“The trades may be a little rough around the edges,” says apprentice powerline maintainer Allison Wood. “But I love that it’s never the same day twice.”
Wood, now a second-term apprentice with IBEW Local 636 in Niagara, had a lot of options when she graduated high school. With a lot of math and science courses under her belt and a track record of 80s and 90s in her classes, she was considering becoming a doctor.
What changed her mind? “I didn’t want to sit in a classroom for years, just racking up debt. I was also really enjoying my technical classes, and decided I like working with my hands just as much as I like mental stimulation.”
Dominique Rivet, also an apprentice with IBEW Local 636, was initially was looking at becoming an electrical engineer. “After completing a semester I realized I was much more interested in building and troubleshooting the circuits than designing them,” she says. “I did a great co-op placement with an engineering firm, but there was no field work.”
Rivet is an apprentice power station electrician with Hydro Ottawa, and their second female in the role. Prior to that, she was Hydro Ottawa’s first female apprentice metering technician.
She’s very happy with her choice and her path. “For a long time it’s been my goal to get into a utility company. Everything here is great, and the team here really makes me feel included. Once I have my license and get more experience, my goal is to get a tech position here, doing protection and control of the lines.”
Finding Their Dream Jobs
“A few years ago, I saw a video showing a linesman working high up on a pole, and I just thought that what he was doing was so cool,” says Wood. That video became the inspiration to her career path.
Wood had started on an apprenticeship doing construction and maintenance electrical work. But as a petite female, her supervisors felt she wasn’t physically strong enough to do the job. She lost her position, but that didn’t stop Wood from pursuing her dream.
“I started working with a personal trainer,” she says. “Some of the tools an electrician uses can be heavy, and you do need to have the hand strength to use things like hand crimps. I worked hard and developed the upper body strength I needed.”
It was at that point that she saw the video that inspired her change direction. She applied to Niagara Peninsula Energy as an apprentice Powerline Maintainer and is working through her probationary year as a member of IBEW.
Rivet’s journey to her power station work was less direct. “I took a bit of a longer route and started by getting my instrumentation and control engineering diploma, followed afterwards by my electrical engineering technologist diploma.”
While she notes her job is physically demanding, Rivet didn’t have any trouble with the physical requirements. “I play hockey and I box, so I found it challenging but very doable.”
Rivet cites another key quality she feels is needed to be a success in her field. “Personally I think a good attitude is very important in being an exceptional electrician. I believe someone who comes to work optimistic and happy is more prone to working safe. Being more involved in the day to day business means they will learn more about the trade.”
Loving the Work
Since she signed on with Niagara Penninsula Energy, Wood has attended several rounds of in-class instruction and has assisted journeymen with restoring power to homes and businesses after storms and other incidents. After one storm, she had her first taste of some of the long hours powerline workers sometimes face with a 7 AM to 11 PM shift.
For Wood, however, it’s all a part of a job she loves. “In school I’ve been climbing 65’ poles, practicing pole-top rescue, stringing wires and changing transformers.” She clearly can’t wait until she’s able to do these tasks in the field.
She also likes the work she’s currently doing, under the careful supervision of the journeymen on her team. “This week a car crash resulted in a pole being snapped in two. The only thing holding up the top was the communications cable. Once power to the pole was disconnected, we went in, stripped off all the overhead lines. When the new pole was put in place, we reconnected everything. It was a basic pole, so the whole thing took about four hours. It can take longer for more complicated poles.”
She really likes the training aspect of her apprenticeship as well as the overall atmosphere. “All the guys are really helpful. If you’ve got a problem they’ll help you work through it, asking you questions so that you learn to step back, reassess, and go at the problem from a different angle. It’s very logical, and no one shoots you down or tells you ‘that’s a stupid question’. They’re very keen on helping you through the learning process, explaining why we use certain materials or processes.”
While Rivet won’t be climbing hydro poles, she is learning to do critical work that keeps the power flowing throughout the city of Ottawa.
“Right now I’m on a maintenance crew, and we go through each cell in a station and calibrate and test the relays, breakers, switch and other parts, and perform any necessary repairs to all the cell equipment.”
She notes that she’ll be doing something different fairly soon. “Hydro Ottawa is pretty good for rotating their apprentices through all the different aspects of the job. After maintenance, I should be joining a capital crew which involves building and commissioning new stations.”
Rivet has also seen her share of repair work due to storms, like the one that hit Ottawa in spring 2018.
“The power was out all over the city and it was while I was on the inspection crew. We were asked to walk some of the lines to find a fault since all of the powerline technicians were needed to repair the numerous lines that were down. We eventually found the fault – it was a very big maple tree that was leaning up across two phases. We made the area safe and ensured no one from the public would go near the line or the tree, and waited for a line crew to come to do the repair.”
Challenges and Rewards
Do they find there are any big challenges she faces as a woman in the electrical power trades?
“I’ve been pretty fortunate. So far all the guys are pretty good for making me feel part of the group,” says Rivet. “I guess the biggest challenge I have is finding bathrooms while I’m out on the road, since it’s not as easy for me as it is for the guys!” she laughs.
“That, and finding work gloves in size small,” says Wood.
As it’s not yet a common sight to see a woman on a powerline crew, Wood does get a surprised reaction sometimes from members of the public. “But nothing mean,” she says. “Just light-hearted jokes. Once someone saw me with the guys and said ‘there’s a rose between the thorns’! That kind of thing.”
Rivet agrees. “I think the nicest comment I have ever received happened when I was going home from work. I was in the elevator with a mother and her two children, and the little girl just thought I was the coolest person ever. She was flooding me with all sorts of questions.”
Peer Support Helps Along the Way
As part of the small percentage of female power supply electricians, these young women are in a unique situation.
Thankfully they can connect with other women in the trades through Women of Powerline Technicians. Women of PLT is a volunteer based organization that hosts networking events, field trips, 24/7 online accessible peer group, no cost mentoring, career postings and more. They are able to provide these activities thanks to the generous support of Oakville Hydro.
“Lana (Norton, Women of PLT’s founder) is a coworker of mine and she’s been great for providing me with information regarding different events for women in the trade,” says Rivet. “Being a member has helped me be in contact with other women in a similar trade.”
For her part, Wood is also becoming a mentor with the group. “There’s a girl who just started, and I’ve been helping her with tips, and even giving her some old textbooks.”
Proving that Anything is Possible
What would these apprentices say to other young people, especially young women, about going for their trade?
“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” says Rivet. “It’s also important to never give up even if things don’t work out the way you’d like them to the first time around.”