You don’t have to be a man to be a journeyman
Montanans from Alzada to Yaak can rest easy knowing that we’re in good hands. Electricians’ hands, that is.
To become a journeyman electrician in this state, folks first have to go through an extensive application process and take an aptitude test to become an apprentice. Once accepted, they must complete a five-year registered apprenticeship program that features an 8,000 hour work requirement, during which they earn a competitive wage. Union apprentices take 5 weeks of classroom training each year at the Montana Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC), which is touted as one of the best electrician programs in the country. Once they pass their final journeyman exam, graduates earn an average salary of $58,888.
The 36 percent of registered apprentices in Montana who are working toward becoming electricians are discovering just how stringent those standards can be. Not just any Joe Schmo with access to YouTube can wire our homes, businesses, schools, and libraries. These folks are professionals, and we at Prairie Populist wanted to learn more.
Meet Sonny Heuer, first year apprentice
Sonny Heuer is a 25-year-old, first-year apprentice with IBEW 532, the labor organization representing electrical workers in south central and eastern Montana. She had a year under her belt as a non-union electrical apprentice when she started the program, but had to start over when she switched to the union. For Heuer, the strong sense of brotherhood and support that comes from IBEW makes the re-set worth it.
“We’ve been doing underground all day,” said Heuer, who was just finishing up a long, cold day of wiring a new high school stadium for an ever-growing Bozeman community.
“I wish we had two or three more people here,” she said, referring to the amount of electrical work left to do before the masons arrived. Heuer explained that the extensive number of projects going on throughout the region are driving an unfilled demand for journeymen and apprentices.
Originally from Iowa, Heuer moved to Montana in 2012, and completed three years of college before deciding it wasn’t for her.
“I ended up going to Montana State and working multiple jobs trying to pay tuition and I realized I didn’t want to be a dietitian,” she said. “I knew I wanted something more hands-on and harder work. And honestly, I knew I wanted something in the trades.”
Hard work runs in her blood. Heuer’s father was an electrician back in Iowa. A lot of her close buddies from home were linemen and Heuer considered becoming a lineman apprentice. She ultimately chose to become an electrician so she can one day work for herself.
“Eventually I would like to have my own business,” said Heuer, explaining that it is a lot easier to run your own show as an electrician than a lineman. Heuer looks forward to completing the program, getting her journeyman license, and eventually becoming a Master Electrician.
Heuer is thriving under the training from the JATC, which she described as, “bar-none.” She says she loves the work, the day-to-day tasks, and seeing completed projects. As a first year, Heuer does a lot of the grunt work and some smaller electrical tasks. She recognizes and respects that there is a lot to learn and each situation is different.
“There are a million ways to turn on a light. You don’t always know as an apprentice what the circumstance is,” Heuer explained. “If you’re on a job site long enough, then you get to do more of the critical stuff.”
“Seeing yourself move up and earning the trust and respect of your fellow workers — it’s totally worth it,” Heuer said. “The guys here with the union, they support you and they want you to better yourself.”
Meet Hannah Hogg, fourth-year apprentice
Hannah Hogg is in her fourth year of the five-year apprenticeship program. Like Heuer, Hogg is with the union. Also like Heuer, this was not Hogg’s original career path.
Hogg grew up in Idaho. She tried a few different subjects in college, including a long stint as a music major. She also held a variety of jobs, such as teaching math at a charter school.
“I was attending the College of Idaho [and] I just got to the point of realizing that I was paying a lot of money to probably end up being a teacher,” she said. “Teachers don’t get paid nearly enough for what they deal with.”
“I had to join a trade to pay off my student loans,” said Hogg (half-jokingly). “It’s nice to know that you don’t have to go to school and get in debt to be able to have a valid career.”
Every six weeks, all electrical apprentices from around the state spend a week at the JATC in Helena learning parts of the job that are important but hard to teach in the field, such as National Electrical Code and electrical theory. For the classroom portion of the program, the 36 fourth-year apprentices are split into three groups to keep class sizes small. Hogg admits that it is hard for a group of hands-on learners to sit in a classroom for a week, but she thinks the courses are extremely helpful.
When she’s not in Helena taking classes, Hogg works in Billings with
Allied Control and Ace Electric, where she’s spent her entire apprenticeship thus far. She appreciates the guidance that the journeymen give her and the hands-on learning approach. She also relishes the increased responsibility she has earned over time.
“As you gain more skills and confidence, you’re allowed to do more on your own, like actually look at prints and do odd-jobs . . . [but] you’re not really cut loose until you’re licensed as a journeyman,” said Hogg, adding that a journeyman does not have to check in on her every second. They know she has the skills and they trust her.
Along with that trust, comes an increase in pay.
“The more you work, the more you know, the more valuable you are to your contractor. So why wouldn’t you be compensated?” said Hogg.
As Hogg’s responsibilities and skill set grow, her job satisfaction also increases. Since every project brings something new, she is regularly building new skills and, as a result, says there is no time to get bored. She also takes pride in the tangible things she completes.
“When you run a great pipe rack or wire a nice panel, you get to see how much you’ve accomplished throughout the day,” she said.
It’s not all roses, of course. Digging ditches and pulling heavy copper wire can be physically exhausting. And troubleshooting can be a headache. But in the end, Hogg appreciates that this job is based on merit and skill.
Ultimately, everyone is judged by the same standards: Are you doing a good job? Are you doing the work right? And are you being efficient?
If all goes well, next year Hogg will become a journeyman (yes, it’s the same word for both men and women). She intends to stay in Montana and continue her work at Ace Electric, where she sees a lot of room for growth.
“I love the mountains and I love my job… Combining those things, I’m pretty content,” explained Hogg.
Women in the trades
Over the past 18 years, men have held 90 percent of all apprenticeships in Montana, but the number of female apprentices is increasing. In 2017, women made up 19 percent of Montana’s apprentices. Some of that leap is due to the broadening of apprenticeship programs into fields like health care and bookkeeping. But, folks like Sonny Heuer and Hannah Hogg deserve some credit for this trend.
The JATC doesn’t yet have data on the number of women who have completed its electrical apprenticeship program throughout the years, but it has started tracking those numbers. Anecdotally, about one or two women complete the program with each class and the program is seeing an increase in female applicants each year.
Back in November, both Heuer and Hogg spoke to a room of women at City College in Billings about potential job opportunities. They were joined by firefighters, welders, and other union reps.
“It was surprising to see so many women so puzzled by the fact that [I’m] doing what [I’m] doing,” Heuer said. When women asked her why she was doing it, she replied, “Why aren’t you?”
Heuer wants women to know that they can work in any trade they want to.
Hogg’s experience has been similar. While her colleagues have always treated her well, she has had to earn the respect of other contractors with her merit and skills.
“I just show up every day and I do a good job,” Hogg explained. “You have to just let people change their own minds.”
Like Heuer, Hogg recognizes that not a lot of women choose this path. But she doesn’t think that it has to be that way, nor that it should it be that way.
“I feel like I’ve gained so much knowledge and, honestly, confidence in myself,” said Hogg. “Being handy is not a gender-isolated ability.”
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Updated on February 4 with employment information on Hannah Hogg.