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.

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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.

Another Year, already?

During this past week’s evening class, I spoke with a few other 4th year apprentices, and was reminded that we’ll be getting our 5th year bump in pay very soon. In fact, it’s much sooner than I expected! Because I’m a creature of habit, I had in the back of my mind that we would be re-classified as 5th year apprentices in August — just like every year in the past. However, because we are in night school now, the re-classification comes in June, when we have completed our 2nd night course! That means I will be receiving pay at 80% of A-Journeyman scale within 3 months. I absolutely can not believe how fast these past years have come and gone. In other jobs that I’ve had before joining this trade, five years would have seemed like a lifetime! I suppose routine and boredom set in long before five years ever approached. As an electrician, I feel like 5 years has just barely scratched the surface. Even after three intense years of day-school training, and four+ years of on the job training, I honestly feel like there’s so much more to learn and get my hands on. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked under various foremen who have allowed me the opportunity to jump right in, from prints to production, that I have a pretty strong grasp of blueprints and can basically do the work on my own, from “roughing-in” all the way through to “finish” work. But that’s only one aspect of the trade. There’s control work for mechanical systems, lighting controls for extremely large and complex systems, building automation that integrates mechanicals, hvac and lighting, hospitals, theaters, schools, emergency generation, telecom, data centers… and the list can go on and on. What’s amazing is that for each and every one of these extra categories, there are special rules, regulations and specifications that go along with them. I’ve seen glimpses of these other aspects, but in no way could I say I’m an expert, and I would seriously question anyone who claims they are. Our trade just encompasses so many facets of the construction industry, you could spend a lifetime studying it or working on it and still have room to learn about something else. And that’s just the installation side of it! Then there’s the flip-side — personnel management: overseeing a helper, running a crew, being a truck-driver, estimating, purchasing material, material handling, being a foreman, being a general foreman, superintendent, project manager, etc. There are so many opportunities to learn and grow in this field. It’s rather astounding. So, to keep it in perspective, five years is nothing really.

Evening Courses

One of the fascinating aspects of this Local’s apprenticeship program is our ability to compress five years’ worth of education into three. Traditionally, (and concurrently in other regions of the country) “Book 1” is reserved for 1st year apprentices, “Book 2” is taught to 2nd years and so on. This format allows for a summer break between books but is also formatted for students to attend class in the evening, once or twice a week, thus lasting the full span of 5 years. Contrarily, our Local has negotiated a way for apprentices to have what we lovingly call “day-school” where we get the privilege of skipping a whole day’s work once every two weeks, in exchange for an 8-hour intensive day of classroom training, with pay from the Local. Not only does this format pump out accelerated apprentices (Book 5 knowledge after only 3 years in the trade), but it also makes the transition from Book to Book much smoother because we don’t have 3 months off for summers to forget everything we just learned. Additionally, it gives every apprentice the opportunity to tailor our continuing education through our last two years of the program — we actually get to choose what advanced courses we’d like to take! Each semester (fall and spring) classes are offered at our training facility that are open to 4th and 5th year apprentices and to A-Journeymen in our Local. It’s incredible how packed these classes are. They are held in the evenings, once a week for 14 weeks and cover a broad range of topics.

My current course is Renewable Energies and we’ve been studying topics such as wind energy, biomass, and of course, photovoltaics (PV). At the end of the course, we have the chance to sit for a knowledge exam that certifies the participation in the class and a basic level of calculation-based knowledge necessary for PV installations. And like many other certification-based courses, (ie, Fire Alarm, Telecommunications, Code) it is entirely up to the student to take the initiative and pay for and sit for the exam. It isn’t automatic, just by enrolling in the class. However, as I understand it just from talking to various representatives of employers and other mechanics, having a long list of certifications under your belt can certainly go a long way. If an apprentice “comes out of his/her time” with any certifications, it definitely shows what type of initiative one has, and especially during weak economic conditions, it could be the one thing that furthers continued employment.

Working at the Smithsonian

It’s not everyday you get to say that you’re doing electrical work in a rainforest. But for the past 2 months or so, I’ve been able to say just that! In the deep freeze of winter, I’m wearing my thinnest work pants and t-shirts to go work inside the Amazonia — one of the many habitat/exhibits found at the National Zoo.

My current employer, Tex/Am Construction, happens to work closely with the Smithsonian Institutes on a number of projects. I’ve had the opportunity thus far to work on two different generator jobs, dealing with switchgear, big pipes, fire alarm and all the controls necessary to maintain emergency power at the Museum of Natural History, and at a Montgomery County Public School. I’ve also seen some time in a muddy ditch, getting pipes ready for a concrete pour. And the most interesting work environment thus far — the Amazon Rainforest habitat. It’s 80+ degrees and humid everyday, you’re surrounded by over 300 species of tropical flora and best of all, you have to watch out closely for the two monkeys that roam free. They’re curious creatures, and one is especially courageous and will sneak up on you to steal what he can from your tool bag. In fact, one day as I was preparing to put liquidtite conduit along on the the “living” herbaceous walls, the sneaky critter came up to my staging area and proceeded an attempt to take my foreman’s keys. Not exactly your “normal” obstacles and challenges you’d find on a construction site. So far, it’s been an interesting ride and I’m exposed to a variety of work with this company.
Enjoy the following pics!
Here’s a small sampling of the vegetation you’ll find at the Amazonia.
My ladder is actually set up inside one of the fish-holding tanks. This is the first time I’ve ever worn waders.

This little guy really wants me to give him some goodies.
This shot was taken moments before the monkey’s attempt at key-theivery.

Exciting new technology!

Our new Local JATC website has some awesome new tools. One of which is the Forum! This seems like a great place for current apprentices to discuss ideas, concepts and questions about all things electrical! Now it’s just time to get the word out.