August 2010

North of 49°
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Toronto Physics Professor Proud to be IBEW Apprentice

A May interview on a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio show introduced the nation to Cindy Krysac. A 52-year-old physics professor, Krysac is now in her third year in Toronto Local 353’s inside wireman apprenticeship.

The Electrical Worker asked Krysac, who has also taught at Penn State University and University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., and University of Toronto, about her career change and her life after joining the union.

EW: How did you decide to enter the electrical trade?

KRYSAC: I made the decision after several years of consideration. I was rewiring my older home, ripping out knob and tube and aluminum wiring. I greatly enjoyed this project so I submitted my apprenticeship application.

After three years, I know that this is an awesome job. I began with a prejudice that the trades were somehow a lesser choice than an academic career. I am proud to be an electrician and grateful that I am no longer stifling behind some desk, but active every day solving real-world, hands-on problems.

EW: How were you received by the local union when you first applied?

KRYSAC: Local 353 instructors and representatives wanted to know why I chose to apply for this job and how I thought I would do in it. There are two parts to those questions, my age and my gender. The gender question is complex and relevant since there are relatively few women who choose this career. I am the only woman in my class.

A better rephrasing is the question which we all need to ask: "Why is it still unusual for women to enter the electrical trade?"

I had expected a cooler reception, but my brothers in the trade, and employers and trade school teachers, have been mostly positive and welcoming. Some question my abilities, but that’s business as usual, getting through an initial period of evaluation before it can be seen that I do my job well, and they can put their doubts aside.

Five guys crowded around my project on my first evaluation. This didn’t bother me much; I have confidence in my work. But I worry that this kind of excessive scrutiny would deter other women from continuing in the trade.

I came to my first job with my own prejudices about construction workers. But I have met people who are bright, friendly, creative, and loyal and protective of each other and me. The friendships I have forged will last a lifetime, I am sure.

EW: What was the response of your peers in teaching/friends/family when you told them you were going into the electrical trade?

KRYSAC: I have always been an independent spirit. Those who know me well are not surprised by the unusual directions my life takes. I invested many years earning my Ph.D., followed by another 10 years working as a postdoctoral research fellow and an assistant professor. To some of my colleagues, I appeared to be throwing it all away by entering the electrical trade.

Others, like me, are happiest when working with their hands on some tricky project. These friends have admitted feeling somewhat jealous of my new life mucking about with wires using an assortment of cool new tools.

My family supports me 100 percent. They know me well, and trust that I have the determination and stamina to finish through to the end of my goals, however intimidating those goals might seem.

EW: Please tell us about your upbringing.

KRYSAC: I am Canadian, born to Russian immigrants in the west end of Toronto. I was expected to take up music, art, cooking and to care for my parents and large family as a little Russian princess. But I was also encouraged to prepare for a career as an architect or an engineer. I was given a set of tools for Christmas one year, and used these to take apart and reassemble my bicycle.

When I was about 10 years old, I built a fort in the backyard which was so large that the neighbours asked if we had a building permit. I don’t think it met the building code, so I had to take it down. I believe that mechanical aptitude is best learned in childhood.

EW: What have you been most surprised or curious about since joining the electrical trade?

KRYSAC: I am happy that there is so much learning of both theory and skills which I still have to do. The guys may be gruff and speak with candor at times, but it has been fun working with a bunch of smart, athletic men.

EW: How have you maintained the physical fitness to succeed in a physically challenging environment?

KRYSAC: I have been involved with athletics since my early adulthood so I have the physical stamina and strength of a younger person. Each week, I swim three or four kilometers and cycle about 50 kilometers. I do yoga daily, and run often. During my first year as a pre-apprentice, I trained for and ran a marathon, then walked another marathon a month later. I was surprised and pleased at how physically demanding the electrical apprenticeship has been, especially doing slab work!

EW: What is it like working with other apprentices and journeymen who are the age of your former students?

KRYSAC: I like to put some fire under them with the challenge that they ought to do better and faster than this middle-aged woman, who is probably older than their mom. If I can do this job better than you, you need to rethink how you are going about your job.

EW: In the CBC interview, you suggested that everyone should take physics in school. Why?

KRYSAC: Physics is the study of the way things are, not the way we imagine them to be. Physics teaches one to approach problems with logic first before flying off into wishful fantasies. This discipline can be applied to every aspect of our lives. Even human psychology is now being understood as the functioning of the neural network which is our brain.

EW: What are your interests, hobbies?

KRYSAC: Besides time spent with my kids, I renovate my "fixer-upper" 1918 Toronto house, and garden. Athletics and yoga require a big time commitment. But I still find time to play piano, and do some writing.

Cindy Krysac is now at work on a 12-story high-rise in downtown Toronto, one of many projects of 8,000-member Local 353. Local 353, which maintains a 90-percent share of the residential home market in its jurisdiction, is currently conducting an online membership survey to find new opportunities for growing the local’s numbers and political influence.

Krysac: ‘My friends are jealous of my new life mucking about with wires using cool new tools.’