Union membership has been highlighted as a great path for anyone seeking equal pay and career opportunities. In honour of Black History Month, we’re sharing the story of a Black apprentice who is making the most of his talent and drive as an IBEW electrician.
Andrew John is now entering his second apprenticeship with the IBEW, and doesn’t hesitate to recommend it. “It doesn’t matter what race you are, just put your best foot forward,” he advises. “The trades are what they are. Here in Ottawa, most of the other members are white, but in 586 a brother is a brother.”
John has been a member of Local 586 since 2014. He has already worked his way up to a top tier (Level 3) network communications specialist, which involves digital network cabling, including the new power over ethernet (PoE) systems that are giving rise to smart buildings.
But in 2017, he started a whole new apprenticeship in order to enter the electrical construction and maintenance stream. This requires a new apprenticeship because of the more varied and dangerous worlds of full voltage power, wiring, and control systems for manufacturing plants, public buildings, and homes.
In Search of More Complex Challenges
“I really wanted to do this, and even took a pay cut to start over,” says John. Switching streams is more remarkable considering he is married and a father to three small children. He’s also older than many other apprentices at 34 years of age.
While he likes communications work, John was also attracted to new learning opportunities and challenges of construction and maintenance.
“The spectrum of work in this trade is just wild – there are so many different types tasks that you can’t possibly get bored,” he says. “Even all the journeymen I’ve spoken to so far have told me that they’re still learning new things all the time.”
His eventual goal is to find work that draws on both areas of expertise. “I’m really interested in smart buildings, and all the new ways that communications technology is combining with power,” he says.
“Maybe someday I’d like to be a Project Manager, but for now I’m really enjoying being in the field, learning why we do things the way we do them.”
A More Interesting, More Supported Apprenticeship
In the non-union world, apprentices are sometimes used as cheap labour, with little thought put into ensuring they get a well-rounded education. That’s not the experience that IBEW apprentices have, and John’s apprenticeship is no exception.
“All the journeymen and foremen I work with are very much invested in my education,” says John.
“My local really is a big community, and everyone really does help each other out, which I noticed especially since I’m an older apprentice. Most non-union apprentices I’ve heard about do a lot of grunt work and not a lot of learning.”
His employers at Plan Group, an ECAO contractor, also take an active interest in his education. They liked him so much as a communications technician that they asked him to stay with them for his new apprenticeship.
“The project managers here at Plan Group are also looking out for me as well, finding interesting new jobs for me to work on. For example, there was one site where seven power transformers needed to be installed, and I was assigned to assist the journeymen so I could learn. That was at a very cool facility where they build MRI machines.”
John also puts as much time as he can into additional learning on his own time. “I take all the courses and certifications at the Hall that are open to me at this stage of my apprenticeship. I can’t wait to take the Fire Alarm course, and I’m very keen to get my Registered Communications Distribution Designer certification.”
That course will give John the skills to be more actively involved in the planning side. “I like that when I look at a plan I’m given, I’ll be able to spot problems, and even propose solutions.”
Making the Most of Technical Talent
These kinds of challenges appeal to someone like John who grew up with a fascination for how things work.
“Here in Ottawa, I work with a lot of guys from the country, and it seems like in rural areas you grow up fixing your own stuff. Where I grew up in inner city Toronto, there isn’t as much of a hands-on DIY culture. But I was always very mechanical; I would take apart all kinds of things from chairs to radios to computers to fix them or just to see how they work.”
He moved to Ottawa to study psychology at Carleton University, but decided partway through the program that he would prefer something that involved technology.
His inclination towards a career that combines problem solving with hands-on work seems to run in the family. His older brother, Ricky Singh, is a member of IBEW Local 353 in Toronto.
“When I was first starting out in communications I would phone my older brother in TO who could help me out – he was always there to answer questions.”
A Culture of Quality Work and Safety
One of the things John appreciates about being a union electrician is the culture of safety, and knowing he’ll be able to go home to his family at the end of the day. “If a task is unsafe, we take a step back and figure out a way to do it safely.”
It’s a philosophy that goes hand in hand with the commitment to quality work. “We’re all on the same page – we want our work to be solid and done right. We make sure to do jobs properly, up to the IBEW standard.”
Experience as a Black Electrician
“I’ve had a really great experience, since 2014 I’ve had almost no issues. The commercial construction industry in Ottawa is predominantly white. In my experience most relationships are as simple as competency, honesty, respect, and humor.” says John.
But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that John has never experienced any pressure as one of the few black members of a predominantly white construction local.
He jokes, “Sometimes I feel like I’m like an official representative, and I can’t do anything wrong as the only black guy on the site. Like if I’m late one day, someone will think, ‘black guys are late’!”
Enjoying Union Culture
John is also deeply involved with his union culture. “I go to all the Christmas parties, barbecues, and I go to most of the meetings as well,” he says. “I really like talking to the older guys, and learn what it means to be a brother, not just a member. Sitting down and talking with them – that’s where you really learn.”
John clearly appreciates the history of the union. “Most of us younger guys never had to go on strike, and have never had to worry about safety procedures. All of that, the older generations had to struggle to get.”
He’s also keen to pay if forward. “The last generation, the brotherhood means a lot to them, and I want it to mean just as much in 20 years. I’d also like to see our local grow in market share for our area – we still have a lot to do.”