Pittsburgh-Area High School Student Excels in Trade Skills
April 12, 2013
Michelle Braga, student at Steel Center Area Vocational School near Pittsburgh, was inspired by instructor Bob Eagleson, a former IBEW inside wireman, to compete in a residential wiring competition.
Celebrated poet Maya Angelou once said, “Living a life is like constructing a building; if you start wrong, you'll end wrong.”
If the same statement can describe a career, Michelle Braga, a 17-year-old Pittsburgh-area vocational-technical high school student who is aiming for an IBEW journeyman wireman apprenticeship, is on the right track in both spheres.
In January, Braga, who attends Steel Center Area Vocational School in Jefferson Hills, won a regional residential wiring competition sponsored by SkillsUSA, a Leesburg, Va.-based nonprofit. She was profiled as the Pittsburgh Tribune’s Young Achiever in March..
After winning the regional contest against eight male students, she went on to place eighth in a Pennsylvania statewide competition in April.
Braga, who plans to take classes at the University of Pittsburgh while she completes her apprenticeship with Pittsburgh Local 5, is a study in focus and determination, says her instructor and mentor Bob Eagleson.
A journeyman member of Washington, D.C. Local 26 who later transferred to an IBEW manufacturing local at a Pittsburgh Westinghouse plant, Eagleson began teaching in 2000. He says:
Michelle is a quick learner. She doesn’t shy away from anything difficult and she’s always willing to help other students who have trouble grasping concepts.
Before she transferred to Steel Center in her sophomore year, Braga attended a high school where the majority of her peers prepared to enroll in college. Now a junior, Braga says:
I kind of want to go to college, but I want to join the IBEW and maybe someday start my own business. Mr. Eagleson is my inspiration.
While her father thought attending vocational-technical school might be a mistake, she says, her mother was supportive as long as her grades stayed high. She says, of winning the Allegheny County SkillsUSA contest:
I just excelled above the others. The [wiring exercise] just clicked in my mind. All my friends were really proud of me for winning a competition in a mostly-male trade.
Braga, who serves as an officer of her class at Steel Center, would be the first of her family to be a member of a union. She is facing her career choice with eyes open. Last November, she submitted a paper to Eagleson entitled, “Women in Construction: Will it Ever Be Safe?” She discussed the challenges facing women in obtaining properly-fitting work clothes, tools and equipment. And she reviewed literature that starkly discussed how many women in the trades have met with harassment from male workers on the job.
In the paper, Braga wrote, “Overcoming a lack in fitting tools or safety equipment, and many forms of harassment on the job site is a lot to pay to do the job one loves. Is it not?”
Describing her career choice, Braga, who visits Pittsburgh Local 5’s apprenticeship training center monthly as part of the Explorer program, told the Pittsburgh Tribune:
There’s definitely going to be challenges … But I love the work enough to put up with it.
Eagleson says Braga is different from many students who don’t want to work for an answer or a solution to a problem and ask him to give them answers. “She’s willing to go to the electrical code or other places and look things up,” says Eagleson, who adds, “The reward from my job is the satisfaction of having students who are successfully living in the same towns they grew up in come back and say ‘Thank you.’ I think Michelle will be one of those students.”