Kelly Kienleitner, My First Electrical Mentor

I met Kelly when I walked into my first year electrical school class room.  She was the teacher, to my relief.  I was the only other female in the class, and it gave me hope that I wouldn’t experience any of the sexism I was so afraid of going into trades, if the person in charge was also female.  Or at least that I would be able to cope, because if she had done it so could I.  Now here I find myself a decade later interviewing my first year teacher!

Me: Hi Kelly! How would you introduce yourself?

Kelly the Motor Winder

Kelly: Im Kelly Kienleitner, Red Seal motor winder and Red Seal electrician. Passionate believer in the trades and champion for women and apprentices everywhere. That’s who I am.

ME: Kelly, was it that you were a single mom when you decided to get started in the trades?

Kelly: No, I was working for an insurance company when I got pregnant. After Gordon was born I didn’t want to go back to that job because I realized it would take my entire income to pay for daycare. So I opened a daycare, and did that until Gordie was almost 4.  It feels like so long ago, and when I think about that black hole I was in, how stuck I was, my emotionally abusive marriage falling apart, no idea how I was going to feed my kid.  No skills, I was 35. Then I found trades!

I went to the Try A Trade at BCIT, in 1994/1995.  It was the first one they ever did.12 trades in 12 nights in trades training, it was really fun! I met some really butch strong women, and although I thought I was tough, they made me feel like a wuss!  I also did some high school upgrading.

I think we end up where we end up because we need lessons before we get there.

ME: Truth!

Kelly: Back then BCHydro had a school called electrical industry training school.  So i went there to upgrade my math and physics. I did really poorly in high school but blasted through the upgrades and did really well.

ME: How did you choose electrical?

Kelly: I took a class called career choices.  They put you through all these tests, and put them into a computer and it spit out 100 jobs it thought i could do.  I narrowed it down to a job that made my soul happy, had good benefits, and that I could leave at work. So it was either electrician or corrections officer, and electrician won. This was before the Try A Trade program at BCIT.  Then I signed up for the electrical pre-apprenticeship program at BCIT.  It was 10 months then, and touched on all 4 years of theory. It was really good.

I had a really great supportive teacher, and he helped me deal with some of the sexist bullying amongst my fellow students.  One guy tried to shake me off the scaffolding.  Another guy told me to give him my project so he could hand it in to get credit for it.  A guy tore everything in my bookbag in half, then put it back into my bookbag.  I realized having the name Kelly helped me alot back then because it’s a gender neutral name, so on paper it was assumed I was a guy.

I had applied to the union before I finished school.  I had applied to be a motor winder.  2 weeks before school ended IBEW213 union called my teacher and offered me a job. So I got to pack up 2 weeks before school was over and go right to work.

ME: That’s pretty awesome!

Kelly: Yes, so I got dispatched as a maintenance man.  

ME: Maintenance MAN?  Hahaha

Kelly: Yes, maintenance man.  When I got to the job site the supervisor looked me up and down and said: “But you’re a………”

I answer with: “an apprentice?”

He again stated: “but you’re a……..”

I answered: “I’m an apprentice.”

The supervisor then said: “Do you know that you’re a woman?”

Then I opened my shirt, looked in and said: “oh my god where did those come from”.

Shop Talk Trade Comic inspired by Kellys story

We laughed then I got put to work.  6 months in I got an interview with the union committee, to get indentured into the union.  They asked me why I wanted to do this trade.  I told them that in the pre app class when I found out you can put energy in and get work out just by swinging a big magnet over a coil it makes my brain explode and I thought wow I really want to do that. I want to work with electric motors.  One of the managers started asking: “well what are you going to do with the boys?”

  I had no idea what he was alluding to. I just said: “work with them?”

 He kept on trying to ask me what am I going to do with the boys, and another journeyman stood up and said that’s enough, on the floor she is just a worker she is not going to be having sex with the guys.

Me: Hahahahah omg

Kelly: Kahla, the guy was thinking the only reason I was there was to find men to go have sex with.  And, actually I’ve worked with those girls so it does happen.  

Me: I guess that means theres men who are just looking to have sex with co workers too.

Kelly: Yes I worked with a guy that would say if someone asked him to have sex he wouldn’t say no, because he didnt want to be rude.  Omg right?

I had another journey that told me I was doing men’s work.  So I asked him what about it really made it mens work, do you need your penis to do this work? He went beat red, then walked away.

A few days later he walked up to me and apologized. He said he’d never really thought about it the way I had put it to him before.  He said, I’ve been watching you, I see someone that wants to work and does a good job at their work.  He later became one of my best mentors.  He even gave me his tools when he retired.

I was the first female winder to be certified in BC!  I trained a bunch of women behind me too.  It was the toughest job I’ve ever done, most of the old guys are missing fingers.  Socially too, there was no bathroom for me sometimes, someone would have to guard the door while I changed or I would have to wear bike shorts and tank top to work so I could change on the floor.  People would sabotage my work.  I had my locker buried every day.  

People in school would sabotage my work too.  And thought I was cheating in school because I was doing so well. One guy asked me how I was doing so well and he didn’t believe that I studied really hard because I had to.  So I told him that welfare gave single moms the test answers, and he believed that one hahaha

I have also been black listed from jobs, and was not hired union for a year.  So I worked none union until my benefits were about to run out.  The winders union contract has a clause that says you can invoke VO if you’re on the dispatch list and your benefits are about to run out, so they take the least senior guy off with pay and have to send in the worker that’s about to lose their benefits to work.  So they ended up sending me to work but not as an apprentice, just as a coil taper.  And the other workers  were so pissed that the company brought a 3rd year apprentice back as a coil taper, because they were paying me 10$ less an hour to do the job of an apprentice.  They made a side deal with management that I had to be hired as an apprentice if the managers wanted a favour.  So that was great, the boys really stood up for me then.  

Then I got my journeyman ticket!

Unfortunately, soon after I got my ticket, the company was sold to another company, and the owner told me directly he would not have any of my ‘kind’, working for him.  He still isn’t over that I was a woman.  So he had arranged that everyone else got transferred to the new company except me. He screwed me out of my job. 

Then a few things happened: I decided to take on an electrical apprenticeship and arranged for it to be fast tracked because I was already a winder.  I started teaching winder apprenticeship training in the evenings while I was working as an electrical apprentice during the day.

Then I became chair of the electrical joint training committee. And after I finished my training as an electrician, I became a teacher for the union electrical school.  A mentor of mine talked me into teaching, he said Kelly you need to teach, we need more women teaching so the young men that come into the apprenticeship can see women doing this work.  So it became part of my long term plan, because I realized I didn’t want to be on the tools later in life when my body couldn’t handle it. Jan 2008 I started teaching my first class.  

Me: So what do you do now?

Kelly: Now I’m the chief instructor for the electrical apprentice program at the IBEW213 union hall in Vancouver BC. I also still teach.  I love teaching. I manage the teachers and I teach full time too.  I love the first day look where everybody is so wide eyed, just like the little tree hugger you were in my class-

Me: That was meeee!  hahaha

Kelly:  yeah, we’ve gone from 1 class, to 3 streams, and one aboriginal class a year too.  We teach second year now. And we’re looking at teaching all 4 years!

Me: So tell me about forming the IBEW women’s committee?

Kelly: Well, for about 20 years I asked the hall, can we have a women’s committee, and was told no.  Then myself and 2 other journeyed women tried another way. We joined the minority caucus, then formed a women’s committee within the minority caucus.  We were the first local in Canada to have a women’s committee.  Then other halls started following suit.

Me: So that must be how the hall in Victoria IBEW 230 formed the one I was a part of when I worked out of the hall.  Thank you for doing that for us!  Did you know you were the first female electrician I saw in my life?

Kelly: Yaye!  I’m sorry I upset you when I said I was a journeyman and I wasn’t going to argue about being called journeyperson.  

Me: hahaha! Did I get upset about that?

Kelly: Yes, you once told me I wasn’t your mentor because I wouldn’t call myself a journeyperson.  To me journeyman is a job title and has nothing to do with gender.  That must have been right after you finished your first year of electrical school with me.

Me: ahahaha omg I’m sorry I said that I wouldn’t have you as my mentor, obviously you were my first mentor!  I think it irked me because I was already having a hard time seeing myself being able to do this job, calling myself a journey MAN just felt so wrong. I’m not a man and I do this job.

Kelly:  Well you’ve always been a spitfire.  I saw so much of myself in you then, in how I was, angry, young, and determined.  Surviving would happen and on your own terms.

Me: What’s your favourite thing about electricity?

Kelly: The wicked cool stuff it can do. Like, I’m sorry but the fact that I can put electricity into a gas and make a light that lights up, or put it into a transformer and take a little bit of volts to make a whole bunch of volts, I can take a magnet and whip it past a conductor and make electricity. solar: I can take this piece of sand, and put it out into the light, and it makes electricity for me for free. Just so cool.  There is such cool stuff in our trade still.  And I still don’t know it all, but I’m working on it.


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