Originally appeared here.
Efrocinia is a third year apprentice Ironworker in Oregon. The daughter of a single mom who as an immigrant from Russia struggled to keep her head above water, Efrocinia expected to be a product of her environment and struggle as well. A series of bad decisions almost landed her in prison at 33. “I was given a second opportunity by the court system. They gave me a 5 year suspended sentence. Thanks to them I really had the opportunity to stop and be real and honest with myself about what I wanted to do with my life.”
Efrocinia landed in a halfway house, working community service and taking odd jobs to feed herself and make financial amends towards getting her driver’s license back. Her parole officer told her she needed to figure out how to become a productive member of society and she knew taking a minimum wage job would get her right back to where she started.
Someone at her 12 step program recommended that she try the local community college. “I was an 8th grade dropout so I found a community college program that offered welding classes but didn’t require a GED.” Efrocinia was able to obtain financial aid as a result of her intake test. “I really didn’t know if I was going to be successful but I knew I had to give it 100%. This was my last chance to keep out of prison.”
After she earned her first year certificate in welding, her instructor encouraged her to go ahead and get an associate’s degree, telling her she didn’t need a GED to get the associate’s degree. In June of 2011, Efrocinia graduated with an Associate’s Degree and a 3.84 GPA. Her mother came to her graduation and as a gift, gave her money that was desperately needed to get her driver’s license back. “I think I finally reached a point where my mom can be proud. She didn’t have an easy life, and once I could see it from that perspective instead of a kid’s perspective it is amazing that she has done as well as she has.”
Looking for a job was extremely difficult especially with no work experience in her field. Finally, through a friend, Efrocinia found a non-union job. She continued to apply to all the local apprenticeships and employers. Local 29 Ironworkers were the only ones willing to take her application despite her lack of a GED. They said that the only thing they required was that she had to get her GED before she became a journeywoman. So she put in her application along with her college transcripts and welding certificate.
The non-union job she found through a friend wasn’t safe. In her own words:
“They didn’t have my back and I didn’t have medical insurance. Sometimes I had to drive 75 miles just to get to work.” Then she had a bad accident on the job. “I was working with a grinder disc cutting metal and it hit me in the face. The right side of my nostril was severed and my nose was broken. They took me to the hospital but the worst part was when I went back to the site they said I couldn’t work there. I had enough training that I knew that as an injured worker they couldn’t move me off site. So they told me that either I work on another site, or stop work and fight their decision. Then they kept cutting my hours back until I was paying to drive to work. So I begged the foreman, who liked me, to write me a letter of recommendation to the union and then I took the layoff.
When the union called me for an interview I was so excited. I went in completely dressed as if it was for an office job, everybody else was wearing work clothes. The Union Vice President interviewed me and I answered all the questions as if my life depended on it. I told him I would keep coming back to try to get in until either they gave me an opportunity or got a restraining order.
I became an apprentice on May 13, 2013. Right now, I have been working on an electrical plant in the hinterlands of Oregon, in the desert, 200 miles away from home for over a year. I bought myself a brand new Chevy Silverado and I am going to get a travel trailer to go with it. I have an awesome support system and network at my hall. My apprenticeship coordinator always answers my questions and has always been there when I needed him. He wrote a letter to the International asking them to sponsor me to go to the 2015 Women Building the Nation Conference. The conference was inspiring. There were 1,010 tradeswomen from all over the country and all over the world, with different tools and vocabulary but all in one place supporting and helping each other. Most of the time I am the only woman on the job because they are always shifting you around to make up the women hours.
What I have in my life today is the most I ever had. I go home every day tired, but I go to sleep with a clear conscience and I know I did my best every day. This is my second chance and I am going to take it and keep it to the best of my ability. This work is hard but it is like Disneyland compared to what I had before.
I want every woman out there to know that it is never too late to try something new. It is really important in life to find something that you love to do. And never let anyone blow out your candle.”