Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Meet Jamie Eddy. Jamie, aka @steelcitysparkette, is a fifth-year, IBEW Local #5 apprentice electrician based in Pittsburgh. After initially pursuing a degree in nursing, Jamie discovered her heart was not in it, and she ended up failing out of nursing school. Once she was introduced to the trades world, she jumped right into learning everything she could. Now, Jamie is on her way to becoming a journeyman, and she shares that loves what she does, especially because there’s never a dull moment on the job. She has also made it her personal mission to get more women involved in the trades, all thanks to the woman who encouraged her to start her career as an electrician.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
I was told about my apprenticeship program by a woman who was a foreman for a company in my local union. She was a friend of the guy that I was seeing, and she was telling me about the apprenticeship program on a camping trip. I was kind of in a pivotal time in my life, as I’d failed out of nursing school and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was going to community college and trying to find my way by taking general courses. So she told me about all the wonderful benefits of the union and that if she could do it, anybody could do it. Now, I’ve kind of made that my own mission, especially on Instagram with my stories. If I can do it, you can do it too, all because of her. My dad is an electrical engineer, so I did have a little bit of exposure from a young age as well.
When I started nursing school, I was very young and I didn’t take it seriously, which is probably why I failed. If I started the apprenticeship after high school, I don’t think I would have taken it seriously. It was a refresh button, and I felt like I was old enough to understand the value of having an education. At that point, I didn’t want to fail anything again and I found it all really interesting, so I applied myself more.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I love the aspect of not ever feeling bored. There’s never a dull moment. I would say that the most rewarding thing is starting from scratch, like when a building’s totally empty, and then being there when it’s almost or completely finished. That’s so cool to have a hand in a giant project and to be able to say that I did that.
What about the most challenging parts of your work?
Being a woman in the industry is kind of a struggle at times. There’s a whole spectrum of people that I’ve run into. There’s guys who don’t want me there whatsoever, there are guys who are creepy and have asked me out and all that… and then there are allies. I’ve made a ton of friends who are supportive and helpful. And of course, there are people who are indifferent, or who don’t care and are just there to make a living.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not as strong as my counterparts might be, and I’m also not very tall. It can sometimes be an issue, and just my presence can be threatening for some men. When I started the apprenticeship, I was kind of like, “Do I respond to this stuff? What do I say?” It’s like imposter syndrome. Sometimes, I feel like I’m this kid that doesn’t know anything and I’m walking around and thinking, “They trust me with this kind of stuff?” Once I actually start doing it, I’m like, “Oh, I know how to do this.” First year Jamie wouldn’t have been able to say that.
As I’ve progressed, I’ve become more confident. Now I know enough that I can be dangerous by myself. When I was fresh, I doubted myself a lot and I took all of those comments very personally. Now I know that I can run circles around people, and I let the negativity slide right off my back.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
Mechanical ability is very important, as well as the ability to retain information and seek out information. You have to have a real drive for the information to begin with. I’m a bit of a MacGyver myself. I try to get really creative to figure things out, and I try to find an easier or better way to do something. That’s been very helpful.
What is the biggest misconception about your work?
Like other trades, there are different categories. For electricians, you have residential, commercial, industrial, and linemen… they all do different things. Linemen do crazy work outside, and I do giant commercial buildings and run conduit set transformers, pull big feeder cables, and do all the receptacles.
My apprenticeship is five years, but sometimes it just isn’t long enough to learn everything. There’s so much to learn. When it comes to the pricing of work, the price point is there because of the hours spent learning it. There are so many different categories of things that I have to learn, and I still haven’t learned everything. Not to mention, it’s an ever-changing industry as well.
The trades still have a bad reputation due to stigma from years past. There are a lot of trades programs that get you an Associate’s, so I’ll have a degree at the very end of my program. Also, I’ll be making around six figures with no student debt. That’s unheard of! I have to put in the manual labor, but there’s a lot of thinking involved, too. It’s not just manual labor.
What are your thoughts on the state of the trades right now industry-wise?
There’s not enough information out there about the trades. Instagram has been a huge tool to reach out to people and girls my age about it. I didn’t even know about it until I was like 21, and I ran into this woman that just so happened to tell me about it. It wasn’t advertised anywhere. I think that if we kind of changed the stigma about it and if we were told about it and how wonderful it is, about no student debt and all this other wonderful stuff, I think there’d be more people signing up.
It’s also kind of selective. At least my apprenticeship is a little selective, so it can get kind of discouraging to take the test and try to apply and not get in, then try and take it the next year only to fail. As far as the older generation, I’ve had conversations with older people and they just make the blanket statement that all people my age are lazy. But no, they just don’t really know about it, and I think more people would sign up if they did know more about it.
I think that the stigma of the trades is possibly coming from the older generation. Safety back in the day is not nearly as top notch as it is today. It’s come a long way. Say your grandpa tells you about how he used to walk on the beams at work and do all that stuff without being tied off… it just doesn’t happen anymore. You’d get thrown off the site if you did that. I think if people knew that that had changed, some of the stigma would go away, too.
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
I can only speak to my experience in the union, and I can say that my experience has been really positive. To anybody seeking out an apprenticeship program and to get into the trades: look for your local unions in each state, just look where you’re where you’re living and see if they have an apprenticeship program available. That’s where I’d say to start, because they’re all different. Some make you buy your tools and your books and pay for your school, but I haven’t had to pay for anything. They’re affiliated with my local college, so they pay for my books, computer, and a bag of tools. They give me work, they say “Here’s your first contractor, go call them, you start on Monday.” As an apprentice, at very least, they’re pushing you to keep working and get your hours, so you’re making really good money. I had health and retirement benefits right off the bat. People might not think of it right now, but it’s going to be important in the future. And if you get laid off, they’ll give you another job.
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to know everything right off the bat. You have five years, or whatever your apprenticeship duration, to learn all of that, and you can also use it as a stepping stone to do other things, like project management, engineering, etc. You can be a foreman! You don’t always have to stay in the field and do all the grunt work.
What I’ve seen is that people often look under a microscope when they’re starting out at X amount of dollars and think “I can’t take that pay cut,” but some apprenticeship programs give you raises every six months. You have to look at the long term goal and think, “I’ll be making X amount of dollars in five years, so I might as well just take the pay cut for a little bit and put my nose to the grindstone and maybe try to live frugally for a short time.” You have to find a way to take that first step. I personally started my apprenticeship program with only $10 in my account. That’s it. As a broke college kid, I found a way to make it work.
What are you looking forward to in the future work-wise?
I’m excited to have that title of journeyman, but at the same time, they have this saying that “there’s nothing smarter than a fifth-year apprentice and nothing dumber than a first-year journeyman,” so I don’t know how much credit I actually get until I’m there! At least the guys that I’m working with value my opinion. Hopefully I’ll get less grunt work and more credibility, as well as a little bit more independence.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
I love video games, and I love makeup. Those are the two things that I love the most. I also love to hang out with my friends. Good, wholesome stuff.
Our thanks to Jamie for making time to share her story and industry insights with us.
You can follow Jamie on Instagram at @steelcitysparkette.