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June 2013

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Daughter Follows Trailblazing Mother into the IBEW

Working in the building trades often passes from generation to generation within a family, usually a son following a father into a union career.

This month in Los Angeles, however, family tradition passes between mother and daughter when Hannah Cooper tops out of her apprenticeship. Her mother, Kelly Cooper, was the first female member of Los Angeles Local 11.

It won't be the first time a mother-daughter duo has joined the IBEW ranks. That honor may go to the second woman to join Local 11, Jane Templin, who started her apprenticeship a year after Kelly Cooper and is now the interim president, and her daughter, Las Vegas Local 357 member Jennifer Tabor.

"A career in the trades makes sense because it's a good job that can support you and your family. That's important to women and men," said Carolyn Williams, director of civic and community engagement. "I expect this to be more common in the future, but for now it is worth celebrating what this union means for our brothers and our sisters."

After a year of traveling the world, Kelly Cooper knew she didn't want to go back to her small hometown in Australia; a trade would give her the independence to go wherever she wanted and being an electrician looked interesting. But when she walked into the Los Angeles Trade Technical Community College in 1975, she didn't know that no woman had ever completed their electrician's course. And no woman had ever been a member of Local 11.

"Initially it was just so abstract and really fascinating," Kelly said of the early electrical training courses at TradeTech. "The theory was pure and piqued my interest, but very quickly, it was the work that drove me."

Cooper says the classes were all taught by Local 11 members who frequently referred students to the apprenticeship program … except her. Kelly says the instructors told her it wouldn't be a good fit. She ignored the advice and signed up for the apprenticeship anyway.

"I am very competitive and I wanted to be a journeyman, to be independent," she said.

Cooper concedes the detractors may have had a point: the jobsite was often a hostile place. Hannah, now 26, said she doesn't remember her mom talking about it much.

"My mom is so tough," she said. "Loving and affectionate, but she is a strong advocate for herself."

After graduation, Kelly's career took her to construction and maintenance projects across Los Angeles until the 2000 recession. With work slow, Kelly took the civil service electrician's test and went to work for the City of Los Angeles.

"Once I got into the system and figured out how it worked, I started going for promotions," Kelly said. When she moved into management, Kelly went to night school for a bachelor's in political science and continued to rise through the ranks.

Now director of building maintenance for Los Angeles, she supervises a staff of more than 250 responsible for 700 city-owned buildings. Though she is an administrator, she maintains her IBEW membership and says she still thinks of herself as an electrician first.

"I wouldn't have ever been able to do this without working with the tools," Kelly said. "Being in the IBEW has been fantastic for me."

Kelly says it's been gratifying to see how welcoming Local 11 has been to Hannah and the other women in the ranks, even calling it a "nurturing environment," but she is disappointed that so few women followed her and the first generation of trailblazers.

"I'm shocked really," she said. "Maybe Hannah will be an example and inspire a new generation of women."

As a child, Hannah says she had only a vague understanding of what her mother did.

"She would point at stuff she built but I never had an interest in it," said Hannah, an only child. She was a dancer, an artist, more like her father, who was in show business. She knew her mom was in a non-traditional career, but that was only "mildly cool."

"It didn't seem dreadful," Hannah said, "Honestly, it never occurred to me."

Hannah auditioned for and was accepted by the L.A. County High School for the Arts and had notions of traveling the world as a dancer.

But in her senior year of high school, Hannah says she lost interest in dance. In the next few years she was a barista, a bartender, a hostess and a cheese monger. Whenever she saved enough, she left the country until the money ran out. In late 2007, Hannah was setting out on another trip — this time to Asia — but after three years in motion, the charm was wearing off.

"I was tired of wasting time," Hannah said. "I didn't have the patience for college, but I wanted a career where I could be self-sufficient. That is when I started considering the trades."

Kelly says she had talked with Hannah about practical crafts that allow creative expression. "I told her, having a trade serves me well. Just consider it," Kelly said.

While backpacking through Southeast Asia, Hannah said, she met young people who supported themselves through a variety of jobs in construction. It clicked. She called her mom and told her she was signing up for the apprenticeship when she got home.

By scoring in the top 1 percent of her class, and getting recommendations from employers, Hannah was awarded a meritorious upgrade and will top out in June, six months ahead of schedule. Hannah says she's just eager to get to work.

"You walk onto a mound of dirt and when you're done, you flip on a light switch," Hannah said. "That is so cool."


Los Angeles Local 11's Hannah Cooper and her mother Kelly Cooper, the first female member of Local 11. Hannah tops out this month.

Photo credit: Adam Cooper