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  • Writer's pictureTerry Bierwirth

Change Your Career: Part II Why Years Later, Rachel Chose to Become an Electrician

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

In Part I entitled "A Career in Skilled Trades Creates Purpose, Promise, and Pay for Rachel," I wrote about how I met Rachel, a 39-year-old woman who was on a job site working as a first stage electrical apprentice in Junction City, Oregon. In Part II, Rachel shares with me why, after years of searching, she has decided to become an electrician.

When Rachel graduated from college in 2003, she didn’t have a particular career plan, so she took a job as a home flooring specialist at the Home Depot. She enjoyed the work. She liked working with her hands growing up, so it seemed like a good fit. As a kid, one of her favorite shows was the PBS program This Old House, a do-it-yourself television show that still airs today. (I loved that show, too!) She felt knowledgeable in her position and was good at sales. However, Rachel had a constant feeling she should be doing more because she had a earned a college degree.

For several years, Rachel continued to search for a fulfilling career. She worked for a clothing retailer and excelled, beating sales goals and earning national awards. Rachel told me she still wasn’t satisfied. Something was missing. She shared her concerns with her family and friends throughout the years. She relied on their input and guidance to help her.

I was anxious to hear, after all these years of searching, how she came to consider a trade. It was when she was working at a doctor’s office. Again, just like in her previous jobs, she excelled, but she told me she still had the feeling of wanting something more. I asked her exactly what was the "something more" she was seeking. “A career that was meaningful and had greater earning potential,” said Rachel. Expressing her desires again to friends, a woman at church shared that her daughter had become a journeyman electrician after deciding to leave college. She found the work very rewarding and was able to make a very good living. Rachel says of the conversation with her friend, “Something just clicked.”

In the Fall of 2017, Rachel started her research. I assumed she chose the electrical field immediately, but she didn’t. She researched all the trades. The electrical trade did end up the most appealing and seemed to be the best fit for Rachel. She was good at math and she knew there was a severe shortage of electricians. Because of the demand, electricians can make a very good living. According to the most recent data from the State of Oregon Employment Department 2018 Job Vacancy Survey, the average electrician makes $34.89 per hour and ranks at a 96% in jobs most difficult jobs to fill. But as I learned from Rachel, even though there is a high demand for the trade, the application process to get in isn’t easy.

Through a family member, Rachel told me she was introduced to a journeyman electrician. He recommended she apply with the union apprenticeship program, IBEW NECA Central Electrical Training Center in Tangent, Oregon. She applied to the program, was invited to test, and then invited to interview. Once they calculated points for every step of the process, she then received a ranking which was not high enough to get an apprenticeship. To add to her disappointment, there was nothing to do to improve her ranking until she could reapply after 2 years. It was very frustrating to her that most of her previous years of work experience did not give her benefits on her application because they were in unrelated fields. " I was very discouraged," said Rachel. "It seemed that the only option was to go to work for an electrical company, gain experience to accumulate points and then reapply."

Although I suppose some might find it worth the wait because of the benefits of working for a union, Rachel was ready to get into a program as soon as possible. She researched and found the open shop (non-union) Mid Oregon Area III Apprenticeship program. Rachel applied to the program and was invited to interview, and again received a ranking. Rachel told me the biggest break came from her ability to continually improve her points and ranking if she completed items that qualified. Such things as getting CPR certified and taking pre-apprenticeship courses at Lane Community College, which she did, helped her gain the additional points she needed. “I finally felt hopeful and like this was really going to happen," said Rachel. Her ranking improved enough that she ended up with an apprenticeship in August of 2019, and she started classes that fall at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon.

Rachel will need to complete a total of 500 hours of classes (4 years) and 8,000 hours of on-the-job training. She works for Balanced Electric Inc. and takes classes two nights a week. Rachel shared with me that the work is hard, and the classes are challenging, but she definitely is excited about the future. When I asked if she would stay in the area when she became a journeyman electrician, Rachel said she is open to working anywhere. “I am open to all possibilities. The economic freedom, ability to work anywhere and try something new is exciting to me,” said Rachel.

Future Journeyman Electrician, Rachel photo by Janet Lim

I hope to follow Rachel’s story throughout her apprenticeship. She is on quite a journey. She is a remarkable woman and an inspiration to so many. I am very fond of Rachel. I am humbled she shared her story with me and grateful she was willing to let me share it with you.

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