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From tweaking to peaking: One woman's story of kicking drugs and being accepted in the electrical trade

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kaitlyn Kettner kicked meth, heroin and booze to become an apprentice electrician with IBEW Local 48, finding a family wage job and a community that accepts her.

Kaitlyn Ketter makes no bones about the missteps she took on her way to a living-wage career after drugs and alcohol took over her life after high school.

"It just was another way to numb out of feeling uncomfortable, but I wasn't doing dumb stuff like drinking and driving, and I felt like I was more responsible," she said of her substance abuse in her 20s. "But I ended up going down an even darker path, starting to do heroin and meth, and I was in and out of jail. I got some possession charges."

Kettner, 35, dropped out of nursing school because she became addicted to uppers such as methamphetamine and downers such as heroin and Vicodin and had a love-hate relationship with alcohol, which started at 16. Nevertheless, she somehow maintained custody of her two sons, now 15 and 12. She hit rock bottom detoxing in jail on a possession charge.


Meth was attractive. "It doesn't even sound like it'd be fun now, but I remember thinking that I could do anything or figure anything out. It just was like feeling a superpower, but it sucks your soul out at the same time."

But the possession charge meant she lost her right to nursing school.

"Once I couldn't do nursing, I just fell apart. And I couldn't talk about it for a long time. I had no goal."

Felonies don't make for a good career path, but she found her way through NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings to the Second Chance movement, which gives people who have served prison time, even felons, a second chance at getting hired. She operated ovens at Dave's Killer Bread in Milwaukie for a couple of years before discovering the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Now she is a fourth-term apprentice with IBEW Local 48.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kaitlyn Kettner is 3,500 hours toward her 8,000 goal of becoming a journeywoman electrician with IBEW Local 48. Her current job is at a datacenter in Hillsboro which is not Intel.

During her apprenticeship, she has worked on high-profile buildings such as 5 MLK, a fancy apartment building at the southeast end of the Burnside Bridge. She is currently working for Dynalectric on a data center in Hillsboro.

She makes $30 an hour plus overtime which can be two hours a day if she works four 10-hour shifts. Her hourly rate will increase to $50 when she becomes a journeyman inside wireman.

"Some people say wireperson," she says with a shrug. Much of what she does is pulling wire and connecting boxes, but she was pleased to work with bus duct, which is ductwork that contains bars of conductive metal that are more efficient than wire.

Often apprentices get the unpopular shifts. Kettner works swing from 4 p.m. to 2.30 a.m. but is happy with that. There are worse things than driving from Sandy to Hillsborough in rush hour. She lived in a sober house, an Oxford House in Milwaukie, when COVID hit in 2020. She could have taken it easy and not worked.

"They gave us the option to stay home, and I would have made more if I did the unemployment thing because I was just kind of starting out. But I just kept working through it. I was living with multiple people in a sober house in Milwaukie. Oxford is amazing. Some people were making way more than me, and I was going to work and busting my butt, but in the long run, all the hours that I work build towards my health insurance for me and my kids and my raises and finishing the program." (She 3,500 hours toward her 8,000-hour goal to journey out.)



She started in recovery on November 7, 2017, and has not had a sniff of alcohol or drugs since.

"I go to multiple recovery meetings," she says, preferring not to single out one kind.

To help get off heroin, she took methadone and suboxone but ultimately had to figure out what she was running away from.

"I lived off the state for a long time, on student loans when I was going to school. Then I sobered up for Dave's Killer Bread, and started making decent money for the position." As an oven operator, she started at $17.50 an hour and topped out at $21.50.

Living in the Oxford House, she even started to save money. 

It took many people to help Kettner get back on her feet, not just the electrical union. There was a test to join the union, and she failed the math part, but they sent her the materials to work on it until she succeeded. She had an interview with a panel of seven people at the union and showed them photos of home and auto projects she had worked on with her father.

One of the benefits of IBEW Local 48 that really suits her is she doesn't have to apply for jobs anymore. The union makes a point not to send her to places she can't go — such as the airport. "I'm pretty sure I can't go to Intel, but I can get my record expunged in 2024."

At a time of skilled labor shortage, the union is going all out to find talented people who, in the old days, would have been blocked from the trades.

"The thing that is really great about the union is that I gave up on myself because I had a criminal background and getting into the union is like my chance to build a life again and to have a career."


She grew up in Clackamas County, her father was a handyman, and they had good relationship.

"He got his own business, but he just always he fixed cars. He can fix everything. He still does. I just wanted to be like my dad."

For a then 33-year-old woman with little relevant work experience, those photos of car projects with her dad helped as much as anything. Now the union lines up her work, so she doesn't have to deal with questions about past felonies. And, the union expects her to pass her drug tests every time.

Her parents were divorced, and, as a teen, she ran from one or the other to avoid the consequences of her behavior.

"But I totally took advantage of that situation. I didn't have to run anymore when I started drinking. I felt like I could escape everything and still physically be where I was at."

Looking back, she has analyzed her problems enough to keep them under control. In recovery, she made amends with her children for not being there for them emotionally. 

"And now I have a career, a house…my life just skyrocketed."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Electrician Kaitlyn Kettner, 35, makes $30 an hour as an apprentice inside wireman, plus overtime. Her wage will raise to $50 when she journeys out in a couple of years.

Kettner is engaged to a new man, with whom she bought a new house in Sandy, and she gets on well with his daughter and her ex. The union has a softball team, and she likes rock climbing and plays soccer and volleyball. Kettner is excited about her career.

Is she worried about moving into an industry that can be prone to an unhealthy lifestyle? She says there is an expectation to drink alcohol after work, but most colleagues are very supportive when she says she is in recovery. Likewise, she is well respected as a woman, and feels the union would have her back in a conflict.

And that house?

"I would love for my house to be an Oxford house when I go to buy a new house. A lot of how Oxford houses come about is that people will own a house and then rent it out to Oxford. And there are no Oxford houses out in Sandy."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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