outside. Or on that job, you *just might* bump into someone who could have a major influence in your future. At the very least, there’s a good story that will come of it. (And you know how we electricians LOVE to recount stories!)

On the classroom front, I’ve been having a lot of fun with my current exploits. I’m in the Trade Teaching course, which is designed to teach apprentices and journeymen how to take the lead; on the job and in the classroom. We’ve thus far covered the concept of public speaking and presentational materials. My most recent class focused on Power Point Presentations and we even had some lab time with the computers. Our first task is to design a five minute presentation on whatever subject we like. I thought it would be simple, seeing as how it’s only five minutes long. But therein lies the problem — it’s only five minutes long! Five minutes goes by in a blink of an eye. Surprisingly, I found that I still needed to prepare an outline before designing the final presentation. Quite a bit of time goes into these slideshows, and if you’re a perfectionist about visual elements, then it’s entirely too easy to fall down the bunny hole. Thursday we present. Fun fun!

Back to School, again!

August is almost over, and with that comes one of my favorite seasons, Autumn. There’s something about Maryland summers that really tests your patience. It’s a struggle to stay hydrated, there’s seemingly no relief from the stagnant air drenched with humidity, and through it all you’re supposed to do your best at your daily tasks involving physical labor. Not to mention the mosquitos! So, since I’m still working in the Amazonia building at the National Zoo, we’re now dealing with all the aforementioned annoyances, and continuing to plod through this fire alarm retrofit as best we can. It’s challenging, but rewarding now that we can see some serious progress. We’re nearly finished with the majority of the difficult and strenuous work, and I can see the horizon ahead. Soon we should be pulling some specially-colored wires of various gauges and then it’s all downhill from there!

In the meanwhile, I just received my confirmation of which evening course I’ll be attending this upcoming semester — Elements of Trade Teaching. I’m looking forward to this class immensely; I’ve really appreciated all the skills and knowledge this trade has given me, and I can’t wait to pay it forward.

And even though this hot, hot summer has brought forward bountiful harvests for me (think tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, cucumber, watermelon and numerous herbs) I’m glad for things to finally be winding down. It’s hot out there!

IBEW Women’s Conference

I’ve had a couple weeks to process this, and yet it’s still murky waters for me. My mind is filled with unanswered questions, re-ignited excitement and wondrous curiosities.

When I first found out that I was invited to attend the annual IBEW Women’s Conference, I was looking forward to seeing another aspect of my trade. I didn’t know what to expect but to be surrounded by women. I didn’t know what type of information the seminars would cover, or what the other women would be like. Would we get along? Would I be outgoing enough to participate in talks? Do I even know how to mingle with strangers? I didn’t even know for sure who I would be rooming with in the hotel for 4 days!

I was delighted to find by the first day that all my apprehensions were laid to rest. I got along great with my roomie, the other women attendees were full of an infectious energy and the workshop leaders were skilled in the arts of ice-breakers that actually worked. I found myself opening up freely in topic-conversations, brainstorming, offering my perspective and various suggestions. After the first day I felt honored to be in the presence of so many hard-working and amazing women.

Originally I thought that the conference was open to women electricians. How surprised I was when I began to comprehend the sheer MAGNITUDE of the IBEW. In addition to other Inside Wiremen electricians, I met Outside Linemen and other workers also represented by the IBEW, whom I had no clue were even part of our membership. The common underlying values of workers’ rights, and the massive body of desire to uplift our union as a whole was positively overwhelming in its own right.

Over my years in construction, I’ve been exposed to much discord: complaints, “issues” and disagreements about how things are, why problems exist and who is to blame. Normally these conversations end with the abrupt saying, “Well, it is what it is,” or even more disturbing, “Oh well, what CAN you do?” For the first time in my career as a union electrician of over four years, I became witness to a pathway of Resolution, Progress and Hope.

I caught a glimpse of something at this conference: the passion in activism — fighting honorably for values that I believe in; discovering sisterhood amongst strangers; the capacity for creativity in finding solutions to shared problems; the myriad roles filled by individuals who bring their unique strengths to the table; the combined wisdom of so many great minds and spirits.

Ultimately, I felt uplifted. It truly is an amazing organization that can elicit all the remarkable qualities of its membership, and celebrate the everyday people who make it all possible. I wish more people could have this experience.

Keeping it in Perspective

Through my time as an apprentice, I’ve had the opportunity to experience a multitude of working environments. I’ve seen the typical “construction” site, where hardhats and safety glasses are everywhere. I’ve seen “occupied tenant spaces” where we’ve had to be careful of all debris that we create — no dust on this or that person’s desk! I’ve worked in the same office as someone who’s working at his/her computer and let me tell you, that’s nerve-wracking. But where I’m working now has been by far the most difficult environment I’ve ever experienced. I’m still at the National Zoo, still working in the Amazonia building, which by the way is a simulated rain forest in case you weren’t aware. We have to be careful about everything we do; we don’t want to step on the plants, lest they be crushed; we can’t leave ANY trash behind because the tiniest piece of plastic can wreak havoc on the animals’ intestines if consumed; we can’t leave extension cords plugged in crossing any pathway because children and adult visitors alike are not accustomed to the added trip hazard; oh and it rains INSIDE, EVERYDAY. The building itself has very few straight walls, and even fewer 90 degree corners. It seems like with every step, we’re towing a huge weight that drags and drags the job, climbing over obstacles (literally), tripping over ourselves and working in piecemeal. This is a challenge for both myself and my mechanic, who prefers the ability to “run with a job”. Who ever thought that I would miss the days when I had a foreman who wanted things done “rush, rush, rush”; when it was possible to throw that pipe run up, easily getting 200-300 feet up… ahh, those were the days.

It’s easy to get caught up in the daily fusses of how your current situation could be better. You think “if only” this, or that. Your first instinct is to find a better way, because after all, most of us who are drawn to this sort of work are natural problem solvers. But sometimes, as I’m finding out, this terribly slow crawl is in fact the best way. You simply have to be determined to hunker down and take it one step at a time. Sometimes that means taking it one hour at a time. I find I have to silence the brain about all other concerns, and focus on the task at hand. Bite-sized chunks of a job eventually winnow out a huge scoop.

Last week we finally finished one portion of our rather large project. When we got to the stage of pulling wire to the lighting dimmer controller, I got a breath of relief. After struggling with the entire lighting project from burying flexible conduit throughout the rainforest, hiding lighting fixtures amidst the plants and pulling hundreds of feet of wiring while balancing between spiky trees and curious monkeys, I knew that the finish line was in sight. I knew that wiring the final switches and pulling the final legs of wire back to the electrical panel meant that we could soon turn on those forsaken lights! When troubleshooting the system only took one day, I really felt proud of what we had accomplished. Everything was watertight, and there were no shorts. Quite an accomplishment.

So I’ve found the best way to keep insanity at bay on a challenging job is to remain vigilant against negativity, remind myself of the all the milestones, and seriously take it one step at a time. It’s too easy to get overwhelmed if you let the flood gates of criticism run rampant in your own head.

With spring, a flood of work!

I am nearing the end of my fourth year as an apprentice, and I feel there’s still so much more to learn. A few weeks ago, I was given the remarkable opportunity to participate in a “Code Update” seminar. I was surrounded by men and women who are the leaders of our field. I met a whole range of people who were in attendance for varying reasons; some were updating their VA licenses, or PG county licenses, while others were there to refresh their knowledge of Fire Alarm codes. I also saw a few familiar faces from years ago – guys I worked with here and there from almost all the companies I’ve been with. While I was there, I marveled at the amount of people there, on a Saturday, simply to continue their education and extend their mastery of electrical practice. I was proud to know that this organization is what made it all come together.

I have been continually astonished with what it means to be a member of this Local, and what it means to be a student in this apprenticeship. As I come closer to completing this portion of the journey, I realize again and again how much more is out there. It takes a community to make a movement, and I am well aware of the generous amount of support that exists in this community.