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Woman at Work: Electrical Apprentice Isis Harris

What made you start your career in the trades?
I started in the construction trades determined to better the lives of my children. That decision has affected my life in extraordinary ways. Joining the union is what kept me pushing forward. I needed a career that made me feel capable, strong, financially independent and totally self-sufficient. I needed to be stimulated intellectually, and wanted flexibility in my job duties as well as physical mobility during my day. I found all of that in the Electrical Apprenticeship with NECA/IBEW Local 48 (National Electrical Contractors Association/International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and haven't looked back since.

Isis Harris

Tell us about your training and apprenticeship. 
I completed the Constructing Hope pre-apprenticeship program in Northeast Portland. That program realistically prepared me to pursue a career in the trades. I left Constructing Hope with five trade-related certifications, exposure to several different trades, blueprint reading experience, completed carpentry projects, and a portfolio complete with a letter of recommendation to put me in position to apply for apprenticeship.

Constructing Hope Adult Apprentice Programs
Snapshots from Constructing Hope’s adult construction training.
I'm currently 4+ years into a 5 year apprenticeship with two terms of school and 600+ more hours to go until completion. The NECA-IBEW apprenticeship incorporates on-the-job training with college-level instruction. Between pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship, I feel that I'll be prepared for a lifelong career in the electrical trades once I journey out.
What does a day in your work life look like?
A day in my work life can look a number of ways depending on the work site and scope of the job being completed. It generally begins at 6am, arriving 15 minutes early to meet up at the laydown area (the team’s work/tool storage area). Stretching and flexing is integral to prepare for the physical aspect of my days.

Dovetail Woman at Work electrical apprentice Isis Harris operating a saw in a workshop.

Conduit installation, device layout/rough in, electrical system updates, wire pulls, device terminations, panel terminations, distribution component installs, underground electrical piping are all duties that could be assigned to me during the course of a day. 

At the beginning of each day, my journeyman or foreman lays out that day’s job scope. I'm a ninth-term apprentice in a ten-term apprenticeship, so after layout, I generally start on the task alone, if only one person is needed. If the job requires more than one person, we coordinate with a team involving however many folks the task calls for. 

During this phase, we examine the blueprints and the area where the work will take place to make note of any obstacles that may complicate the job at hand. Materials and tools are gathered and taken to the area work will be completed. 

We take necessary measurements prior to bending or cutting pipe, and before drilling into existing walls or studs. At the end of the day, the work area is cleaned, and tools and remaining materials are returned to their storage areas. Every team member is accounted for, and the foreman is usually the last field worker to leave the worksite.

What do you want people to know about being a woman in the trades?
Being a woman working in my field gives me a sense of pride in my accomplishments and those of other women I encounter on work sites. Being a woman working in the field means being a trailblazer for other women because the more we normalize seeing women working in the skilled trades, the more it’s possible other women and young girls are encouraged to apply themselves to a career in construction. Women who fought to be respected as skilled trade workers knocked down those doors for us, so it's a personal responsibility for me to show up and do my best.

Isis kneeling on one knee, wearing the Thompson Shirt Jac

Who were the women who helped in your journey to journeying?
Pat Daniels, Executive Director of Constructing Hope, was the first woman in the industry to really encourage me to pursue a career in the electrical trade. She was realistic, yet compassionate, stern but supportive. She was hands-on with the students at Constructing Hope and made us all feel "seen" and heard. She took an interest in our development and that made me want to work harder. 

Donna Hammond, a Business Rep with IBEW Local 48, was integral to my involvement with the union hall. She showed me that membership of a union hall was more than paying dues but more akin to joining a family of like-minded, hardworking, dedicated people. She educated me, encouraged me, and advised me in professional and personal matters.

Kelly Kupcak, Director of Oregon Tradeswomen, has been instrumental in my leadership development. OT has sponsored my attendance to conferences such as "Women Build Nations" and OT's own Tradeswomen Leadership Institute. Kelly personally encouraged me to apply for a position on the Oregon Tradeswomen Board of Directors. She has continually motivated me to become a well rounded, and well educated tradeswoman. OT has been a conduit in connecting me to different organizations and causes that have help me become a better advocate and more educated on a plethora of social justice issues. As a member of the Board of Directors, and the Co-Chair of the Board's Equity and Inclusion Committee, I've been given the opportunity to build organic relationships, and hone my leadership ability all while serving an organization that fights for equitable conditions for women within the construction industry.

Pat, Donna, and Kelly have treated me with kindness and consideration, and been there for me during some of my most difficult moments, as well as the most uplifting.

What's the biggest challenge you have faced on the jobsite?
Racial and sexual disparities in construction have been the biggest challenges I've encountered. I've been blessed to work with some great groups of people with a variety of contractors, but I've also experienced the underbelly. Maintaining my composure while also being assertive in different situations has strengthened me, but also taken a toll. 

It is my hope that one day divisive behavior by select individuals on work sites will become extinct. Until then I will continue to advocate for myself and others in instances of ignorance.

How do you encourage other women to start doing what you do?
I try to lead by example. I've gone into correctional facilities and shared with women the opportunities that construction offers, even to someone with a blemished past, like myself. I've gone to alternative schools and community groups to sing the praises of what my career has done for my life. 

I am honest and forthright in my discussions on social media when I post or message about my field. I've spoken to classes at Oregon Tradeswomen and Constructing Hope to answer questions of students thinking of pursuing the electrical trades. I try to make myself accessible and available to anyone who has questions about my field, but I do campaign heavily for women to take a chance on themselves and come to work in construction.

Tradeswomen Britt Smyton, Eleni Vournas and Isis Harris crack up on the set of our Fall '20 photo shoot.

Tradeswomen Britt Smyton, Eleni Vournas and Isis Harris crack up on the set of our Fall '20 photo shoot (waaaay pre-COVID)

If you could give your 20-year-old-self advice, what would it be?
Complete Youth Builders!!! When I was a teenager, I went to a program called Portland Youth Builders, which is a pre-apprenticeship program for youth. We helped build a house in Northeast Portland. It was my first experience with construction and due to the program being new and still solidifying its structure, I just didn't understand how it made sense for a teenage mother of two. I didn't have the guidance or patience I did 5 years ago when I started this journey. If I'd known at 20 what I know now, I would have finished that program and launched my career a lot sooner.

What are the top five things that are always in your pockets?
Wire strippers, Lineman pliers, side cutters, an 11-in-1 screwdriver and a measuring tape.

What does workwear designed for women mean to you?
Workwear designed by women makes me feel valid, permanent, and appreciated in the workforce. The needs of women working in physically demanding fields have been looked over in the clothing arena for quite some time. 

Dovetail Workwear takes input from women to design clothes that are functional, stylish, and durable, and utilizes real women working in the field for focus groups and advertisements. I feel like I look respectable and professional in my Dovetail gear and the flexibility and breathability of the materials allow me to work comfortably and efficiently.

What are you doing when you’re not working hard?

I do some volunteering/advocacy work, although I've had to step back from some commitments due to concentrating on raising my two-year-old son. I'm currently an Oregon Tradeswomen board member and the co-chair of their equity and inclusion committee. Previously, I served as the vice president of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus and a member of the Women's Justice Advisory Committee.

Do you have any special projects or cool things you want people to check out?
I would definitely encourage anyone interested in the construction industry to research Constructing Hope, Oregon Tradeswomen, and Portland Youth Builders. These 3 programs are integral in uplifting women, at risk youth, veterans, low income individuals and individuals with justice challenges in their past. 

Follow Isis on Instagram. Isis’s pronouns are she and her.

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