In 2016, the IBEW’s International Convention unanimously passed Resolution 42, urging members not only to work on bringing more women into the union’s trades but also to ensure that, once they’re in, they get the proper mentorship and support they need to stay on the job.
Ever since, locals all over North America have worked hard to successfully heed that convention’s call, and in few places is that more evident than in Cincinnati, where Local 212 Business Manager Rick Fischer proudly reports that a growing percentage of members are women.
Fischer credits his local’s success partly to the abundance of electrical work in his jurisdiction. But a bigger success story, he said, is how the efforts of Local 212’s Women’s Committee have brought in the new members needed to help capture that work for the IBEW.
“We have a very active Women’s Committee,” said Fischer, adding that it had just celebrated its second anniversary. “They’re very strong.”
As a result, women electricians in Cincinnati-area workplaces are growing rapidly, Fischer said, and greater representation and gender equity is making Local 212 and the entire IBEW stronger.
“Women in our local have been doing a variety of work,” said Women’s Committee chair Mary Jo Kenter, a fourth-year Local 212 apprentice. Jobs for women, she said, range from heavy industrial sites like the local Nucor steel plant, to the ever-increasing demand for commercial, residential and utility-scale solar installations.
But shattering outdated sex-based stereotypes about electrical workers doesn’t happen overnight, said Kenter, and that’s why the committee’s focus is not just on bringing women into the trade but also on helping them stay in it. So far, it’s been working, she said.
“Drop-outs are few among women,” Kenter said, noting that when they do happen, sometimes it’s because a woman might simply decide that an electrical career is not the right fit for her. In other cases, there might be personal reasons that leave open the door to a possible return.
For the latter, a light touch, such as regular but occasional check-ins, can make a huge difference, Kenter said: “I figure if I am pushing them too much, it might push them away.”
Contact from committee members can come in a variety of forms, Kenter said, appropriate to the level of need. “We offer a mentorship program that lets us reach out to other sisters,” via phone calls, text messages, and Facebook posts, she said.
In-person contact always works, too. For several years Women’s Committee members have staffed an information booth at Cincinnati’s annual Labor Day picnic. Kenter said that sort of public, personal contact helps committee members focus on reaching an extensive cross-section of women.
If Kenter sounds motivated, she comes to it honestly, she said. “I’m the daughter of a union coal miner,” she said, “and before this, I worked for years for a union offset printer shop.”
Her husband, Scott, is also a Local 212 journeyman wireman with more than 30 years of experience and a business agent at the local. With his enthusiastic encouragement, Mary Jo successfully applied for an apprenticeship, first into the local’s teledata program before setting her sights on electrical work.
Kenter recognizes that what might have worked to bring her into the IBEW, and keep her here, might not be right for every union sister. She also understands that achieving some elusive “critical mass” of women members is not going to happen immediately. “This year, we’ve brought in six female apprentices,” she said. “The year before, it was two.”
Even so, the committee’s efforts are having a decidedly positive effect, Kenter said. “What I hear from a lot of our fellow members is that what women electrical workers do is very thorough, with real craftsmanship,” Kenter said. “And our brothers have been good to us, standing up for us.”
Women also have made noticeable strides on the signatory contractor side of the business, Fischer said, pointing to longtime partner Paff Electric, a signatory contractor with Local 212 since it opened for business in 1986.
Now owned by Monica Williams, the small staff of electrical workers at Paff has handled an abundance of commercial and residential projects, plus a lot of LED retrofit installations in many of the Cincinnati archdiocese’s churches. Her husband, Nick, also is an electrician with Local 212.
“Paff is a good fit for us,” Fischer said, “and Monica takes great care of us 212’ers.”
Williams publicly praises Local 212 on her company’s website: “We’ve been able to sustain healthy growth over the past five years due to our skilled electricians and management, attention to our customer needs and my hands-on approach as an owner, just to name a few.
“We’re slammed,” she said, noting that one of Paff’s biggest projects recently has been Solarize Cincy, a co-op pilot project that aims to get 5-14kW rooftop photovoltaic arrays installed on nearly 150 households in the city. Paff is also working on a similar Solarize project in suburban Silverton. More recently, Paff has been trying to diversify into installing EV charging stations. “They’re near and dear to my heart,” Williams said, “a real opportunity for us to grow.”