|Achury reviews conduit layout for upcoming tasks while working as a project manager for Mona Electric.
|Washington, D.C., Local 26 member Claudia Achury arrived from Bolivia less than a decade ago but completed her apprenticeship and now is a project manager.
|Washington, D.C., Local 26 member Claudia Achury on the job.
IBEW membership is a powerful tool for improving one's life. Claudia Achury's story is proof.
A native of Bolivia, Achury left her homeland nine years ago to be close to her mother, who had left the country many years earlier and was living near Washington, D.C.
Sadly, the reunion was a brief one. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died about one year after her arrival.
But she didn't return to Bolivia, even though she knew little English and had earned an engineering degree at a college there.
Instead, Achury stayed in suburban Washington and worked various jobs before being accepted into Local 26's apprenticeship program.
Now, nine years after her arrival, she's a project manager for Mona Electric, a Local 26 signatory contractor. Along the way, she met her husband, Diego, and lives with him and their 4-year-old son, Santiago, in Centreville, Va. She's now an American citizen.
Achury makes clear that her path wasn't easy.
"It's hard work," Achury said. "Nothing is going to be free. I'm not going to say, 'If I can do it, everyone can do it.' I'm not going to lie."
There were some awkward moments. Achury remembers showing up at her apprenticeship interview in a dress and high heels. She didn't have the proper equipment when she showed up for her first day on a jobsite as an apprentice.
Yet, at every step, she felt supported by her leaders at Local 26 and mentors on the job. Those who have watched or helped her along the way say they didn't need to do much. Her intelligence, curiosity and work ethic quickly showed through.
"She works well with others," said Mona Vice President Phil Riddle, who promoted her to project manager. "She's a problem solver. There's always an answer and a can-do attitude."
Local 26 Business Manager Joe Dabbs said Achury has "consistently risen to the top with every opportunity that's come across her plate."
He added: "We're really proud of her. She sets the bar very high for women in the industry. We don't expect anything less from our female members."
Achury was raised by her grandparents. She credits her grandfather, who worked as a carpenter, for her drive.
"When I was small, he always told me, 'Claudia, if you clean bathrooms, be the best one at cleaning bathrooms,'" she said. "I always tried to follow what he said. I grew up in that environment. They always pushed me to do better. They were very strict, but they loved me."
She went on to earn the engineering degree at a Bolivian university, but the thought of leaving for the United States was always in the back of her mind.
So, at 28, she had saved enough money and moved to the Washington area. She enjoyed the time with her mother, but that ended abruptly.
Most American engineering companies and employers refused to recognize her degree from Bolivia. She wanted to stay in this country — even though the cold weather took some getting used to — and got a job working the cosmetics counter at a department store.
"I was the happiest person in the world," she said with a laugh. "I couldn't believe they were paying me $8 an hour."
On the other hand, she quickly learned that $8 per hour didn't go as far in the D.C. suburbs as it did in Bolivia. Achury also said she had difficulty answering some customer questions because she knew little English.
Yet, her persistence paid off. She took English courses and became fluent. She considered attending college but was turned off by the cost.
"I had never had a debt in my life," she said. "This was the first time I ever owed money."
She continued to work the cosmetics counter and took on extra jobs, including one as a bank teller near Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va., where a major construction project was ongoing.
Some of the workers cashed paper checks at the bank. Achury realized they were making good money. She talked to one customer who happened to be a supervisor on the project. He told her about Local 26's apprenticeship program and suggested that she apply.
Achury said she thought she did well on the entrance exam. She felt comfortable interacting with classmates and co-workers on the jobsite. Her first employer oversaw a project at Joint Base Andrews, southeast of Washington.
Still, that doesn't mean it was easy.
"I wanted to quit for a year," she said. "I would call my boyfriend and tell him, 'Today is my last day.'"
But she persisted because she knew that the apprenticeship was the only way she could be successful, she added. "After three or four months, I started to feel like I could do it. I was doing well. Everyone liked me, and they were willing to teach me."
Riddle, who was an IBEW member before moving to management, said Mona annually identifies 15 to 20 fifth-year apprentices who company officials think would be good employees once they become journeymen. Achury was on their list.
The apprentices also are asked what company they would like to work for. Achury had spent part of her apprenticeship working for Mona and enjoyed it.
She joined the company, at first working in the field under senior superintendent Jerry Watson, before being promoted to project manager earlier this year.
"She's got a lot of energy, and she's very hardworking," Riddle said. "She's ambitious. She's always on time. We have some plans for her."
Now 37, Achury doesn't see herself as a fast riser in the electrical industry. She doesn't even see herself as a role model for new Americans interested in a career in the trades or for women in the trades.
Instead, she is merely taking advantage of an opportunity presented to her.
"I came as a dreamer, like everyone else. I became a hard worker. Of course, I still have dreams, but they are dreams that I now can work toward in my future."