A Career in Wisconsin’s Skilled Trades Changed This Woman’s Life

Madison resident Lisa Goodman says that working as an electrician is the “best thing that ever happened” to her. She was able to pay off her graduate school debt, bought a home on a single income, and has been mostly debt free for the past 14 years. (Graphic by Francesca Daly)

By Isabel Soisson

September 5, 2023

When Lisa Goodman was in her early 40s, she only had about $10,000 saved for retirement.

She’d earned a bachelor’s degree and her master’s from the UW system and had spent her professional life working various jobs: for a conservation nonprofit; in the paddlesports industry; doing biomedical, wildlife, and vegetation research; and environmental education.

She’d enjoyed her work, but the pay left something to be desired.

Then one day, she saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for a pre-apprenticeship program called “Tools for Tomorrow,” which was based out of Madison. The program’s focus was getting women more involved in the trades.

Goodman looked at the balance of her bank account, and thought of her childhood and prior experiences.

While she was brought up learning how to cook and clean, she was also taught how to change a tire, so working with her hands wasn’t a foreign concept to her. She also knew how to do vehicle maintenance and work with tools.

“To me, doing what needed to be done didn’t have any association with pink or blue,” she said, referencing traditional gender norms.

Goodman knew that she could work in the trades if she put her mind to it, so she marched right into that Tools for Tomorrow meeting. That was 17 years ago.

Goodman has never looked back.

Today, she’s a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 159 in Madison.

When she first entered the trades, Goodman worked as a truck driver for an electrical contractor, transporting material and equipment to job sites. But along the way, she also talked to senior electricians every chance she got, soaking in all the information she could, which helped her prepare for her career.

She then completed a five year apprenticeship program, learning the ins and outs of being an electrician.

For the past 12 years, Goodman has been working as a journeyman electrician, a job that she says keeps you on your toes.

“Every day is different,” she said. “It’s a variety of work. You see things you never would’ve guessed you’d see. You’re up in a hospital above an operating room, you’re out in a big field putting in enormous, underground five-or six-inch [PVC] conduit that’s going to become a wind farm. It’s that and everything in between.”

Goodman says that working as an electrician is the “best thing that ever happened” to her.

She was able to pay off her graduate school debt by the time she was a third-year apprentice. Goodman’s also been able to buy a home on a single income and has been debt free, aside from her mortgage payments, for the past 14 years.

Another thing she loves about the job is that it requires brains, but is also very physical. There’s also an immediate gratification that comes from her work; the results are more quantifiable, like “flipping a switch,” she said.

She has a deep admiration for her colleagues, too.

“The best electricians I’ve ever met…have seen so much, have so many smarts. The best ones want every day to be different, they want to learn something new, and they have an enthusiasm for learning, they have creativity. Those are the best people in the trades.”

“It’s been an amazing education the whole way through,” she went on. “It’s been a pleasure and an honor to meet a whole lot of amazing people.”

In addition to her work as an electrician, Goodman previously served as a business agent for her union, supporting the IBEW Local 159 Women’s Committee, a place where women in the trades can share camaraderie and moral support, and support other women into the trade.

As a business agent, she also worked on various union initiatives to generate jobs for local workers, build community partnerships, and maintain infrastructure and a healthy working environment for tradespeople.

Goodman also co-founded the Tradeswomen of South Central Wisconsin (TWSCW) in 2020, a group that seeks to recruit, empower, support, advocate for and retain women in the building trades. TWSCW is now a chapter of EmpowHER, an organization that started in the Milwaukee area through the local Building Trades Council and has a similar mission.

Members of the group go to career fairs and other events to try and recruit more women into the sector. Goodman is also a past board member of EmpowHER, which launched a mentoring program in 2023.

According to the Wisconsin Building Trades Council, there are more women working in construction in the US than ever, but they remain “starkly underrepresented in Wisconsin construction labor and apprenticeships.” As of Feb. 2023, women made up just 3.3% of apprenticeships in construction. Women also made up only 9.2% of Wisconsin’s construction industry workers, as of 2022.

Organizations like EmpowHER aim to change these statistics.

“Working in the trades is incredibly difficult for everyone, for sure, but for underrepresented workers it can be a little bit more challenging,” she said. “You just have to be a little bit more tenacious than the average bear if you’re a woman or a person of color.”

Goodman was also heavily involved in coordinating her union’s work to back the Biden-Harris campaign for president and vice president in 2020. She says that President Joe Biden is “possibly the most pro-union president there’s ever been,” a sentiment that the IBEW shared as well in their endorsement announcement.

Goodman plans on supporting Biden again in 2024 and praised the passage of his Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was signed into law last year. She called the legislation’s investments in the state of Wisconsin “huge.”

The law incentivized several manufacturers to invest in the state and create more clean energy jobs. Across the state, new clean energy projects have spurred $445 million in investment and created or moved forward more than 500 good-paying clean energy jobs, according to Clean Wisconsin, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable access to clean water and air.

The law also represented the largest-ever investment in fighting climate change. For example, under the law, manufacturers get subsidies for building electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy products, and utilities get credits for choosing solar and wind energy over fossil fuel plants.

The IRA and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which passed in 2021, are already leading to a huge expansion in the construction sector and a surge in demand for skilled workers like Goodman to upgrade and modernize the nation’s infrastructure, especially for the growing EV sector.

The building of electric vehicle charging stations is something that Goodman herself hopes to eventually be involved in, as she has completed the training essential to installing them. After all, the task of building a national network of electric vehicle charging stations could fall primarily on IBEW members.

“The booming EV industry can’t get far without a vast network of charging stations across the country,” she said.

Goodman has no plans of retiring anytime soon.

“I feel pretty darn good,” she said. “I’m still in pretty good shape…good knees, good shoulders, good hips.”

She also expects to keep busy as demand for her skills grows due to the influx of federal investments in Wisconsin.

“There is an incredible amount of work for electricians right now.”

Corrections: This story has been updated to correct the timeline and details of Goodman’s early career and to remove references to her previous experience building EV charging stations. The story previously misstated the trajectory of her work and erroneously stated that she’d previously helped build EV charging stations. We regret the errors.

Author

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.

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