Next time you turn on your lights, thank workers like Hannah.
Hannah Cooper is an electrical foreman who absolutely loves her job.
As she talks about her day helping build a new medical office building from the ground up, she's effusive and excited.
"The site is really large. There’s a lot of complicated lighting and signs," she says. "Right now we're working on a four-story building, plus a functional roof and a canopy for solar photovoltaics. It's fun, challenging, and always changing. That's the nature of the job."
Electricity powers our lives, and electricians like Hannah make that happen. They build and maintain our grids and networks. They make sure the lights stay on, the Wi-Fi connects, the Vitamix works, and the garage door opens. They’re highly skilled, essential, and a huge part of what makes our modern world work.
Watch Hannah's story:
Hannah’s mother was the first female electrician in her Los Angeles union. At age 21, Hannah decided to join her and began training to become an electrician.
The electrical journeyman program lasts five years and mixes on-the-job training with time in the classroom. Unlike traditional college programs, it's also paid. Participants in the program are supplied with tools, a voucher for boots and free textbooks, along with a base salary starting at 40% of what a professional journeyman makes. Every six months, participants receive a 5% raise. When they finish the program, they receive a 15% raise, along with their journeyman ticket. "That ticket lasts for life," says Hannah. "It's a guarantee for work as long as you're able."
Hannah was a natural for this kind of work, scoring marks in the top 1% of her class. By 2013, she'd finished her apprenticeship six months early and set out on her own.
But her top-notch performance isn't the only thing that sets her apart in her field. There's also the fact that, like her mom, Hannah's one of the few women.
There are over 750,000 certified electricians in this country. 97% of them are male.
There are myriad reasons for this; one is that women aren't often encouraged to work in trades. They're sometimes told it's too dirty for them or too male-dominated and they'll be discriminated against.
Apprenticeship programs are also having a difficult time recruiting female students. Despite 30 years of effort, their numbers are still dismally low. That's particularly unfortunate because, according to Tina Kelly of Canada's Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology, "Women are usually in the top 10-15% of their class, but they are almost always among the last 10% to get hired."
For women to become more interested in these jobs, the trades have to become more interested in recruiting and hiring women. That includes instituting policies and practices that provide women with a safe and equitable place to work and actively dispelling stereotypes about the kind of work women can do.
Workforces, much like our world, are changing. Our perceptions of who skilled laborers are should keep up.
Hannah is proud to be a leader in that way.
"When I started my career, I made a choice to not just be successful, but to be visible with my success," she says. While moving into management roles is a longer-term goal for her, she's also focused on being an ambassador of the trades.
"It's a really critical time for this generation — going to college without knowing what they want to do or what they should study, and coming out with a huge amount of debt that's going to burden them forever. It's a good time to be considering the trades," she said.
"But specifically, electrician work," she laughs. "Because we're the best."