Women Are Re-wiring the Electrical Industry
From low to high voltage electricians to leaders of large public utility companies, the electrical industry literally powers our daily lives. And while the industry has been historically male dominated, more and more women are finding their place in the field.
According to the National Science Foundation, women represent half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, yet only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce is female. Even more surprising is that of the more than 660,000 electricians across the U.S. workforce, only 1.5 percent is female.
For the women working in the electrical industry, no matter the role, they share one common belief: There is a place for women in the field.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
Meet Andrea Tarpenning, an electrician and low voltage installer at Foster Electrical a Premier Company in Rochester. A former correctional officer of 16 years, she pursued her interest in the electrical field after a lifetime of being curious about how things work. “When I was a kid I was always interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. I wanted to know how and why things work the way they do,” she says.
Tarpenning made the switch to the field a few years ago, first hired as an apprentice at Ryan Electric. Today, she works on low voltage systems, which can include anything from radio systems to phone systems.
She says the work is fun, rewarding and always changing—a perk which keeps the job interesting.
When asked what encouragement she has for other women looking into this field, she says, “Just go for it. I’ve met incredible people through this work, both men and women. If this is a job you’re interested in and want to try, the only thing that’s stopping you is you.”
Patty Hanson is a 22-year veteran of Rochester Public Utilities. After starting at RPU as a customer service representative, her passion grew, leading her to her career as RPU’s manager of marketing and energy services.
“Throughout this industry there are women who are working as engineers, electricians and CEOs. Women have just as much opportunity as men to succeed in this field. We just need to help more women realize this is interesting work and there are opportunities here,” Hanson says. She explains that her job at RPU is always changing, and the variety is what keeps things interesting and has paved the way for opportunity.
“Leadership is all about being open to change and taking on new things,” Hanson shares. “Don’t be frightened of the unknown. If you don’t know, go find out.” She says that her success at work can be attributed to a spirit of learning. That attitude, she believes, is the key to moving up in the field and becoming the most qualified candidate.
LEADING THE CHARGE
A spirit of learning is something Elaine Garry knows well. Garry was hired as the CEO of People’s Energy Co-op in Oronoco in 2007.
With a lifelong passion for math and science, Garry studied engineering in college, later becoming a civil engineer. Over time, she sat in on meetings and committed to learning as much as she could about the business side of the electrical field—whether it was project management, marketing or finance. She led a rural energy cooperative in North Dakota before joining People’s Energy Co-op.
“Women might not choose this field because it doesn’t seem as exciting as other opportunities,” Garry says. “I would encourage young women to take a good look at this industry. This field will not only challenge you, but it keeps you informed on what’s going on, provides continuing education opportunities and pays well.”
INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF ELECTRICAL WORKERS (IBEW)
According to Chad Katzung, business manager for IBEW 343, the local electrical union, it’s a great time for women to join the electrical field, especially as Destination Medical Center (DMC) projects continue to ramp up. According to Katzung, companies contracted to work on DMC projects have diversity and gender requirements they must fulfill in order to be awarded a project.
To help women find their passion in this field, Katzung says that the union has a robust training facility and a program that will help equip women who want to join the electrical industry with both a job and an education. In the program, participants are placed in an apprenticeship while obtaining all required education, allowing them to walk into a paying job with benefits, a perk that the union hopes will bring more females into the field. Over the 5-year period, women in the program will have received all the education and work experience needed to become a journeyman electrician, a job with a starting salary at $60,000.
The Building Utilities Mechanics program at Rochester Community and Technical College is a two-year vocational training program that teaches topics such as electrical studies, boiler operations and HVAC. According to Thomas Soltau, a professor with the BUM program, there have only been three women in the program over the last two decades.
RCTC also offers an Associate in Science degree with options designed specifically for transfer to Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system or transfer to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Leadership and business degrees are available through local colleges and universities to advance their careers right here in Rochester.
For women looking for a fulfilling career, the women of the electrical industry encourage them to explore the field’s rewarding work—work that is always changing, is different every day and presents opportunities ranging from technical roles all the way up to executive leadership.
Elaine Garry suggests, “Find a mentor or shadow someone in the field. Learn more about this industry, because it’s exciting work and there are opportunities for women to succeed.”
Tori Utley is a Rochester-based writer and entrepreneur.