Leading by Example: Women in electrical construction

All photos courtesy of Deborah Kelly.

Deborah Kelly, a former line constructor in Alaska, loved her work. Until recently, she climbed utility poles with a mostly male crew, doing the heavy work of outdoor line construction and repair in all weather.

She couldn’t imagine a better job—working outdoors, surrounded by beauty, providing a vital service to local communities. Now she has taken a job that she likes even more. As statewide director of Alaska’s NECA/IBEW apprenticeship school, she supports line workers throughout her region and mentors the small number of women who choose this field.

Outreach to women in electrical construction jobs has seen some success in attracting new blood, but progress has been gradual at best. An all-hands-on-deck approach is underway in some regions with contractors, training programs and high school advisers serving as part of the solution to bringing diversity into construction and the electrical industry. The goal is to reach a diverse audience as early as possible.

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Carrying machetes, tools and a survival bag, Deborah Kelly and her team bushwhacked through woods to install bear guards on wooden poles.

Because of the skilled labor shortage, the industry stands to benefit from attracting women to a traditionally male workforce. Just how that effort is taken varies from one area to another and from one business or work site to another.

Often, diversity efforts are taken on by the contractors themselves, said Claudia Repman, manager of admin operations for the Northwest Line JATC in Vancouver, Wash. That means demonstrating their work sites are inclusive, conducting outreach programs to women’s groups and attending trade fairs.

“We do a variety of trade and career fairs with colleges and high schools,” Repman said.

While the electrical industry as a whole has a mainly male workforce, the line construction industry provides even more challenges for achieving diversity. Whether conducting line construction or tree programs for line clearance, the women enrolling are often few and far between, said Terry Lowen, director of Northwest Line JATC.

Over the past two decades, the training program for line work has tended to include about five women per 100 applicants. A variety of perceived challenges, such as travel, might keep them away. Line workers typically cover territory in multiple states.

“That can make it difficult for [women] who have children, with or without family support, to get into this industry,” said Tracy Harness, chapter manager at Northwest Line Constructors, NECA. With that said, she added, “We want to include as many females and minorities as we can that are qualified.”

There is no greater selling factor than the visibility of other women doing the work that traditionally was considered all male, Lowen and Repman agreed.

“We’ve had applicants say they saw a woman working on a pole” and that sparked their interest, Repman said. Like their male counterparts, women doing line work “have to be strong, flexible and able to adjust their working style” to accomplish a task, “and it’s a rough environment,” but that presents a challenge rather than a barrier for some people.

Kelly didn’t shy from a job that was traditionally male dominated. She joined the telecommunications apprenticeship program in which women are a minority but have a greater presence than in line work. In some cases, nearly half of the class could be female, while, in total, there are about eight female apprentices out of 73 in the Alaska chapter. Since she got into the business in 2004, Kelly said she has seen a rise and fall in the number of women around her. That may indicate a need to keep recruiting even during growth periods to ensure the numbers don’t backslide.

Line work poses physical and mental difficulties, and those who have character and strength are most likely to succeed.

“You have to love taking on a challenge, and never say ‘I can’t’,” she said. “If ‘I can’t’ is in your vocabulary, you won’t make it.”

She pointed out that “part of the line culture is fierce personal responsibility and independence.” So when she disagreed with naysayers and pursued line work, she earned respect.

If anyone questioned her ability on the pole, she told them, “You can sit in your truck if you’re afraid to watch me do it.”

Starting in high school

Many young people are not exposed to the electrical trade before they graduate.

“If young women, and men for that matter, understood about the trades in high school, I think we’d have more recruits,” Kelly said.

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The team works on a pole-mount transformer installation.

Electrical work often doesn’t even occur to young women as a possible career, but recruiters have this issue with male applicants too.

“The message in high school is four-year college,” she said. “They are not even telling women it’s an option. That is barrier No. 1.”

When it comes to interviewing possible job candidates, it’s important to understand a person’s background. Many young women have no construction experience.

However, “You don’t just have to hold a hammer in your hand and pound on something to be a good candidate” for construction-related work, she pointed out. Other experience can prove a candidate has the qualities that would be needed on the job.

Retention can also be a problem. That’s where harassment training for every journey-level worker and electrician helps ensure a more comfortable environment and helps women not feel isolated. Most electrical contractors support hiring anyone who can be successful in the job and encourage those around them to be supportive. The support comes across the generations of electricians and line workers, Kelly said.

“From my experience, I feel older journeymen are very secure in their skills, and a lot of them are very open and willing to see anyone on their crew who can hold their own,” she said.

Gaining respect

Other organizations are focusing on ensuring the job site culture promotes equity and inclusion, such as Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., said the organization’s executive director, Kelly Kupcak. The Portland, Ore., organization uses best practices and strategies gleaned from its own work and that of a national tradeswomen organizational network, which focus on workplace inclusion, access and equity for all members of a construction site workforce.

RISE Up (Respect, Inclusion, Safety and Equity), a workplace culture program that focuses on bystander intervention and harassment prevention, is newly launched in Oregon. Oregon Tradeswomen, the first training provider affiliate for RISE Up, partnered with a sister tradeswomen organization in Seattle, ANEW, which developed the curriculum and program in partnership with industry stakeholders, including tradesworkers and building trades. It’s a pragmatic approach to recognize and address cultural bias, racism and sexism for owners, supervisors, superintendents and the workers, including electricians. The program offers practical tools to stop harassment, hazing and bullying before it starts or while it is happening, with a focus on health and safety as opposed to legal concerns.

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Deborah Kelly operates an excavator to install electrical service at a new medical building.

Supporting women to rise through the ranks is another effort that contractors can help foster, Kupcak said. That means contractors are increasingly committing to support women through apprenticeship and into leadership positions. The effort starts with ensuring women on job sites are treated with respect.

“Culture shift on the job site is not going to change overnight,” Kupcak said. It is important to work collaboratively with advocacy organizations and potential employers.

“We’re not talking to partners separately; it’s very collaborative,” she said. “Change will only happen when our entire industry agrees it needs to happen and puts the strategies in place.”

Facing the barriers

Regional programs also offer training to women. One such example is West Virginia Women Work in Morgantown, W.Va. The 20-year-old program focuses on nontraditional employment, economic self-sufficiency and poverty, said Carmen Bowes, development manager for the organization. The electrical portion of the program consists of wiring receptacles, light switches, GFCIs and becoming familiar with the tools electricians use.

WV Women Work uses targeted recruitment to engage single mothers and women who are re-entering the workforce, are in recovery or are looking to make a career change.

“We work closely with community-based organizations and state-funded career centers to reach as many women as possible,” Bowes said.

Nearly all the women served by WV Women Work also face internal barriers, and this is where confidence comes in.

“During our program, we teach women to run a circular saw, we teach them how to do strength training, we teach them communication skills, and we also talk about the challenges they will face when they get out on the job site,” Bowes said. “Sugar-coating problems doesn’t lead to life-changing results and we know that,” she said, adding that, by the time students graduate from the program and enter the workforce, confidence is no longer an issue.

West Virginia Women Work aims to simulate on-the-job experience as accurately as possible. This means that students work an eight-hour shift, two days a week, during training for the hands-on portion. They receive a 30-minute lunch break but, otherwise, they are on their feet, doing the heavy lifting and are out in the elements. The other two full days consist of classroom training, tours, resume building and applying to jobs. If a participant is not a hard worker, they often don’t make it through the program.

“The only way to change minds about women in the trades is to get more women out there and show everyone that these jobs are jobs anyone can do well,” Bowes said, adding that they have to work hard.

One of the greatest ways that further outreach can impact the industry is to encourage the men on the job to be allies and to be open to change.

“That doesn’t mean that they have to be all gung-ho lady power,” she said. “It just means treating the women who end up in construction with the same level of camaraderie and respect that they treat their male counterparts. That’s it.”

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