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  • Writer's pictureTerry Bierwirth

Change Your Career: Part I A Career in Skilled Trades Creates Purpose, Pay and Promise for Rachel

This is a two-part series about an electrical apprentice named Rachel. Part I describes how I met Rachel while she was on a job site working as an electrical apprentice. In Part II, Rachel explains how she chose to change her career later in life and the steps she has taken to enter the electrical field.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a job site. I was seeking to capture photos of electricians at work to highlight and promote this occupation on our website My Work My Future and social media pages. I reached out to a company I know, Balanced Electric a small electrical contractor owned by two women in Junction City, Oregon, Michelle and Kim. After getting permission from the general contractor, Karen of Double Eagle Design and Construction, who I also knew, I was invited to come out to a brand-new home build where Balanced Electric was hired to install the wiring.

I hit the jackpot that day. Not only was I permitted to take photos and shoot a few videos of the work, but I was also able to talk to 5 people, four women, and one man. Michelle and Kim are great people and very talented electricians. There have been multiple stories written about them and they’ve been featured on two television news stories. You can learn more about Balanced Electric Inc on their website. Karen, journeyman carpenter and general contractor, left a teaching career to become a contractor. Aaron, the man on site, was there to work on the HVAC for the home. He has a bachelor’s in science. Both have great stories of how they got into the skilled trades. I will share their stories in a separate blog. Rachel, a first stage electrical apprentice, the focus of this story, has been working for Balanced Electric since the summer. What I noticed immediately about all five of these individuals was the excitement they shared working on the home and their pride in working within their chosen professions.

I walked around and got the shots I was hoping to get. Electricians in action pulling wire, climbing ladders, close-ups of tool belts and power tools. Thanks to Kim, I even learned how to shoot my first boomerang video that day. While taking my shots, I was introduced to Rachel.

It was great to meet Rachel. As a woman, I couldn’t help but be excited to see another female electrician in the making. According to Data USA, in 2018, 2.8% of the electricians in the United States were women. In the grand scheme of things, we are in such a severe labor shortage that gender doesn’t matter. We need all-hands-on-deck, men and women. But because of the labor shortage, it will be interesting to see the statistics 10 years from now when hopefully stories about female electricians won’t be such an anomaly.

Even though she was busy working, Rachel was willing to give me a few minutes of her time. A couple of things stood out to me immediately about Rachel. Her femininity including long blonde hair and a touch of makeup. And her maturity. I knew the way she carried herself, she had to be past her 20's. Again, not stereotypical. I was intrigued and excited to hear Rachel’s story.

Before I started asking questions, I explained to Rachel my purpose for coming to the job site. I shared with her that due to the skilled labor shortage, we started an organization called My Work My Future. Our mission is to promote workforce opportunities in the skilled trades. I explained how much we believe not everyone needs to obtain a 4-year college degree to be successful and a career in the skilled trades is one of the best-kept secrets to success. After my brief description of our story, it didn’t take long for Rachel to agree and begin validating our mission. “So many (kids) are pushed to go to college especially when they don’t know what they want to do,” said Rachel. She thinks this is a failure of the school system for overlooking the aptitude of the individual. I added parents are also to blame because they, too, believe the only path to success is by attending a 4-year university. Rachel has a bachelor's degree in history and political science. She went to college because her high school promoted it and her parents both had college degrees. In her mind, it was the only option. I asked her if the skilled trades were mentioned and she said, “Only as a second option for kids who weren’t smart enough to go to college.”

I asked Rachel if she had to do it all over again, would she go to college. She said yes, but she would have chosen a degree more in line with her aptitude. She also added she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to enroll in school today because of the high cost of tuition. It has been 17 years and Rachel, now 39, is still paying off her own college debt. According to The College Board, the average tuition in 2002 for a full-time student at an in-state 4-year college was $13,530 compared to $21,370 in 2018-2019. Rachel believes college debt has become unsustainable (we agree!). She said people have fallen into a trap of “indentured servitude,” forcing them to work for years just to pay off their college loans.

(L-R) Rachel - first stage electrical apprentice; Karen - journeyman carpenter and owner of Double Eagle Design & Construction; Kim - supervisor electrician and owner Balanced Electric Inc.; Michelle - journeyman electrician and owner Balanced Electric Inc.


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