Electrical apprenticeship sparks success and security for local foreman
Dakotah Quinn bought her first home at age 24. The 27-year-old union electrician lives in Estacada, and said her field has opened up a lot of doors for her: financial security, steady work and upward mobility.
As a young professional, Quinn is in high demand. The need for construction workers and electricians has skyrocketed in recent years, as older workers retire, leaving a shortage of skilled workers in the trades.
"It's so hard to find people," she said. "Sometimes you can find people, but they're not the people you want. I'm not pooh-poohing college, but there's other options. If you're unsure of what you want to do, there's not a lot to lose."
Growing up in Beavercreek, in Clackamas County, Quinn said she had one advantage over other kids her age: her father was a concrete worker and a commercial fisherman. He taught her how to weld, use a hammer and "cut things up," as she puts it. Her mother was a low voltage electrician with Bonneville Power.
By the time she was 20, Quinn could walk onto a site and do anything from finishing drywall to building cabinets, but she wasn't always sure what career she wanted.
"In high school I grew up in the country," she told the Business Tribune. "I was really into horses, but I didn't really quite know what I wanted to do. I knew I didn't want to go into debt to go to college. I wanted to be financially stable."
There was a lot of pressure to go to college, she said.
"It was thought the only route to success was to take on $100,000 of debt and at 18 that was just not something I felt I could do."
Quinn heard about an electrical apprenticeship through a friend and was impressed that she could earn a decent hourly wage while learning the trade.
"It's like $40,000 that they invest in you, and then eventually you pay it back through your hourly wage when you journey out," she said. "You don't have to pay anything upfront. So that was a big reason why it appealed to me."
Quinn took on the four-year apprenticeship with the National Electrical Contractors Association and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Her mother's job as an electrician helped her prepare for the field, she said.
"I guess subconsciously I was never afraid of (electrical work)," she said. "I hear a lot of times from women especially, 'Oh, I can't do that, that's not for me.' And I just never thought that."
She added, "I wish that more women had more faith in themselves. If there's one thing I wish I could squash it is people not having faith in themselves to do construction. There's good pay, good retirement, and good medical."
Her NECA-IBEW Electrical Apprenticeship took four-and-a-half years to complete. Every three months there were breaks from school, but she worked full time throughout. Other programs take differing amounts of time. Becoming a residential electrician takes two-and-a-half years; low voltage takes three-and-a-half years.
Her first salary was in the low $30,000s. As a journeyman it goes up every six months. In the year before the pandemic, she says she grossed $98,000. Quinn's first job was a year at Intel in Hillsboro.
"A lot of apprentices get sent there and a lot of people have made really good careers out there. But it can also kind of be its own little world. It's not necessarily what 99% of electrical is," she said.
Today, Quinn works as a journeyman with Merit Electric, a commercial and residential electrical firm with offices in Portland.
As a foreman, she leads journeymen and apprentices, a combination of being a regular co-worker, with mentoring and instructing. She works on buildings recognizable to almost any Portlander. For example, Grand Avenue Apartments, which is going up on Northeast Grand Avenue and Davis Street. Her next job is the Terwilliger Plaza retirement home, an extension being built near Interstate 405, just south of Portland State University.
"As the tower goes up, we're on site from start to finish, putting stuff in," she said, including pulling wire, running conduit, putting in lights and receptacles, and building electrical panels.
The learning is in the doing
"A lot of people think that the apprenticeship teaches you everything that you need to know to be successful electrician," Quinn said. "What it really does is teach you how to figure it out. Because electrical work can be so broad, there's no way that you could know everything you know about every little scenario."
While many electricians focus on taking math courses in school, Quinn recommends something more practical.
"A good scenario is get your hands on tools, just to get familiar," she said. "If you're thinking about getting into construction, or electrical, the big thing that will give people a leg up when they get in, is just to be familiar with drills, sawzalls, hammers, know how to read a tape measure … basic construction tools. Because you'll be using those every day."
Quinn has a ten-year goal of getting her signing supervisor's license, so she can sign permits without waiting. "It gives you just a little bit more responsibility and opportunity because every shop needs a signing supervisor." She also has eyes on become a project manager.
Her success in the trades has helped her become a homeowner before age 25. She paid $370,000 for her home in Estacada three years ago. She feels fortunate it was a foreclosed property.
"I came from a working-class family, so, for me to be able to buy a house, especially in this market, that was huge. I wouldn't have been able to do it without the opportunity that the apprenticeship has given me."
While the construction industry has a reputation of being sexist, Quinn said she hasn't experienced as much as other women have.
"I have been treated very well," she said. "Honestly, sometimes I forget that I am any different than most men. As long as you pull your weight and they don't have to constantly have to pick up your slack, they respect you. They see how hard you work and what you're capable of."
Quinn says that if men initially have doubts about her ability, she is not offended.
"Maybe they've just never seen a woman do something like that? It's not like they're trying to be offensive or anything. Most men are respectful."
"I was raised by a construction worker and a fisherman so I can hang. I don't get easily offended."
Merit Electric www.meritelectric.net
IBEW: 16021 NE Airport Way
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