Years ago, New York Local 3 member Lowely Cheung had a problem. She had to do some wiring and was under a strict deadline. She needed a 10-foot ladder and was told they didn't have any that day, so she should just use the shorter ladder, which she would have to stand on top of, risking her safety.
|AFL-CIO president and fellow IBEW member Liz Shuler, second from the left, met New York Local 3 sisters (from left) Erin Sullivan, Racquel Hazlewood and Desiree Camacho during the Monumental Women awards ceremony in Central Park.
|New York Local 3 member Lowely Cheung, right, was joined by her mentor, Mary Au, for a ceremony for apprentices who had advanced to the journey level.
|Nashville, Tenn., Local 429 sisters (from left, Denise Furgeson, Heather Tatum and Mern Sanders) at work at the city's Major League Soccer stadium. Credit: Maryland Electric Co.
Not sure what to do, she called her mentor, Mary Au.
"Mary told me that I didn't have to work like that," Cheung recalled. "She reminded me of what's important, and it gave me the courage to call the boss and demand a 10-foot ladder. It can be easy to get intimidated in situations like that."
Cheung got the correct ladder, but she also got something more: a reminder that people were looking out for her, that she wasn't alone. She got a sense of solidarity.
For those new to the trade, having that mentorship connection, whether informally or through an IBEW program, can be a lifeline, especially for historically underrepresented groups like women and people of color.
"Mentoring makes you feel like you belong," Cheung said. "It's usually a father-son club, but that's not the case for everyone now."
As the U.S. and Canada build out infrastructure and construction projects proliferate, there is a growing need for more electricians and other tradespeople. By casting a wider net and bringing in people who have traditionally been left out, the IBEW can not only meet industry demands but also grow stronger as a union through its increased diversity.
"The IBEW is about all of us," said Nashville, Tenn., Local 429 journeyman wireman Caiden Droscha. "With the union, we're able to bring in a diversity of people, and that makes us stronger, even when we don't all have the same experiences."
Cheung, a member for 11 years, has since gone on to be a mentor herself and said it's a great way to give back to the union. She said she calls her mentees at least once a month and makes sure to contact them on holidays, too.
"You have to be generous with your time and give respect to your apprentices," Cheung said. "Mentees are their own people. You have to give them space to grow."
'Someone You Can Turn To'
As a member of Local 3, Cheung is part of its formal mentoring program, where every new apprentice is paired with someone more seasoned.
"It's important that every member coming in has every opportunity for success," said Erin Sullivan, a Local 3 journey wirewoman and Third District International Women's Advisory Committee representative. "Having a person who is willing to give you those tools is an invaluable resource."
Sullivan also noted the benefits of Local 3 leadership's official endorsement of the program.
"It sends a clear message that this is important to the local," Sullivan said. "It's not only important to have the knowledge and traditions passed down, but it also tells the new members that they are valued and important. Local 3 is saying that we are committed to the success of every apprentice coming in, not just those who already have family in the business."
As more first-generation workers join the IBEW, mentoring can play a crucial role in bridging the knowledge gap facing many newcomers.
"The culture was vastly different than anything I had been in before," said Droscha, who previously worked in social services. "Friends outside of construction don't really understand the struggle. Having someone who gets it and is interested in you, who will help you walk through it, is invaluable."
It's a sentiment shared by Local 3 apprentice Desiree Camacho, who is also a first-generation member and appreciates the ability to have a source of accurate information so she's not relying on "shanty talk," or the things you hear word-of-mouth that may or may not be true.
"The apprenticeship can get a bit overwhelming, so it's good to feel like there's someone you can turn to with questions about benefits, what the local has to offer and to help keep you motivated when you start to doubt yourself during the process of learning the trade," said Camacho, who counts Sullivan as a mentor.
Mentorship goes beyond learning the skills of the trade. It helps solidify new members' connections to the IBEW and to the labor movement.
"On-the-job training is one thing, but mentoring takes on something completely different. It teaches you the expectations of what it means to have a career and about the union itself. It teaches you that you have rights on the job," said Director of Civic and Community Engagement Tarn Goelling.
Rewards for Everyone
Mentoring is also a two-way street, with rewards for both the mentee and the mentor. Boston Local 103 Business Agent Renee Dozier has been on both sides and said it's helped her professionally and personally.
"I've had the opportunity to learn from some great men and women who have achieved a level of expertise that I aspire to attain," said Dozier, who also co-chairs the IWAC. "And my mentees teach me to examine and reevaluate my ways and to see things from different perspectives."
The teaching aspect of mentoring can often be a reward in itself, says San Diego Local 569 member Kevin Gorman.
"There is not a more satisfying experience for a craftsman than to share the knowledge of their particular craft," said Gorman, who is also vice president of Local 569's Electrical Worker Minority Caucus chapter. "This helps to ensure that our industry does not just continue to survive but thrives."
There's also an exchange between individuals that isn't necessarily the older generation teaching the new, said Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 Business Representative Manny Randhawa.
"It doesn't always have to be from older to younger because with the rapid advance of technology, there are a lot of situations where the younger generation is now teaching the older one," he said.
While some mentoring programs are formal, other locals do it more informally, like Houston Local 716. Business Manager and Financial Secretary Stephen Gonzales said the local has an open-door policy available to all members at their office. Anyone can walk in at any time and have a conversation with a staff member, no matter the topic. There are also dinners at the JATC each month with a quick meal and a raffle of Local 716 apparel for apprentices, construction wiremen and construction electricians.
"It's nothing official or fancy," Gonzales said. "We just talk and listen to what they have to say. We answer questions they may have but don't feel comfortable coming into the office to ask or don't want to ask in front of a big group at our union meetings."
EWMC vice president and Tampa, Fla., Local 824 member Grace Smith noted that mentoring can even help with mental health. She said that at the EWMC conference this year, a speaker was scheduled for a one-hour plenary on the topic that ended up lasting three hours because so many members wanted to share their experiences.
"This is the kind of safe and secure space that has only been achieved by the EWMC," Smith said. "And as a testament to our success, other trades like the plumbers and SMART are replicating it in their organizations."
Kamloops, British Columbia, Local 993's Angie Camille said she's worked jobs where she's been the only Indigenous woman out of over 1,000 tradespeople on a job site.
"I have worked many jobs where I had to prove my abilities to work in the trades and watch my back at the same time," said Camille, Local 993's membership development and Indigenous coordinator who also represents the First District on the IWAC. "And I am never too shy about sharing my experiences — the good ones and the bad."
Like Cheung, Camille said she makes a point of being available to her fellow sisters and brothers.
"I always let the membership know that they can call me anytime, day or night," she said. "And yes, I have had 4 and 5 a.m. calls from members, just needing to talk them off the ladder, that kind of thing."
Local 429 Occupational Safety and Health Administration instructor Heather Tatum said it's important to be able to pick up the phone and get advice on topics like offensive speech, or having a foreman who only gives you certain jobs and limits your field experience.
"It really helps to get insight from other women who've been in that position," Tatum said. "And we're sisters in the Brotherhood. It's always better to have support in numbers."
And even when things don't work out, just knowing that someone is on your side can help.
"It won't be all peaches and cream," said Local 429 President Kim Sansom, who also serves on the IWAC. "You might get mad at a foreman or have issues at home, but we're here for you."
Delivering on IBEW Strong's Promise
Tatum said she has seen the atmosphere become more welcoming during her time in the union.
"It can be uncomfortable at times, but things are getting better," she said. "We even had some guys throw a baby shower for a pregnant co-worker, and it was the best shower I have ever been to."
The benefits of mentorship can also be seen in how active members are in their locals.
"Although women are a very small minority in our local, proportionally we show up more for the union meetings," said Local 429 second-year apprentice Mern Sanders. "I think that's largely because we're committed as a group to participating in the democracy of our union and fighting for change so that we can see more women and gender-nonconforming people feel welcome in our community."
For Gonzales at Local 716, mentorship helped give him the incentive to get more involved in the local and even enter leadership.
"If it weren't for the mentors that I had throughout the years believing in me, rooting me on, boosting my confidence, I would've never had the guts to run for office," he said. "I would have never become the first person of color to hold the position of business manager and financial secretary of Local 716."
Having active and engaged members also helps with retention.
"When people feel supported and valued, they are more likely to stay and contribute to the union in the long term," said Local 213 member Rajan Sanghera.
Indeed, mentoring, whether formal or informal, is a way to deliver on the goals of IBEW Strong, the union's diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.
"It all rolls into how we treat each other as human beings. And it builds stronger networks of members," said IWAC member and new Ninth District International Representative Marcie Obremski, formerly business manager of Anchorage, Alaska, Local 1547.
And by building a stronger membership, one where everyone feels welcomed and valued, the union itself will only grow stronger.
"This is the greatest organization in the world. Our union model works. Our apprenticeship programs work. To ensure that we continue to be the best, we must tap into our resources that are in our membership," Dozier said. "And when we show the membership that we're committed to investing in and developing them, it will pay back tenfold."