Molly Muller's union brothers and sisters, training director, business manager, friends and family were thrilled and proud when she became the first woman to win the IBEW's Western States Electrical Contest.
|Local 280's Molly Muller became the first woman to wear the Infinity Gauntlet that passes each year from one winner to the next at the IBEW’s Western States Contest.
|Molly Muller finished in first place in the hands-on motor controls competition and two other skill tests, leading to her historic win overall win at the 2023 Western States Contest.
But they weren't surprised.
"I expected her to win," said Mike Ellison, training director at Salem, Ore., Local 280. "If anything surprised me, it was how much she exceeded my expectations."
The annual day-long competition is open to first-year journey-level wiremen from 11 Western states, one entrant per local. Muller was one of two women among 18 members vying at this year's event, hosted in late August by San Jose, Calif., Local 332.
She placed first in three rounds — a written exam, motor controls and residential wiring — and high up in everything else, taking home an $800 cash prize and the contest's bejeweled infinity gauntlet, the mythic glove of a superhero that passes from one winner to another.
Ellison and others marveled at Muller's cool head as she tackled each challenge — careful attention to detail, betraying none of the butterflies she would later describe:
"Terrified, intimidated, nervous, anxious," she said. "I mean, I wanted to win the whole thing. It was a big deal to me."
A regional NECA manager sensed frustration in some competitors, but not Muller. "Nothing shook her confidence, at least not visibly," said Monique de Boer, who serves Local 280 and sits on its JATC board. "It was so much fun to watch her."
It was also inspiring. "I'm in awe of the women in our industry," de Boer said. "Molly represents the women who came before her and who fought so hard to be here, and all those who follow."
Muller impressed Ellison during her apprenticeship as "incredibly strong, smart and competitive" and meticulous about her work. Between those qualities and her good nature and high spirits, he saw her as the ideal delegate when he and the 2022 apprentice class chose her to represent Local 280.
She hadn't volunteered. "I was voluntold," Muller said with laughter that is plentiful as she talks.
Growing up in Oregon's capital city of Salem, she didn't aspire to be an electrician. She didn't even know any. Her father, while now chief financial officer at a public utility, worked as an accountant; her mother teaches elementary school.
Muller started down a similar path after high school. She spent an adventurous gap year in Brooklyn through AmeriCorps' City Year program, surviving on a small stipend and living with multiple roommates while assisting teachers in underfunded classrooms. She returned home and enrolled in pre-education at Oregon State University.
"I decided that wasn't for me: 'I thought, "I'm good at math, so I should be an engineer. They make a lot of money,'" she said. "That turned out to be too much math, and I switched to business. At that point, I realized that I was just wasting money for no reason."
Unsure of what she wanted to do, she worked as a caregiver and considered nursing school. After ruling that out, she spotted a Craigslist ad for a job in residential carpentry at a mom-and-pop shop. She had no experience, but the owners were sold.
"They said: 'You seem smart. You can learn on the job.'" So I did — concrete, finished carpentry, flooring. I learned a lot."
A co-worker urged her to shoot higher. "He said, 'You need to be an electrician or a plumber, a job with a union and benefits and where they pay you what you're worth.'"
Before long, Muller was sitting across from a Local 280 panel being interviewed for a residential apprenticeship. She was also three months pregnant. Asked how that landed with her questioners, she laughed.
"Oh, I didn't tell anyone," she said. "I didn't want it to affect my chances." Halfway through her first year, she gave birth to her son, now 7.
Returning to the program as a single mom, she sailed through her training until butting heads with an employer after her second year.
"The shop where I was working wanted me to do a bunch of sketchy, unsafe things," Muller said. "I thought, 'This isn't what I signed up for.' I got laid off, and they gave me a bad review.
"I was going to quit the whole thing, and my dad says, 'You're part of a union, go down to the hall and talk to them.'"
She never dreamed she'd get so much support, recalling how incoming Business Manager Drew Lindsey had her back as the JATC board considered her case.
"Drew really went to bat for me, and he and Dave Baker, who was the training director, set me up with a solar job," Muller said. "Because it was under 3 1/2 megawatts, I was allowed even as a residential apprentice to go do that."
She thrived working with inside wiremen who treated her with respect. "I found my people," she said. "I knew this was what I wanted to do."
She applied to be an inside apprentice, submitting 12 letters of recommendation.
Lindsey watched her flourish, charting her growth from a young woman who stood up to a boss to a standout apprentice and champion journeywoman. "Through the whole process, she was maturing at a level that most people don't," he said. "I am nothing but proud of her, and I tell her that all the time."
Robert Chon, apprentice director at the Silicon Valley JATC, where the contest was held, noted Muller's humility and rapport with fellow competitors.
"She was immediately well liked when she got here, always smiling," Chon said. "I didn't detect any animosity at all when she won. Her victory was very celebratory. I think everyone understood the significance."
The 2022 contest, hosted by Local 280 at its central Oregon training center, also broke barriers when Lisa Forsberg of Tacoma, Wash., Local 76 became the first woman to win second place.
The now-robust Western States contest grew out of an Oregon duel first held in 1963 between Local 280 and Portland Local 48.
Sixty years later, despite her nerves, Muller kept the intrastate battle alive. "It's not like I wasn't talking a good game," she said. "Me and the guy from Local 48 in Portland, we had a little rivalry going. But inside I'm, like, dying."
Even as she handily completed one task after another, she figured she was doomed by her deliberative pace. She always beat the clock, but some competitors were faster.
"Like they said at the award ceremony, I took my time and did it right, I guess," she said, still hedging on assessing talents that are obvious to everyone else.
"It was overwhelming," Muller said of the moment she won and the days to come. "Congratulations from everyone. My phone was blowing up. Social media was blowing up. Oh my gosh, it's still surreal."