I had an idea of what an electrician looked like; it certainly wasn’t me.
With a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in journalism, Rachel Hienz entered the Pittsburgh job market in between the implosion of the steel industry and a protracted newspaper strike. As a result, she eked out a living waiting tables for what turned out to be a decade.
At some point, Rachel managed to save up to buy a washer and dryer for her home, only too late realizing that her electrical system wouldn’t allow both to operate simultaneously. Unable to afford an electrician, she took a continuing ed class at the former Connelley trade school in the Hill District to do the job herself.
“I learned how to do basic wiring, and I really enjoyed it,” Hienz recalls. “The instructor said to me, ‘You know, union electricians make really good money. Maybe you should check it out.’ “
The idea was startling. “I had an idea about what an electrician looked like. It’s a big burly guy whose dad had been an electrician, whose granddad had been an electrician. That certainly wasn’t me,” said the petite Beaver County native.
A while later she saw a newspaper ad about the IBEW Local 5 apprenticeship. A phone, written test and interview later, Rachel was off on a journey to a career that she loves.
Apprentice electricians attended classes one day a week at the state-of-the art Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) on the South Side, just across Hot Metal Street from the SouthSide Works. The other four days apprentices “earn while they learn” shadowing journeymen – professional – electricians.
On the job, as an apprentice “you do what’s asked of you, stocking material, carrying equipment,” she says. “Your employer understands that you don’t have the skills yet. What they’re looking for is the willingness to listen and learn, that you to ask questions rather than trying to do something on your own before you’re ready.”
Base pay for first-year apprentices as of 2014 was $12.11 plus benefits, with raises coming with good performance in classes and on the job. Along the way an apprentice becomes a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). At the five-year mark, the apprentice becomes a journeyman electrician, and has also earned an associate’s degree from the Community College of Allegheny County. That can be a building block in the “stackable credential” model, in which tradesmen and women can pursue additional training – and therefore higher wages – over the course of their career as their time and desire permit.
For the past nine years, Rachel has worked for Hanlon Electric in Monroeville, including time on a service truck and as a foreman of a small crew. During her career she has troubleshooted electrical concerns in commercial and industrial buildings—anything from someone smelling smoke to electrical shortages to performing power quality analysis. Today, she is the company’s service manager.
“It’s never boring,” she says. “It’s a great blend of the mental and the physical. You get the chance to be clever, to solve problems. There is such a sense of accomplishment at making things work.”
Rachel has worked on various signature structures across the region, including at the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Carnegie Museums, the Point State Park Blockhouse, the Fourth Avenue Dollar Bank flagship and on the pipe organ at the cathedral-esque East Liberty Presbyterian Church. She was also had a hand in the construction of Phipps Conservatory’s Center for Sustainable Landscapes one of the world’s first “living” buildings, which generates all of its own energy with renewable resources.
In her free time, she rides her horse, Princess and relaxes with friends and family. Having leisure time and the peace of mind to enjoy it was one of the most immediate benefits in switching from working as a waitress to being a skilled worker with stable, livable salary and health benefits.
“That changed so much for me,” Rachel recalls. “I was no longer worrying all the time, ‘What if my car won’t start? What if it snows and no one comes out where I work?’ Instead of working through the weekends and evenings, I’m able to enjoy them. One of the first things I did after I got established was to get my mom and myself a subscription to the Pittsburgh Public Theater. I used to wait on the patrons. Now I’m one of them.”