By Joan Runnheim Olson
The following interview is with Julie Selton, a Master Electrician of 27 years, owner of The Universe Electric Service, LLC, and an electrical technology instructor at St. Paul College in St. Paul, Minnesota for 12 years. Julie is a good role model for both female and male students by breaking down gender stereotypes as to what is considered "women's work."
Were you encouraged to pursue work in a male-dominated field? Yes, I grew up in a family where we didn't hire out for home maintenance and remodeling. The theme was, "You can do it. You can build it." Women weren't just cooking and cleaning. My immediate and extended family (aunts included) participated in their own home improvements. My mother was a trail-blazer as one of the first female letter carriers in the 1960's. Later I met my future husband, a sheet metal worker, who exposed me to the trades and encouraged me to pursue a job in the trades.
How did you get started in your career? While in junior and senior high, I took accelerated math and science classes. In the early 1980's I enrolled as a preapprentice at a technical college in Minnesota where I received my diploma as an electrician. In 1986, I earned my license as a journeyman electrician and went on to earn my Master Electrician license. I worked for several companies as an electrician.
In 2004, I started my own business, The Universe Electric Service, LLC, which was created to provide quality electrical services to homeowners and businesses with a niche of high-end remodeling. I have several part-time electricians and a part-time book keeper. In the beginning, I did most of the work myself and now I am phasing out of the hands on and concentrating on administration duties, sales and training. I recently became a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer, and I now have the premier certification to install environmentally-friendly solar panels on residential homes.
What challenges have you encountered working in a non-traditional career, and how did you overcome them? Well, the first challenge was heights. I didn't realize that I would be working up high on a ladder at times. That wasn't mentioned in school. With time I have become comfortable with heights.
Initially, as a female, I thought the older male workers would be difficult to work with, but I found them to be very accepting of me. I found that I have gotten along well with most everyone throughout my career. I found that the folks I didn't get along with were the same folks that the other guys didn't get along with either.
I did have a challenge with my first boss who thought I should be taking care of his office paperwork. I clarified what my job was as an electrician and needed to remind him of that several times. Finally, after he asked one too many times, I told him, "My attorney will be calling you." That was the last time he asked me to do HIS paperwork.
What's the salary range? An apprentice electrician earns about $30K/year. A journeyman with overtime can earn up to $80K+ year. As an electrical technology teacher, the salary is similar to that of a journeyman without overtime. For a business owner, the salary is unlimited.
How do you use math, science, and computer skills in your job? As an electrician, I use math a lot for circuit sizing and dimensioning. I use physics in mechanical assembly. I don't use computer skills in my work as an electrician. As a teacher, master electrician and business owner, I do use math and computer skills for administrative tasks extensively.
How did you move up in your career? I was able to move up in my career by being excited about the challenge, and setting and achieving my goals. Initially, one of the driving forces behind becoming an electrician was to support my horse hobby. At times I worked overtime to support my budget. Eventually, I became bored in the field and decided to go into teaching. More recently, I purchased a new condo and decided to launch my own business to increase my earnings to afford it.
What do you enjoy most about working in a non-traditional career? I enjoy innovation, and in my field, there are changes often, e.g., changes in codes, materials, and the way we use electricity. New parts are being created every day to make our job easier. I enjoy going to different places and meeting different people. And, I'm excited about being a pioneer of sorts. I was one of the first female journeyman electricians to start my own business in Minnesota and one of the first female electrical technology instructors in my state.
What are you teaching in the electrical technology program? I am currently teaching the following classes: introduction to national electrical code, blueprint reading, direct circuit analysis, alternating current analysis, alternating current motors, and trade calculations.
How many female students are typically enrolled in this program each semester? Typically there is only one female at the most enrolled each semester. For four straight years during my tenure, there were no females enrolled.
To what do you attribute the low number of females in your program? One reason I think there are so few females in our program is the general lack of awareness females have of non-traditional career options and the job skills that are needed to be an electrician. The females are often provided career guidance by someone with a four-year degree path that has had no exposure to non-traditional careers.
Another detriment is the stereotypical images that go along with the trades, for example, that all trades people go to the bars and drink after work. Another stereotype is that trades people aren't well-educated, where in fact; apprentices have a minimum of five years of education to reach journey-level status and require continuing education after that.
What advice would you give females who may be considering a non-traditional career? Engage in a self-discovery process. Do some soul searching to identify your true likes and dislikes along with your strengths and weaknesses. Identify your interests. Explore different career options. Try out new things. Dare to dream! Also, have a sense of humor and don't take things personally.