Side Note: I have been busy working on writing out and editing the upcoming podcast content. I have been wrapped up in other things as well. I have loaded the podcast episode that mirrors the work below. This has been split up into two parts: Episode #12: Part A & Episode #13: Part B. Melissa and I teamed up yesterday and did a podcast episode #14. I will share that as soon as I finish editing it. I decided to write about how hard life was like as an apprentice electrician as a woman back in the 1990’s in New York. For more details than what is offered in these two podcast episodes #12 & #13, you will have to go find the book #ConstructionTales on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Audible. Here is the content below as well as part B in the next post I am uploading now.
When I reflect on first becoming a female electrician, my career path was chosen when I was a teenager. It all started when I went with my dad to the recruiter’s offices in the mall to find my career. My dad had to sign my documents for the military since I was 17-years old and considered underage. I had taken the ASVAB back when I was 16-years old in the summer before my senior year. I had chosen the U.S. Navy Seabees since my aunt and uncle are veterans. The bonus was having a job I can use in the future as a civilian. My goal was to also make good money and have a retirement. The recruiter was rattling off some job openings for me. I remember hearing a choice of being either a construction electrician or an airplane mechanic on an aircraft carrier. For whatever reason, I didn’t remember the other options. Perhaps that was because I narrowed it down to deciding between two great options.
I figured an electrician sounds like a cool job with a future so let’s go with that option. I remember the recruiter telling me that the program was intense. I was under an impression that I was strong and smart and could tackle anything thrown my way. After all, my dad used to remind me of that very often. I had spent a few summers in my dad’s truck shop helping to clean up, sort hardware, watch him work on the trucks, and even drive the 18-wheelers into the bays myself. I even got the opportunity to drive an 18-wheeler on the main road. That work had given me such a huge boost of confidence. It didn’t occur to me, at that time when I made the choice, that I would choose a path that would give me many challenges to face. I didn’t think I was entering a “man’s” occupation. I thought I was smart and strong enough to accomplish anything I put my mind to doing. I faced the challenges, worked hard to learn, and changed some minds along the way.
I spent my bootcamp in Orlando, Florida fresh out of high school. What an idiot!! I came from a coastal town with mild weather in Oregon. I had never been on a plane before. I had never been to a tropical location. I remember getting off the plane being hit with heat and humidity! Ugh!! I remember thinking how terrible the moisture felt on my face!! In hindsight, I am grateful that my dad used to push me with the running each night during my senior year. Being fit helped me adjust to the heat and humidity from June to August! I remember girls falling out from the heat during our daily runs. Some girls had to take an ambulance since they were so dehydrated and physically distressed. The hard work during my senior year also helped me to win the ironwoman competition from my company of 89 women! People from the military will know what achievement that is. I took great pride in those bragging rights. I remember competing with an African American girl, named Bratcher from Harlem, where we were doing clapping pushups at night before bed. I was a kid from a sheltered home life and didn’t know about the whole “white versus black” thing. I saw the women in my company try to segregate themselves and I didn’t understand why. I vibed very well with these southern girls who were tough and the tough girl from New York. I didn’t feel the need to follow these people’s clicks based solely on my external similarities. I am still that way to this day (shrug shoulders).
I was an absolute beast with my fitness by the time I graduated boot camp! I started learning how to lift weights my senior year. Prior to starting, I had no idea how naturally strong I am. I remember leg pressing my max at 550 lbs. and benching pressing at 220 lbs. by the time I graduated. I had absolutely no clue what I was capable of doing. I have a plaque on the wall in my high school for bench pressing the most for women. I got word from someone in my family that it is still in my high school gym. Once I graduated from boot camp, it was time to head to Port Hueneme, California for A school. I learned about electrical theory and how to climb 45-foot wooden utility poles with gaffs and climbing gear. Now that was a physically demanding task! I remember my nickname was “pickles” in A school since it pokes fun at my maiden name. I remember the trainers yelling at me “go pickles” while pole climbing. Each time, my shirt uniform was absolutely soaked from both fear and physical exertion. Once you are done with climbing, you go with your class and run 5 miles each day after climbing sessions. While climbing, you inadvertently use your upper body to hold the pole which is an unnecessary waste of your upper body. The upper body soreness is intense! There were eight women in my class and only three of us made it out of the A school for graduation. By this point, I did not experience any pushback on my career choice. The program was very physically rigorous and if you got through it, you were meant to be there. I got my papers and went on over to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for my first duty station. The military base really feels small and isolated with the fence surrounding the base after a period of time. I originally intended on retiring from the Navy after 20 years. I met my husband, he was a U.S. Marine, on the base and my plans changed drastically.
We got engaged only a few months after meeting, got married, and I found out I was expecting my first child. I requested to get out of the military and was approved (to my surprise). I relocated to New York with my new family. I worked for a little bit for a non-union shop. The hours were long and the particular light retrofit work forced us to work overnight. That made life rough for a mother with a newborn. I applied and got into the union known as Local #3 IBEW and became an apprentice not long after applying. The apprenticeship is paid training and lasts for 5-1/2 years. You also go to school at night on your own time and learn electrical theory. The contractors collectively pay for your education. I was the only girl in my class and the only girl often on jobsites. It felt weird to see another female on the job. By this point, this is the first time where I really felt the tentacles of discrimination. I would sit in class and the guys would totally ignore me, not interact, and not even look my way. I felt somewhat uncomfortable yet didn’t give up. I was dirty from the job and found a shower at a college, cleaned up, and would head to a second job after class ended. In hindsight, the classmates probably saw me dressed up with makeup and didn’t think highly of me. I imagine that their first impression of me, since I came to class clean and dressed up, was that I was looking for a husband and not trying to work.
I had to pick up two and three jobs for a few years to survive after my husband died six months into my apprenticeship. Boy did this event totally throw me off my game. I had given myself a week off from work after his death. I wiped my nose, picked myself up by the boot straps, and used work as a means to occupy my mind. For a few years, I worked at least two jobs and had worked as much as 120 hours per week. This was when my first job was working overtime. I had a second job that was flexible where I worked on the telephone calling people up until midnight selling products or services on the west coast. My son went to go stay with family for a bit so I could work the hours and try to catch up. As a first-year apprentice, I was making $9/hr. and pulling in $265/wk and paying a babysitter $150/wk. For the first few years, I felt like I was working to pretty much just pay the babysitter. I can only imagine what it is like for a person on minimum wage to not expect a big pay increase in time. The big pay increase had given me hope that this struggle was only temporary. I remember so many times wanting to quit, pack up, and go back to live with my family in Oregon. I had no furniture in my house and had to put things on layaway over time to acquire basic household items. I felt like a walking zombie where I was endlessly tired. I used to fall asleep at the wheel during red lights. I can say that I know how to budget, cook from scratch, cut corners in my household, and get the most bang for my buck! I can multi-task like it is no one’s business too! There are some positives to any struggle you face in life.
I didn’t say anything to my classmates; I just my instructor and apprentice director of the tragedy. Years later, that omission is something that my classmates grilled me about not sharing my struggle as a widow. I looked at it like you males think I am weak and not worthy of even being here amongst you. I would think that sentiment would be fueled even further by seeing me crying about becoming a widow. I had car problems a few times during my apprenticeship. That was rough since I needed to travel over 100 miles a day to get between both jobs and home. I had asked a classmate I figured lived near me for a ride. It took a lot of courage to even ask for help. He turned me down so I got home the best way that I could. I did a ton of walking when I endured car problems. The funny thing is that he felt guilty about it later on. I hold no grudges with anyone. Holding onto that kind of negative energy is not good for my soul. I did a ton of walking back during that journey and burned some calories. In hindsight, it was good for me considering I was eating a super carb laden cheap diet of rice and pasta. Once in a while, my mother-in-law would help me out with things if I was struggling. She didn’t owe me and I love her dearly for her guidance and tough talks. Sadly, my parents didn’t bother looking my way to offer any help. In all fairness, my mother said I could move in with them. I wanted to stay put, keep my house that I had bought, and finish my apprenticeship. My journey has indeed made me the strong woman that I am today.
I learned the art of sarcasm, ball breaking, and sharp retorts from watching my coworkers go back and forth with each other. As the young woman on the job, the guys would either try to totally ignore me, say smart ass stuff, or take me under their wing. I learned early on that showing my humorous side was a good way to break the ice and make the guys feel more comfier around me. I remember trying out my ball breaking skills at my first work Christmas party in a bar with open bar. One of my coworkers, named *Steve, was bringing drinks to some women in the bar and being such a lady’s man. Steve walks towards me with women flanked on both sides of him. I act like I am just meeting him for the first time and approach him with open arms to give him a hug. I say, “hey Steve! How are you? How’s your kids? How’s your wife?” All of a sudden, the work crew around me collectively burst out laughing. They drown out Steve’s retort and the shock mixed with a smirk on his face was priceless! He yells at me, in a playful manner, “you’re mine on Monday!” Of course, I retort, “but I am working with *Anthony on Monday!” Boy, did that exchange loosen up the crowd! Our general foreman was tickled with the exchange. He approaches me and says, “that was good!” From that day forward, the guys were more willing to have chats with me. It was at that moment where I learned that humor was the key to fitting in with the work crew. I experienced my first layoff and had to say goodbye to the crew.
This wraps up Part A, Episode #12 “How I Managed My Early Days In Construction As A Woman”. Feel free to head back over to the podcast platform of your choice and look for Part B to finish the story. For more information, head over to our website at www.ConstructionTales.com. Thanks for listening to us here at Verbally Disastrous and have a great day!
Leslie M. Jasper
-Author & Host of the #VerballyDisastrous podcast now alive on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Deezer, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Radio Public, Soundcloud, Spotify, and YouTube. Other platforms include: Acast, I Heart Radio, Listen Notes, Overcast, Player FM, Pod Bean, Podcast Addict, Podcast Gang, Podchaser, Stitcher, Tune In.
-The Audio Blog: Verbally Disastrous Podcast & Construction Tales Blog. Now available on: Apple Podcasts, Anchor, Breaker, Deezer, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Radio Public, and Spotify. I will announce more platforms very soon.
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