In the years after graduating from Chicago’s Lane Tech High School, Emma Williams was at loose ends and unsure of what she wanted to do with her life. By age 21 she was working in retail as a cashier, but not making enough money to live comfortably and very much uninterested in spending the rest of the working years of her life doing the same thing day after day. Emma wasn’t sure what she was going to do, but she had always been interested in electricity and how flipping a light switch illuminated the room or pressing a button on a TV caused it to turn on. Reflecting on this, Emma took the first step toward a better career as an IBEW Local 134 electrician with a simple Google search for “how to become an electrician.”
One of the first results that appeared on the screen was for Chicago Women in Trades, a nonprofit organization with a mission to ensure that all women who want to work with their hands and earn a good living have equal access to information, training and employment opportunities in the trades. When Emma researched the organization and found the Technical Opportunities program, her uncertainty about her professional future began to disappear. In many ways, the program seemed to have been designed specifically for someone like her who had never been mechanically inclined.
Emma quickly signed up for the program, and was soon spending two evenings each week learning about the construction industry, practicing hands-on skills, going through physical training and gaining the technical knowledge to transition into an electrical apprenticeship program by working on math comprehension and brushing up on her English skills. Each Saturday, she joined other participants in the program on a trip to a job site, where they learned about different unionized trades in the construction industry. Although Emma already knew she wanted to pursue a career as a union electrician, she credits Chicago Women in Trades’ program with giving her the foundation she needed to fully commit to pursuing an apprenticeship at the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute.
“It was very helpful,” Emma says. “They teach you the basics and bring you to the door, and then you have to walk through that door.”
Walking “through the door” for Emma meant enrolling in the unionized electrical industry’s Trainee Program, a yearlong program that provides an introduction to the electrical industry and practical education for prospective apprentices. The Trainee programs begins with an orientation day, followed by five unpaid eight-hour workplace preparation sessions to prepare trainees for an entry-level job in the electrical construction industry. Trainees are then assigned to an electrical contractor and work on a jobsite for their remaining time in the program, earning a living wage to perform general labor on the project. As someone who had limited exposure to the electrical industry before becoming a trainee, Emma reflects on her time in the program as a great opportunity to learn the basics needed to succeed as an apprentice.
“You’re on the jobsite everyday helping move material and getting tools for the journeyperson electricians, and I think that’s really beneficial for those of us who don’t know a lot about the trade coming into the program,” Emma says. “You’re spending every day getting people what they need on the jobsite, and that’s how you learn.”
As part of the Trainee Program, Emma also participated in Jump Start, a 24-hour intensive classroom instruction program that provides seminars on the electrical industry and guidance on how to prepare physically and mentally for construction work, as well as instruction on test preparation and basic work skills to help prepare Trainees to enter the apprenticeship program. Along with the Trainee program, it was exactly what Emma needed to take the next step in her journey to a better career as an IBEW Local 134 electrician.
“A lot of the Jump Start program is test prep, and it was very effective,” Emma says. “When I took the test to get into the apprenticeship program, I got in on my first shot, and Jump Start helped with that a lot. I was not mechanically inclined when I decided I wanted to get into this career, but with all of the preparation before taking the apprenticeship test I learned what it meant to be a good electrician.”
Now a third-year apprentice, Emma has continued to build her skills through classes at the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute and gain real-world experience through rotations with signatory electrical contractors. The broad-based nature of the apprenticeship program has also exposed her to different types of electrical work, providing her with a better idea of what she wants to do once she becomes a journeyperson electrician.
“When you’re an apprentice you don’t get to choose what you do, which means you’re learning about a lot of different things,” Emma says. “Because of that, I’ve found that I’m drawn to the way motors work. Once I finish my apprenticeship, that’s where my focus is going to be. There’s a lot more to electrical work than piping and pulling wire, and the programming and motor controls are super fascinating to me. I’m actually in a class for that right now, and I’m learning so much. It’s really exciting.”
As an African-American female who’s also only five feet tall, Emma is defying a number of stereotypes about what a member of the construction industry looks like. And though she notes some of the challenges inherent in not fitting what many people might mistakenly consider the “typical” electrician, none of those challenges have dissuaded her from continuing to pursue a career in the trade. Particularly because it’s a path that will allow her to do something she’s passionate about while enjoying the many benefits of a well-paying career with ongoing education and training opportunities as an IBEW Local 134 electrician. She’s also paying it forward to help others like her who might not know that a career in the trade is a possibility.
“I feel like to get more women involved, we basically just need to be exposed to it,” Emma says. “When I was in high school, I didn’t know anything about the trades. Once you learn about it and what’s possible, I think there are a lot of women who would find it interesting and something that they want to pursue. Whenever Chicago Women in Trades is doing their electrician day, I always volunteer. This is a career that more women should know about.”
About the Author
Powering Chicago is a partnership between IBEW Local 134 and NECA of the City of Chicago to promote the unionized electrical industry.