16 Months Old: Advice I’d Give Myself Last Year (or any New Apprentice)

Last year feels like so long ago. I’m now a third term apprentice. Each term is about six months long and I have seven more terms to complete before I sit for my journeywoman/electrical license exam. Here’s the advice I wish I could have given myself about a year ago:

The pre-apprenticehip program and the union’s basic skills preparation were wrong. Their message was to stay industrious: if there’s nothing to do, then you should grab a broom and start cleaning. This didn’t work for me, though. What I failed to appreciate was the difficulty of what we were doing. The electricians I admire most have taken the time to mull all options and do the calculations before springing into action. By engaging in conversation about the differences between the blueprints and the actual field conditions and what we need to take into consideration, I learned much more than what a broom could teach me. Plus, it can come across as frenetic and unfocused if you wander away and start cleaning at every chance available. If somebody needs something cleaned or organized – believe me – they’ll tell you. By running for the broom, it only enforces gender stereotypes, plus you’ll miss out on the process of how to construct large 3-D objects in accordance with a 2-D set of blueprints. I’d go so far as saying AVOID the broom at all costs. If your site has a material handler or a lower level apprentice available, use your rank and delegate: ask him to clean up.

Group Dynamic is Important
Neither be the first nor the last to stand up at the ends of your breaks. And neither be the first nor the last to put your work on pause and take a break. Electricians are really sensitive to group dynamic: if you leave to break too early, you’re seen as a slacker. Yet if you are too eager to get back to work, your co-workers will resent having time shaved off their earned breaks. It’s a funny and delicate balance.

We had a guy on my first job who wouldn’t eat lunch with the crew. He preferred to be outside on the roof – and I don’t blame him. The weather was just right and the view from the roof was gorgeous. It was his time, right? Yet his break from the pack seemed to really peeve the rest of the crew. And since this can be a feast or famine industry, it seems wise to build as many friendships and connections as possible.

Take Every Chance You Get to Learn the Electrical Code in Depth

– Review just the table of contents a couple times a week.
– Look up the types of conduit or conductors you’re installing and know the support requirements and permitted uses.

If you can communicate your understanding of the Code to your journeywoman or forewoman, there’s less chance you’ll be asked to reach for the broom between projects.

Follow Your Instincts
If something feels off, stop and reassess and ask. It’s likely you’re in an unsafe situation. We talk about this frequently in our training and at our job sites: if something feels off, it probably is. This is the first time I’ve seen men encourage other men to cultivate their intuition. Of course, they call it “gut feeling”. Whatever.

Take Good Care of Your Body
Work out. Get strong. Stretch. The less clumsy you can look while wrangling a 10 or 12 foot ladder, the better. The more force you can apply to an overhead drill or rotohammer, the less likely it is that an impatient electrician will take the tools out of your hands.

Don’t Let Anybody Take the Tools Out of Your Hands
This one is easier said than done. I’ve experienced it and I’ve watched it happen with both women and men. Sometimes, there is just limited time to get a task done and watching a newbie struggle can be exasperating. When you have the chance, though, keep hold of your tools and ask to be guided through the steps.

Take the Propaganda with Some Grains of Salt
Being part of a union has been awesome for me! I am so happy to have a hands-on job, which results in a tangible, needed product. I credit my union with receiving a fair wage based on my skills and not my gender. And having full medical, dental, vision, emergency savings and retirement benefits is rare these days. Other workers might be resentful, but I see it as an honest and fair exchange. Our contractor is making money. Our customer is getting quality, safe and professional electrical services.

Go to your union’s general meetings because there’s always a valuable piece of information to hear. I’ve picked up beneficial information on how to manage my pension and health insurance options merely by having a conversation with my fellow electricians. Also, it’s been fulfilling for me to participate in some volunteer projects alongside my union sisters and brothers.

People will have strong opinions about
– what exactly constitutes “taking our work”
– whether union trained electricians are better than other electricians
– and other opinions that may or may not resonate with you

You’ll find such a cross section of political beliefs and education levels among your union sisters and brothers. Don’t let one or two political statements sour you completely just because you don’t agree. Speak your own voice. Find the best way to personally continue learning and evolving with the industry.

Some people call this a craft or a trade, some people are obviously uncomfortable around blue collar “construction” work. I see it as a people-person job, where relationships matter. I hope other women who crave a well-paid career that blends body and brain are given the chance to work in the trades earlier than I was.


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