Member Spotlight: Michelle Thomas, IBEW Local 48 Journeyman

Member Spotlight: Michelle Thomas, IBEW Local 48 Journeyman

Welcome to this edition of our Member Spotlight, where we celebrate the remarkable contributions of our members to theirMichelle Thomas, IBEW Local 48 Journeyman. professions. Today, we are thrilled to introduce Michelle Thomas, a figure whose expertise extends well beyond the realm of electrical work. As a distinguished member of Sisters in Solidarity, Michelle has become a symbol of strength and unity, advocating for women’s presence and progress in trade professions.

In sharing Michelle’s journey, we aim to highlight the various aspects of her career, her influential role in mentoring apprentices, and the significant impact of her endeavors. Dive into the inspiring narrative of Michelle Thomas, a trailblazer whose commitment and accomplishments pave the way for the next wave of those seeking employment in the trades.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the electrical industry?

Before I started working in the electrical trade, I was working in a warehouse. I was recently divorced and had been left with basically nothing. At the warehouse, I drove a forklift in a negative 12-degree cooler and stacked 85-pound boxes of frozen beef onto a pallet. Negative 12 degrees is painful by the way! I was miserable, the work was backbreaking and the pay was very little. 

I have a friend who is a proud 3rd generation union carpenter, and he came to me and said “You know, the electrical trade is a really good trade, my boss’s daughter just started her apprenticeship, are you good at math?” I had never considered the trades, and I was inspired that he knew a woman younger than me (28 at the time) who was out there doing that kind of work. He told me to go for it, so I did. 

So my journey began, I took the aptitude test and I didn’t pass it, which surprised me, math was always ‘My thing.’ As I stood at the turning point of my life, 28 years old, with no college education, and no financial resources—I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t going to give up, I was going to try again. But there is a six-month waiting period before you can retake the aptitude test. However, I discovered a pre-apprenticeship program and decided to apply. 

This program was specifically designed for women, minorities, and veterans. This is where I got my shot. I was chosen for the program!   This was a 10-week program that included a lot of first-term material, OSHA 10, Boot Camp, and was held at the IBEW training center. What I learned about my classmates was that they had all attempted the aptitude test previously and hadn’t passed, so it was cool to be around people who had experienced the same thing I had. In the program, we practiced for the aptitude test and would retest at the end. I’m happy to say I passed it and started my apprenticeship in August 2017. 

How did you manage apprenticeship training and having to work simultaneously?

How did I survive that?  I was already in a really hard spot in life, but I am a survivor. I would bartend for my mother’s business in the evenings after school and on the weekends. I did in-home care for an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s who paid in 24-hour shifts and cleaned houses. I also sold the diamond out of my old wedding ring, sold my quad, donated plasma, and signed up for food benefits. At the time I lived out of town (Longview, WA), it was cheaper but 45 minutes from anything. One of my pre-apprenticeship friends lived out by me so we carpooled to the training center in Portland, cutting my gas bill in half. 

What changed when you became an apprentice?Michelle walking her dog and fishing during the weekend.

When I got in, the pay was $16.17 an hour, which wasn’t much more than what the warehouse paid me ($15.50). But the first thing I did was finance a car, my trusty Wrangler wasn’t the right rig to drive long distances and get the fuel mileage I needed. To help with the added expense I drove Uber almost every day during my drive from Portland back to Longview.

What was your first day on the job like?

I had never been on a job site before so there was a lot of mystery and a lot of fear. Plus, there was the added stress of not showing up late and doing as I’m told—and even understanding what I’m being told. 

On my first day, I got there super early just so I didn’t get stuck in traffic and I just sat in my car. My first job site wasn’t a very good fit for me. They had been cycling through apprentices and already laid off several. I’m sure they wanted a later-term apprentice than what they got. 

So, it’s my first day as an apprentice, my first day on a job site, and I’m the only woman. They told me to do these electrical rough-ins, but I didn’t know what that was. I needed more hands-on instruction. On this site, the journeymen are trying to figure out how much experience you had (none). I’m just glad I don’t have to go through that again! 

Do you currently work in the field as well as the training center? 

Yep, I do both. Right now I’m working at the Holgate Library in Multnomah County as the lead lighting electrician. I’m doing the full lighting package and I have two first-term apprentices. I also do a lot of volunteering with the training center. This has changed my life in so many ways. 

At a minimum, I can give back and share information about these opportunities with other people. That’s where my passion lies, in recruiting and mentoring people who are struggling. I’m able to help people get in the trade by guiding them through all the steps that are required. Being a mentor to apprentices who are struggling is incredibly important to me. 

What’s your approach to training apprentices?Michelle at a NECA-IBEW Local 48 Training Center event.

When I’m building a relationship with an apprentice, I make it clear from the start that we’re in this together, like partners. I’ll say to them, “We’re buddies, right? So, if I spot something unsafe, I’m going to step in to protect you, and I expect you to do the same for me.” It’s about creating a partnership where we look out for each other while we work on projects. On top of that, I admit I tend to give them a little special treatment. After all, they’re my apprentice, my protege, and I feel it’s important to take care of them and make sure they’re treated well. 

“If anyone’s struggling, feels unsafe, or that they’re not being treated fairly, I’m the first to defend them. It’s a dangerous job and  I want them to speak up for themselves and feel safe.”

My expectations for first-term apprentices are that they watch what I do and replicate it, always pay attention to the details, and start to anticipate the next steps in our work. I don’t assume they come with a lot of knowledge, but once I teach them something, I expect them to grasp it, remember it, and be able to do it. I emphasize the importance of asking questions. I make it clear: if you’re uncertain about how to do something, just ask. I’d rather explain it to make sure the job is done right the first time. If anyone’s struggling, feels unsafe, or that they’re not being treated fairly, I’m the first to defend them. I’m setting the example for how the rest of their apprenticeship should go. It’s a dangerous job and I want them to speak up for themselves and feel safe. 

What’s been your experience with Sisters in Solidarity? 

I first got involved in 2023 as a journeyman and I wish I would have done it sooner! From the very beginning of my apprenticeship, I have been a volunteer, an ambassador, and a mentor. I’ve helped two dozen people join the trade and have been volunteering to talk to high schools for the seven years I’ve been with IBEW Local 48. I know these commitments helped me get selected to join the Sisters in Solidarity sponsored trip to the 2023 Tradeswomen Build Nations Conference in Washington D.C.—and it changed everything. 

“It’s knowing that there are other girls out there facing similar challenges, with hands like mine, that motivates me to keep pushing forward, especially as someone who’s been underestimated.”

As a woman, it’s difficult to build friendships in the trades because there are just more men and the experiences women have are unique. Now, I probably have a dozen friends, like real friends. They’re true friendships. They’ll ask how my dog’s doing or if I want to hang out on Saturday. And, this all happened three or four months ago after seven years in the trade. Now I’m the Spokesperson for the Event Committee in the Sisters group.

How do you think the gap in communication between women and men in the trades can be closed?Michelle with other members of IBEW Local 48.

At Sisters in Solidarity, we have a game plan. We’re rewriting some of the rules and application processes to get men more involved in events and things, as minorities and women seem to be the only ones with specific events. In the more recent years, there have been great resources for women and minorities, but men are 90% of our membership. Even though we say they’re welcome, they might not feel that way. We want them involved. Frankly, it’d be fun. Plus, they would learn about what it’s like to be a girl in the trades. 

I’ve found that sharing personal stories, whether it’s with men or women, shows how much we have in common. We’ve all gone through tough times and worked incredibly hard to get where we’re at. I’ve shared my story a few times and the guys were like, “Oh, I didn’t know you went through all that.” It helped us bond because they’ve been through struggles as well. Sharing stories changes hearts. Right now we’re starting a mentor program that I’m helping pilot, so men can be a part of all the progress and not feel they have to fit into a specific category to be a part of the community. 

What are your plans for the future?Member Spotlight: Michelle Thomas, IBEW Local 48 Journeyman

Right now, I’m a year and a half into my five-year plan and I want to continue working in the field so I can continue learning. So whether that looks like me being a journeyman or a foreman, I want to work with the tools more and get familiar with more systems. And there’s a lot you can learn in this trade. Whether you’re working at a mill or you’re building a big commercial kitchen, you have to have the knowledge and skill set. 

My goal is to work another three and a half years in the field before I take a real solid foreman position or as an instructor or recruiter. I had a great conversation with my foreman this week. I had asked him if Mill Plain Electric had any female foreman. He replied, “Do you want to be a foreman?” I said, yes, and he’s willing to help me get there. I encourage other females to have these conversations and think ahead. An electrical license can get you all kinds of fulfilling career opportunities. We will all be aging in the trade and it’s important to understand the biology of an older woman and keep your body healthy and moving.

Let’s go back to that warehouse job we first talked about. It’s -12 degrees, you’re lifting 85 pounds over your head daily, and you’re completely on your own. If there’s one thing you could say to yourself back then, what would it be? 

Don’t give up. Just don’t give up. It does get better. This is not going to last forever and all of your hard work is going to pay off.

Everything I went through led me to where I am today. The divorce, working four jobs in one week and still being broke, selling my stuff to pay bills, and the struggles gave me the confidence to take myself where I wanted to go. It happened when it needed to happen and I know I didn’t waste time. Who knows, if I had the same opportunity at 18 years old, I might have wasted it. It’s a beautiful thing that I’ve gotten to where I’m at.

“Don’t give up. Just don’t give up. It does get better. This is not going to last forever and all of your hard work is going to pay off. “

I’m now 35 years old, engaged, gainfully employed making $60.50 an hour as a Journeyman Electrician, own my own home, and have all the resources of a strong union at my fingertips. What’s more, I get to help others succeed. It’s the absolute all-time high for me. 

About the NECA/IBEW Local 48 Partnership 

The partnership between the Oregon-Columbia Chapter of NECA and IBEW Local 48 is driving the electrical industry forward, emphasizing integrity, quality, safety, and professional expertise. For information on becoming a member, please visit our membership page.