Electrician, New England, Fall 2013

A few years ago, I got a job as a laborer on a four-man carpentry crew. It was my first time working in the construction field and so the way in which projects come together was new to me. Most construction crews do not handle all aspects of a project, and usually contract out the various trade-specific aspects (plumbing, electrical work, etc.) to people they know and trust.

I met the interviewee on a job where both she and my crew were contracted for specific kinds of work. My boss had also worked with her on a number of his own projects. Thus our paths crossed somewhat frequently, and she and I would talk over lunch. I was stunned to learn that she was relatively new to the profession – I had always assumed that anybody skilled in trade had been doing it in some form or another since they were a kid – and she explained that her foray into electrical work was the successful result of a mid-life career change.

This knowledge explained the beatific look of pleasure as she went about her work. Honing in on what you really want, even if it takes you a while to find it, inspires a deeply personal relationship with your profession; she had found her calling and was thrilled to be doing it. Her projects were assessed and undertaken with a meticulous attention to detail that bespoke curiosity and respect, punctuated as her corner of the jobsite was by the occasional outburst of swears in response to the difficulties of her line of work. But as she explains, those frustrations, as dangerous as they are, are part of the reason why the job is so appealing – only you are responsible for figuring out the problem, and in a profession fraught with a million of these challenges, it’s incredible to be able to trust yourself.

How did you get into this profession in the first place? What led you to seek out a career change?

I had no idea that I would ever end up as an electrician. It never crossed my mind. I taught high school English for three years and then I went to grad school in New York City. My degree was going to be in medieval lit. I was pretty much on the road to be an academic, a college professor of English. But over the years I realized I was not fully satisfied with what I was doing.

But I was plodding away at my PHD – at ten years in (laughs) I passed my orals and was facing my dissertation. At the rate I was going, it was going to take me the rest of my life. In the mean time I was teaching freshman college English, but I stopped that and worked as a secretary at a law firm. It was just a job to earn money and I finally realized that I needed to drop out of grad school and figure out what I really wanted to do. I knew that even if I finished my dissertation I was facing a lifetime of this kind of academic work, which I would just procrastinate doing and then cram and then procrastinate again. My problem with literature – even though I loved it – was that it was so intangible, so amorphous, so open to interpretation and you didn’t ever really see (or it took a long time for you to see) concrete results to your work. I liked teaching, I really liked teaching the high school age group, but the problem I had with teaching was that I felt like I wasn’t creating anything. I was helping others create. I wanted to do something where I could see the result of what I did in a tangible form at the end of the day.

I thought I wanted to do some more tech stuff. I tried web design and some computer programming, but I didn’t like the idea of sitting in front of a screen all the time. I didn’t want to be sitting down. I was looking through the help wanted ads, and I realized I wanted to do something more physical. I was thinking about carpentry so I was looking through all these help wanted ads for a period of time, and there was this one ad for electrical apprentices. It planted a seed, and about a year later I decided to try it. And I really liked it. And it’s actually the most enjoyable work I’ve done my whole life.

I hope to continue working at this as long as I am physically able — at least 10 or 15 more years.  However, it would be great if I can arrange my work schedule so that my work hours are not so long and intense, and so that I can take some more time off every year.

Do you think the job is suited to your demeanor or the way your mind works specifically and that’s why you enjoy it so much? You said you were interested things like that in the past – did you do anything like it growing up?

A little bit, for my dad. My dad was an academic and an intellectual but he also liked farming and building, and he did a lot of stuff on his own. So I liked helping him with that kind of thing. But suited to my demeanor? I really like this physical part. I like being able to haul stuff around and crawling through spaces and climbing up high in attics and stuff like that. It’s also a mental challenge. If it was only physical, I don’t think it would satisfy me. I like that I have to figure things out and do calculations. It’s like a puzzle.

Was there an a-ha moment when you realized you made the right choice, when it all clicked?

It was an after-the-fact thing. I had no idea if I would really like it, and I never do things that way. Usually I’m the kind of person that pre-plans everything. I guess because I was willing to try it that…

Was there an element of desperation?

No, not desperation. It was sort of like I was wondering…I’d spent so many years doing things I really didn’t like and it was coming to a point where I needed to find something or else I’d be really unfulfilled. And then when I started becoming an electrician, it was clear that I really liked it.

I started this at 42, and I’m 54 now. So it’s been almost twelve years. And that’s very late in life to start a trade like this. But I wasn’t scared. I felt like it was something I needed to do and I was going to do it. I didn’t have many choices. I wasn’t going to do anything else because it was clear I didn’t like anything else that I had tried. So I was willing to try. The only thing I really didn’t want to do was go back to school. But I did have to go back to school [trade school] but I could keep working during the day and get paid for it. That’s why I like the idea of apprenticeships. I think it’s a great structure because you get to do the work even though you have to do some school at night. You don’t have to wait until you’re finished and have a degree to do the work.

In fact, I was very frustrated with the instruction I received as part of my electrical training.  I often found that the instructors were not well qualified to teach the subject, and weren’t able to answer some of my questions or explain things fully, in detail and in depth.  I had to seek out other sources for learning what I needed to know — extra books, other licensed electricians.  I like to understand something as completely as I can — and maybe men who grow up tinkering with this stuff have some sort of intuitive understanding of it and don’t need it explained — but most of the time it seemed as if very few students or instructors cared about really understanding.  I had one instructor who read to us from the textbook — that was how he ran the class!

What do you think you best at? Where could you improve?

I’m constantly learning. That’s one of the things I like about what I do. I always have to get a better understanding of how certain things work. Or there are certain kinds of electrical components that I don’t know and I have to learn about them. I really like working in old houses, which many people don’t. I love old houses and I have a pretty good understanding of the building structure and what the walls are made of and what to look for when I have to I dig into a wall.

Everything, I could improve. I was pretty slow in the beginning. I wanted to make sure I did everything really, really well. And I still do, but that [fastidiousness] slowed me down. And I have been able to speed up a little more, but I probably could be faster. I do things more carefully than most, but then I know when it’s done right. And I never rush. Because you start rushing and then you’re stapling into your wire… To me, it’s just worth it to do it slower than to not know if you tore something or nicked a wire or something like that.

Has entering this profession changed how you see or carry yourself?

Definitely, definitely. Confidence is a big thing. Confidence is something I did not have much of when I started. It’s something I’m still struggling with. I was very confident before I started this. I felt confident as an intellectual and with literature and that I could teach, but when I started this, it was completely new for me. I didn’t know if I was doing things right. There was so much to learn and understand and so I was always unsure if I was doing something right or not. But that has changed. It used to be that I would never try to do something unless I knew exactly how to do it right off. There are so many things I needed to do at home that I would have never even tried – carpentry projects, painting – and doing this work has given me the confidence to try to do something even if I don’t how to do it.  I now realize that even if I don’t know how something should be done, I can probably figure it out. “Figuring out on my own” is something I had no concept of until after I started doing electrical work.

What’s a typically good and typically nightmarish day in the profession?

A good day is when I am able to figure out why something isn’t working. And when I do it pretty efficiently, without having to open every box. A bad day is when I’m working and I have to add something to an existing circuit and the device boxes are just crammed full. It’s really hard to work on top of someone else’s work when it’s really poorly done. Basically, I have to undo everything and redo it and try to cram things into a box where they won’t fit. And that’s painstaking. It’s just painstaking. A lot of hobbyist electricians will do really dangerous things that I have to work around.

I call these non-licensed tinkerers “Joe Homeowner.”  One of the most dangerous things that I have found that these average Joe Homeowner-types do is to put oversized breakers on circuits with small gauge wire — this mainly occurs where a circuit keeps tripping, so the uninformed person thinks that they can solve the problem simply by putting in a bigger breaker (a 30 amp breaker instead of a 15 amp breaker). The real problem is that there is too big a load on that one circuit.  Putting a bigger breaker on small gauge wire is a real fire hazard because if the circuit is overloaded, it will heat up the wire, but the larger breaker won’t trip to protect the wire because it is set to handle bigger amperage.

I once responded to a service call for a light fixture that kept tripping the breaker.  What I found when I got there was that someone had put a penny in the bottom of the light socket which kept shorting between the base of the socket (“hot”) and the screw shell (“neutral”) part of the socket.  I can’t imagine why someone would even think of doing that — except perhaps if the bulb wasn’t screwing all the way down into the socket and they thought they needed to put something in there to bridge the gap.  Thank goodness the breaker was doing its job by tripping!

Several times I’ve come upon old wires whose insulation had dried up and flaked off — so there was several feet of bare wire visible!  Those situations were pretty scary. Another thing I have seen a lot of is what I call “flying splices.”  Those are splices made between wires without using a box to enclose the splice.  One might see wires hanging across a ceiling with a splice made in mid-air.  Sometimes these might be hidden in walls so one doesn’t even know they exist and cannot gain access to them.  A splice is potentially one of the weak points in an electrical circuit, and if there is not a good connection made between the wires, there can be arcing and sparking.  Enclosing splices in boxes is a safety measure that can contain some arcing if it occurs.  And if the splices are buried inside walls, there is no way of knowing that a potential problem exists.  I once saw a metal box completely blackened from a poorly made splice — luckily that box saved that house from burning down. It’s amazing how more places haven’t burned down with some of the issues I’ve come across.

I’ve gotten shocked a few times, nothing terrible, thank goodness. The couple of times I got pretty bad shocks occurred when someone had left uncapped live wires exposed.  One time occurred when I put my hand up into a ceiling to try to grab something but didn’t check carefully what else was up there, and I hit an exposed wire with my hand.  My arm hurt for a while, but that was it.  I was lucky that was all it was.

I’ve been in really spider-webby basements and attics, but I don’t mind spiders. But I haven’t encountered anything really weird. I have come across some hazardous substances. I hate when people use mouse poison because I have to crawl in it and it gets into my clothes. And it’s such a cruel method for killing rodents. I’m sure I’ve inhaled a lot of really bad stuff. Especially PVC glue. And I’ve been in some asbestos, so we’ll see.

One of the pleasantest perks of my work occurs when homeowners have pets and farm animals around.  I always enjoy seeing and talking with animals on the job.  I’ve had curious cows hover around me while I was working on the outside of a house.  They were really funny.  They tried to pull out tools from my tool belt with their mouths.  There were also some llamas in a barn that wouldn’t let me pet them, but as soon as I stopped paying attention to them and focused on my work, they would sneak up behind me and nibble on my clothes.  I’ve met lots of great cats and dogs who were great fun to be around.

Is it bad form to talk about on the job injuries? (Is it considered bad luck? If not, are there things specific to the job that are said to carry some mystical weight?)

No, it’s not. Most electricians swap horror stories. Mostly about things that have blown up. (Laughs) People talk about what electrical installations used to be like. “He’s an old-timer, he knows it from experience.” I respect the old timers, and many times people talk about them testing wires with their fingers and having such deep, thick calluses that they couldn’t feel the shocks.

Electricity is mystical to begin with. Electricians have a healthy respect for its unpredictability. But nobody talks about mystical stuff, at least not that I can recall. The only time I can think of is when I myself made a joke about it – use this Sharpie marker to identify wires and stuff like that, and it smudges if you don’t let it dry. So I blow on it to dry it. Somebody asked me why I blow on it, and I said I was warding off a spell. (Laughs)

What percentage of customers has an interest in what you are doing? Or have so much interest that it’s annoying, like they check your work or examine your credentials?

Nobody’s really examined my credentials. Maybe fifteen percent are curious or interested and I like those customers because I love to talk about what I do, show what I know. So I don’t mind if people are watching over my shoulder, if they’re interested. Maybe five percent hover around me, and that’s a pain but it’s not very frequent.

Do people who hover around generally know what they are talking about?

No. (Laughs) But I should say that sometimes a customer has a good question or good idea, and sometimes it comes from someone who is hovering over me and doubting. Sometimes they say good things. I’m probably more tolerant than most [when it comes to be open to people watching or offering suggestions].

Does being a woman in a traditionally male dominated field factor into customers’ perceptions and expectations? Does it factor into yours? Do you find that people are happy to give a woman business? Are you sick of thinking about what it means to be a woman in this field and would prefer just to be left alone to do your work?

People are interested in my story, but I’m getting kind of tired of telling it. There’s not that much to tell.

Me being a woman does factor into peoples’ expectations. I’ve generally had a very positive experience. Other electricians, other tradespeople on jobs have mostly been very accepting. And I’m very grateful for that. When I go into a new job, I’m always nervous. I think I have to prove myself, not make a mistake. But it’s getting easier. I think people are aware that it’s a little unexpected – they don’t always say something but they’re probably wondering. A couple of customers have tested me out, trying to see if I know what I’m talking about.

I just take it in stride and see if there was anything I couldn’t have done better or known better, and I try to use that for next time. I just try to gain more knowledge and experience as I go. And most of the time now I can walk into a place with confidence, know I that I don’t have all the answers but know enough to do a pretty good job. It hasn’t changed the way I approach things; it just won’t discourage me. It just makes me want to get better.

Every once in a while someone, especially a female client, will say, “Hey I think it’s great you are a woman!” That makes me feel good. I’m not sick of that yet. But what I really want to do is just be able to do the work. And for the most part I do. This other stuff doesn’t get in the way at all; it’s a miniscule part of what I do. It might be because of the part of the country we’re in. If I had to deal with hostility and harassment, I don’t know what I’d do.

One of the things I’m really interested in is why there aren’t more women in the trade. There actually have been several pushes by educational institutions, schools, and government programs that encourage women to go into the trades. There have been quite a few training programs over the past four or five decades, especially since the 70s. So there have been more women coming to these programs, but they just don’t stay. They just don’t build up enough numbers to stay. I’m trying to figure out why that is, because I really miss having more women around. I’d love to see more women working in the trades.

I guess I just feel more comfortable around women.  And I get tired of hearing talk only about sports and hunting.  There are also other limitations to some men — they’re not flexible enough, or open enough to certain things, or comfortable with certain things.  I just can’t be fully myself around them.  Don’t get me wrong — I like most men, and enjoy joking around with them.  I should probably clarify that it’s not just any women I’d like to have around.  I’d like to be around strong women who are serious about their work and like to work hard.  That would be the best scenario.

I came up with my own theory that [the lack of women in the trade] is partly because there isn’t much of support system, and it’s really hard to stick it out in a predominantly male environment unless you really, really love the work. I came from a place where I did enough work I didn’t like that I was going to keep at [electrical work]. It’s hard to come into that environment on your own, so it’s good to have a critical mass, but how do you build that up? Women have a lot of different obligations that make it hard to work in the trades – if you have kids, if you are taking care of somebody, married. I think that with men, there are those situations too. Men have life obstacles that get in the way and they have to drop out, but there are enough men that keep coming into the trade that you don’t notice the turnover as much. The problem is that women come into the trade but don’t stay. There’s a really good program in Vermont called Vermont Works for Women. They train adults but also focus on high school girls, to get them involved in the trades from an early age. I think that’s the way to do it.

Do you feel like people censor themselves in front of you? Or do they not care? Or do they become more aggressive?

It’s mostly in what a lot of my male coworkers talk about. If they talked about other things besides sports and hunting, it would be better. I don’t think they become more outlandishly masculine. A lot of times they apologize for using foul language, which doesn’t bother me at all. They probably do censor themselves a little, but it’s mostly only a few topics of discussion that interest people anyway. If someone brings up something different, you’d be an odd person out. You have to have a pretty strong personality to talk about stuff that isn’t commonly accepted [conversation topics]. Being a woman gives me a little bit of an advantage: as a woman, I’m the odd one to begin with, so it gives me license to say certain things or bring up certain subjects. I think it would be a lot harder for a gay man. I’ve been very open about being a lesbian. Interestingly, all the men I’ve worked with, even the most conservative, are totally fine with it, but they would not be fine with it if I were a gay man. And that’s very hard to think about. It’s been interesting for me in the sense that most of the tradespeople I work with are very conservative politically. I still don’t understand why they think the way they do. And it’s weird because I like them. They think completely differently from me but I like them. They’re nice people; they’re good people. They know what they’re doing and they look out for each other and for me. That’s the hardest part – how can they be nice people and think that way?

****

A little bit about certifications, as quoted from the State of New Hampshire Electrician’s Board website:

“The Electrician’s Board licenses or registers those who are performing electrical installations…for heat, light and power purposes regardless of the voltage. Therefore, it is not the voltage of the circuit that determines the requirements of licensure, it is the type of circuit. For example, no license is currently required for fire alarm installations as these are signaling circuits. Signaling circuits by definition are not considered circuits for heat, light or power purposes.

The categories for licensing are Master, Journeyman and High/Medium Voltage electricians. The Electricians’ Board registers apprentice electricians and high/medium voltage trainees.”

As the interviewee works on the border of two small states, she often works in both. But like the licenses and certifications of many other professions, an electrician’s credentials do not apply nationally.

“The Electrical Safety Section currently has active reciprocal agreements for the master and journeyman license with the States of Maine, and Vermont and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. These are long standing agreements that recognize the master and journeyman licenses of these areas as being substantially equal to those of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire Electricians wishing to reciprocate their license with any of these states or the Commonwealth should contact the reciprocating agency directly for the necessary application and fees. A certified letter can be obtained from the Electrical Safety Section which will be necessary at the time of application as verification of licensure and the applicant is in good standing with the State of New Hampshire.

Applicants applying to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a reciprocal master license will be required to reciprocate their journeyman license as well as the masters. If have you let your journeyman license lapse due licensure as a master electrician, it can be reinstated for reciprocity purposes by filing the proper application and paying the normal fee for licensure.

In the Fall of 2005 the State of New Hampshire became a member of the Multi-State Reciprocal Licensing Group, now known as National Electrical Reciprocal Alliance (NERA) and therefore has reciprocal licensing agreements, for the journeyman license only, with the States of: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

New Hampshire electricians wishing to apply for a reciprocal license with a participating state under the NERA agreement must contact that state for the specific requirements, applications and fees.  Applicants applying for a reciprocal license with a participating state must:

  1. Hold a current journeyman license from the State of New Hampshire for at least one year.
  2. Be active and in good standing with the State of New Hampshire.
  3. Have passed the New Hampshire journeyman examination with a minimum grade of 70%.
  4. Have successfully completed a minimum of 8000 hours of practical experience in an apprenticeship program or equivalent.

Applicants holding “grandfather” licenses or who have not passed the New Hampshire journeyman examination are not eligible for reciprocity under the NERA agreement.

Once the application is submitted the reciprocating state with all applicable forms and fees, the reciprocating state will contact the State of New Hampshire electronically for verification of Items 1 – 4 above. Once the verification process has taken place, the reciprocating state should issue the journeyman license…”

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