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Apprenticeship Sparks a Career for a Female Electrician

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October 23, 2018

Shannon Acena-Neal never imagined she’d be an electrician.

Acena-Neal, an electrical general foreman at the Port of Seattle, is a self-described “girly girl.” A career as an electrician or pursuing an apprenticeship that might get her there wasn’t even on her radar until a family friend helped point her in that direction. These days you can find her doing everything from doing office wiring to hooking up shipping vessels or cruise ships to electricity.

“I like getting dirty, I like putting things together, I like seeing things to completion,” she said. “I like starting from the beginning of a project, standing back, then looking at it and saying 'job well done.'”

The apprenticeship path 

Acena-Neal was working as a cashier at Safeway when a friend’s husband told her ex-husband about the electrician apprenticeship.

After he passed on the opportunity, Acena-Neal started to wonder if that career in an industry traditionally dominated by men could be an option for her. Once she decided to pursue the job, she never looked back.

Acena-Neal began her apprenticeship without any experience in the construction or electrical field, but what she lacked in experience she made up for in enthusiasm and curiosity.

“(My coworkers) taught me everything about pipe and pulling wire,” she said. “I had a positive attitude and I was willing to learn.” 

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers apprenticeship program usually takes four years to complete. During that time, apprentices work alongside a journeyman apprentice and are paid for their work and gradually make more money as they gain more experience. After completing their apprenticeship they are qualified to become a journeyman electrician.

During her apprenticeship she worked on a variety of projects such as Swedish Hospital, the University of Washington Bothell campus, Terminal 18, and the Nordstrom Tower.  As a fourth-year apprentice she started working at the Port of Seattle.

Finding her place

“When I got here people wanted to teach me,” she said. “The foreman encouraged me to learn everything I could about security systems and alarm systems, and encouraged me to spend time with contractors to continue learning and give me an edge.”

This tenacity has helped her as she’s worked her way up to an electrical general foreman at the Port.

She likes working with her hands and doesn’t mind the rain or the sunshine and enjoys the variety of projects that come her way.

“To me there’s no better place to work as a tradesperson than the Port of Seattle,” she said. She said the support from management, the development opportunities, and the diversity opportunities all factor in to her decision to stay at the Port.

One of the things that makes the Port special is employee groups like the Women’s Initiative Network, a group of employees that promotes the advancement, empowerment, equity, and inclusion of women at the Port. Acena-Neal’s story was featured during a recent WIN event at the Port that highlighted women in nontraditional career roles. 

Up for a challenge

Along the way Acena-Neal has had to push herself outside of her comfort zone at times.

“I challenged myself because I was afraid of heights, but I told myself I needed to do this,” she said. “I needed to complete this for the good of my family. It was a motivating factor to get me on those ladders and off the ground.”

She recalled a particularly harrowing time where she had to walk across the I-beam on the 14th floor of building construction to wire a device.

“I knew I could do it after that,” she said. 

Now at the Port, it’s all in a day’s work to to do her job atop 120-foot lifts at the terminals to change light poles. 

She said the apprenticeship itself was humbling and it brought her back to the experience of being a kid in school, where everything was new.

“You need them and they don’t need you,” she said of her apprenticeship employer. 

But Acena-Neal was quick to point out that working as an electrician is something anybody can do.

“I just wish I knew about it earlier in my life (she started at age 35),” she said.  “I really feel like you get what you give. A positive attitude comes back to you.”

Acena-Neal said her work ethic and her customer service background set her apart in a field where the most important thing is to just get the job done.

“There are times when it is beneficial to have customer service skills that others in construction field don’t have,” she said. “They don’t have to be nice; they just have to get work done. But there are so many people you need to work with — contractors, project managers, customers, tenants, property managers — that people skills that are helpful here.”

Giving advice

Her advice to anyone considering an apprenticeship — “I would say go apply.” 

The process to be placed into an apprenticeship can take up to two years, so patience is key.

“Don’t give up because it is such a rewarding career,” she said. “If I can do it anybody can.”

She attributes part of her success to coworkers who have helped mentor her along the way.

“Both men and women have guided me and showed me the way, showed me the work, and coached me,” she said. She wants to do the same thing in return.

 “I aspire to be a mentor and help the next person,” she said. “That’s what keeps you going.” 

A non-traditional career

Acena-Neal said the trade industries continue to be dominated by white males.

“There aren’t a lot of women or people of color in my opinion,” she said.” We have more work to do to have a more diverse work force.”
She attributes part of this to the electrician field as being a generational career.

“A lot of guys I know, their father or grandfather was an electrician, so they grew up with those kinds of careers in their family,” she said.

Encouraging equity

“Local workers of all backgrounds should benefit from major public construction projects, but the facts tell us that has not been the case. We need a deliberate and regional effort to fix a historical imbalance and give women, minorities, and workers from disadvantaged neighborhoods real opportunities,” said Commission President Courtney Gregoire. 

The Port is taking steps to increase equity in business and workforce development through initiatives like:

  • Priority Hire, which works to broaden access to training and jobs for underrepresented populations in construction and trades-related industries
  • Workforce Development programs like apprenticeships and training 
  • A Diversity in Contracting policy with a goal of tripling the number of WMBE businesses contracting with the Port and increasing the value of those contracts 
  • A successful high school and college internship program that supports more than 150 paid summer jobs 
  • And year-round career connected learning programs that bring students to Port and Port-related facilities

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