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December 2012

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Aspiring Wireman Apprentice Brings a Veteran's
'Sense of Duty' to the Job Site

It's a story unconscionably all too common. A courageous young person serves tours of duty overseas in hostile environments—only to come home to a dismal job market and the prospect of years of backbreaking, low-wage work just to survive.

Christine Mason was one of many veterans navigating this stark reality in 2001. After nearly a decade in in the Army—which saw her serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and numerous other theaters—the Leavenworth, Kan., native encountered a new battlefield in her quest for work to support herself and her son.

"After Kansas became a right-to-work state in the '70s, a lot of good-paying jobs became nonexistent," said Mason, the daughter of career military parents. "A lot of people now can only get work in retail, as a cashier or at a grocery store. Many programs to help veterans have ceased in the past few decades, too. We have a large population of homeless veterans in Leavenworth," a historic army post in the state's northeast nestling the Missouri border.

But now, the 42-year-old is an energetic apprentice and rising star in Kansas City Local 124 after joining as a construction wireman in March. Because of Christine's prior experience and education, she was able to test into the local's two-year accelerated program.

Last winter, after Mason had posted her résumé to the online community site Craigslist, she received an invitation to a job fair/industry night hosted by Local 124, which with its signatory contractors, were looking to bring nonunion electricians onto union market recovery projects while offering union membership and a possible path to apprenticeship training. While initially skeptical of unions, Mason was impressed with the pay scale and educational opportunities, adding that she saw in the IBEW a culture of excellence, fairness and reward for hard work.

"So far, it's been awesome," Mason said. "When I came in for my interview, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish—I wanted to be a journeyman. This process has allowed me to take steps toward that goal."

Prior to shipping out to Bosnia in 1997, she became a unit supply sergeant—eventually traveling as a gunner with combat convoys, mapping supply routes in a no-fly zone and being personally accountable for $5 million of heavy equipment.

When she transferred back to civilian life, her experience handling large transport vehicles made her next job as a long-haul trucker a natural, practical choice. And one that serendipitously led her to the electrical field.

"I drove a flatbed and hauled tractors, lumber, you name it," she said. "Soon I was delivering equipment for large scale construction jobs, like 100-foot boom lifts and other heavy machinery."

While working out of Arkansas in 2007, a chance encounter with a manager on a construction site piqued her curiosity about electrical work. "I was delivering a forklift and the guy I was talking to at the site said, 'You must be military, because that's the only way folks learn how to do this job correctly.' He worked for a contractor and told me, 'If you can do what you're doing now, you could make a great electrician.'"

Looking for a new challenge, and increasingly disillusioned from "a lot of flak I was getting in the South for being a woman in the industry," Mason investigated the electrical trade. She obtained an entry-level position with a nonunion contractor in Hot Springs, the first of many jobs with various electrical outfits.

But while she was garnering some solid skills, "the education process wasn't standardized, layoffs were frequent and there were other problems. A lot of people on sites didn't even know the NEC [National Electrical Code]."

Moreover, nepotism and favoritism were rampant, she said. "I learned how to do the technical part of my job, but it often didn't matter how much education you had. It was who you knew that would get you ahead in your career. It was like you could only ever get a journeyman status if someone liked you. Just to get by, people were working 70-80 hours a week for $15 an hour. We were told, 'If you don't like it, find another job.'" She moved back to the Kansas City area to do just that.

She said veterans approach their jobs with a sense of duty. "I think that what I learned in the military I bring with me to the work site every morning."

Local leaders are taking note of her leadership potential. With her straightforward, no-nonsense style, Mason garnered acclaim in September when she appeared onstage at the Membership Development Conference in Las Vegas with Local 124 Business Manager Terry Akins. "These are workers who have decided they are going to be electricians, and they are going to work in our market," Akins said. "They are already doing 'our work,' and I want them to bring that work to a signatory contractor."

IBEW leaders say that one of the aims of the CE/CW program is to help nurture the kind of drive exhibited by newer members like Mason. "There are a lot of people—whether from the military like Christine, or who are involved in the construction industry right now—who have some genuine skills developed on the job," said Scott Hudson, director of construction organizing for the Membership Development Department. "These skills are further enriched through the CE/CW program. It's clear that this [program] is yielding results for our members and the union overall."

Mason said the IBEW has also inspired her toward union activism. On Election Day she volunteered with the Leavenworth County Democratic Party to help get out the vote for President Obama and pro-working family candidates.

Now, as she takes confident steps closer toward her final year in the apprenticeship, "I've never been so motivated," she said. "My chosen career fields are considered male-dominated, but I did not see that as a challenge or barrier and continued in these fields because I like to remain active. I feel that this is where I need to be and I enjoy the constant learning and innovation that this career has to offer."


Army Veteran Christine Mason is an apprentice with Kansas City, Mo., Local 124.