“No, it’s not for girls.”
Those words never sat well for Grace Weik.
Imagine you have an interest in trying something and you’re told that you shouldn’t pursue it because…
Back at Fairfax High School in Fairfax, Virginia, Weik joined the theatre tech crew and noticed that she really enjoyed building the sets and working on special effects for the high school’s musicals and plays.
“I would’ve done theatre tech as a career if I thought it was possible to make good money doing it,” says Weik. “Unfortunately, that’s a really tough career to succeed in. So, while I was still in high school, I started to explore other options where I could work with my hands, such as a career as an auto tech.”
During this same time, Weik noticed a lot of her male friends landing good-paying summer jobs as laborers. But when she asked her friends about getting a summer job in construction, her interest was quickly crushed.
“I asked my friends how I could get into this job and they said you can’t,” Weik says. “They told me as soon as an employer picked up the phone and heard the voice of a woman, they wouldn’t employ me.”
This was extremely discouraging to Weik.
“There were hardly any women in this type of work. I had no way to connect with any women and ask them how I could get into this field,” says Weik.
Although Weik knew she enjoyed working with her hands, she also was considering the very valid option of going to college. In her household, this option was emphasized. With no family members in construction or trades, Weik figured she didn’t have a reason not to go to college like many of her friends.
So, Weik entered Virginia Commonwealth University and earned a degree in economics. Through her college career, she worked warehouse and back-of-house jobs where she enjoyed the laborious work of heavy lifting and working with machinery such as forklifts.
Once college ended, Weik intended to find a job in economics, but had the unfortunate timing of graduating right in the heart of the Great Recession (2009 – 2012). This made entering into a career in economics very difficult.
“I decided to go back to my part-time college job in a warehouse and was just crossing my fingers that an economics job would open up. I had to just go for jobs for the money at this time since there were so few jobs in economics available at the time,” says Weik.
It wasn’t until a friend reached out to her that she decided to start looking into going into a trade. Weik’s good friend from her job at the warehouse had already made the shift to trade school and introduced Weik to the Sisters in Solidarity (SIS) group associated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 292.
“I met these incredible women and talked to them about their careers as electricians and their experience with Local 292,” says Weik. “I knew from these conversations that this was a job where I could be myself and do work that I would love.”
Before moving to Minnesota and learning about union work, Weik grew up in Virginia where there tends to be a strong anti-union presence.
“I remember my first job working in a warehouse while attending college where the company showed a training video that specifically stated they would never hire union workers,” says Weik. “Business leaders, community leaders and politicians back there spread myths that union workers were slow and they would sabotage a work site – all of which is just not true.”
In the South, Weik explains, there’s a classic storybook motif of working hard, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and rising to the top.
“I realized I would never get to that top position of being an owner or employer at the warehouse I worked at,” she says. “It just wasn’t a possibility for me, so I realized I needed to do something for myself.”
As Weik considered a more serious and concrete career path, she knew the move to Minnesota was the right decision.
“Minnesota has a very labor-forward culture, and after learning about the unions I saw how transparent the pay scale is.”
“You can Google exactly what I make an hour as a first-year apprentice. I can look up what what the plumbers make, what pipefitters make, what the laborers make – there’s no secrecy where you stand, no false division. More importantly, it’s not based on your gender or the color of your skin. It’s purely based on the number years you’ve worked.”
To Weik, a first-year apprentice, the guarantee that she will be paid the same as her male colleagues is an important incentive to continue on her path to becoming a journeyman electrician.
At the Local 292, Weik says the camaraderie and sense of family is a major part of what has transformed her life. In the IBEW, Weik says there’s a huge network of friends and colleagues that are there to help her learn, succeed, and to support her in any way possible.
“There’s a sense of security I never had before,” says Weik.
Weik sees the 18- and 19-year-olds in her apprenticeship class and thinks to herself: “Wow you guys have it made.” She sees the absolute potential this career can give young men and women starting off right out of high school.
“As long as you enjoy this job and stick with it, there’s a million ways to make a great career out of it,” says Weik. “I’ve already gotten to work on wiring from a source through walls to a room, putting lights in a sanctuary at a church, and putting in a sound system. What’s even crazier is these young people can do this job for 30 years, retire at 50, and live the rest of their life full and comfortable with the help of a great pension, a 401k plan, and health insurance after retirement. It’s really an amazing opportunity.”
When asked what message she has for 18-year-olds in high school, Weik says, “Don’t rush your decision – all your choices are valid.
“But, if you enjoy working with your hands, being intellectually stimulated, and making good money, then take a look at this career path. There’s no shame in it and it’s so fulfilling. The next generation coming into the trades has the opportunity to change and shape the entire industry into a better place.”
To learn more about becoming an electrician, go to the Careers page at ConstructionCareers.org.