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.

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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.

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.

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.

Women in the Electrical Trade

In response to a reader’s questions, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss this slightly controversial topic, or at least address my experiences thus far. Recently, our Local has engaged in a diversity training program that is accessible online and on DVD. Personally, I’ve attended many such in-house programs over the years, and the issues that we deal with never feel completely settled. And honestly, I’m glad for that. I grew up in an underprivileged neighborhood, typically meaning it was a predominantly minority population. “Minority” is a certain catch-all phrase that includes so many sub-sets of our human population. I happen to fall into multiple minority categories all at once, and much like Schroedinger’s cat, it depends which group the observer happens to be observing, to understand the results of those observations. That is, are you trying to understand another person’s cultural background? gender? race? sexual orientation? ethnicity? nationality? What I’ve often found is if you address these experiences separately and individually, then often pigeon-hole concepts arise and assumptions are made about the person which may not exactly apply in his/her situation.

In this case, when we’re dealing with the fact that I am a woman (a minority in the male-dominated field of construction), my co-workers are often hesitant in the first few days/weeks of working with me. And I too am somewhat hesitant. As many apprentices often feel when transferring to a new crew or company, there is a certain testing period that happens when everybody wants to know “Is this a good fit?” Like an ecosystem, there exists a very sensitive balance amongst crew members that builds over time. Sense of humors, work styles, complaining and praising habits are all variables that interact to create the cohesion of a team. When a new person is thrown in the mix, suddenly there’s turmoil, uncertainty and curiosity. Add to this the fact that “it’s a girl!” and you’ve got a full-blown tornado of confusion. What do I do? I show up, and work. I do the electrical work the way I’ve been trained, I ask questions about new concepts, and I cross my fingers that personalities will mesh. Usually, it’s no problem. There have been a few glitches here and there, but nothing that I’ve found terribly off-putting.
One common theme that I’ve found is that many men who don’t yet know me are fearful of what they say and how they act when I am in the room. There is a certain level of mistrust that lingers about “being politically correct” and whether or not a formal complaint will be issued against them. Sometimes it feels like they think I’m a vulture or hawk, just waiting for the opportunity to pounce on their bad deeds, and make it big on the company’s legal cash-cow. I guess that’s a side-effect of society using legal means and fear mongering to teach about tolerance and diversity. I’m sure these things do happen, but unfortunately I think it’s over-represented and a little misguided to perpetuate the drama.
If you happen to be a male electrician, unsure of how to handle a woman on the job, I would advise to not let the fact that she’s a woman get in the way of realizing all the other aspects of this human being who you’re dealing with, just like that other new guy you’re trying to figure out — there’s lots more about a person than whether they stand up or sit down while peeing.
Ultimately, I don’t think anyone likes their identity being put into a cubbyhole and being treated, based solely on one aspect of who they are. It is pretty offensive, no matter how you say it — “Oh you’re acting like such a ________.” (enter any single aspect: woman, christian, republican, liberal, man, jew, mexican, etc.) If there’s any one thing I’d like to be judged on, that would be how good an electrician I am. And everyone should know there’s always room for improvement.
Comments & questions welcome.

IBEW on the Radio

Last Thursday, I was listening to National Public Radio on WAMU (88.5 FM) and the discussion was about how the stimulus package is helping to broaden the prospects of “smart grid” technology across the nation. The speaker on the news show reported that there is currently a large project moving forward in Nevada, and that IBEW members are leading the effort! Also, stimulus monies are being released to strengthen training and apprenticeships specifically. Updating to smarter electrical grids may be somewhat controversial right now, but it very well may be the future of our employment. It could create a vast number of jobs, and it may be the key to securing electrical work for next few decades.