Raised in the Fordham Row section of the Bronx, Vernica Martinez, 40, says she was forced to grow up quickly.
"It was a rough neighborhood: a lot of crime, a lot of drugs," she says. "I wanted to hurry up and get out of the Bronx."
Starting when she was 12, Martinez was funneled through the foster system and later, the juvenile detention system. Her father died when she was 16 years old and her mother died when she was 19.
"I was released February 16th, 1999," she recalls. "My mother used to tell me 'I'd rather sleep at night knowing where you are and that you're safe than to lose you completely to the streets.' I've been a law-abiding citizen since."
Today, Martinez lives roughly an hour away from the Bronx in Orange County, New York with her kids and her husband and earns approximately $51 her hour as a journeywoman electrician. Her positive path, she says, was paved by her profession.
"It was tough, growing up in the Bronx — tough streets. But I survived. I made it," she says. "The things I've been through helped me later on in life."
Here's how Martinez did it, and what it takes to earn over $100,000 per year as an electrician in New York City.
Getting the job
Martinez was released from the juvenile justice system when she was 17 and planned to complete high school at a traditional school when she learned she was pregnant. Her mother signed the necessary paperwork so that she could take the GED and begin working as a cashier at a local Food Emporium.
"Things started to turn around for me after I had my daughter," Martinez remembers. "I was in a shelter for single mothers with their babies and I knew that my daughter depended on me so I had to do whatever I had to do, to make sure that I was there for her."
She continues, "I knew she deserved the world and I was gonna die trying to give it to her. And she was the reason, my daughter, she saved my life. Having her because I was able to focus just on her and making sure she had the best life possible."
Martinez was waiting for a bus near Times Square with her young daughter when she saw an advertisement for Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) — a New York-based organization that prepares, trains and places women in careers in skilled construction, utility and maintenance trades.
"I just happened to look at the billboard that was by the bus stop," she remembers. "It had those little numbers with the pull tabs and I tore that tab off and I said 'When I get to my mother's house, I'm going to call them.' I called, I got through, they gave me a briefing and said 'Come to our open house.' And the rest was history."
Martinez started NEW's program and quickly joined a general construction laborers union and earned roughly $15 per hour.
"Over time, I started to see what laborer work entitled because every day I was going home in pain, I was tired, I was hurting. [Meanwhile], the electricians were laughing out the door," she says, which prompted her to call NEW's apprenticeship director.
She started a six-month electrical apprentice program in February of 2002 and also worked as a laborer to bring in additional money. Around June 2002, Martinez worked her first job as an electrical apprentice for New York's Local 3 electrical union and was paid about $26 per hour — a rate she says was higher than typical apprentice wages.
"That was great money for me, being 19 with an infant baby at home. I thought I was rich," she says with a laugh.
For roughly six years, Martinez worked her way up to the level of a journeywoman electrician, which earns her closer to $51 per hour
During her second year as an electrical apprentice with Local 3, Martinez met her future husband, Matthew who is also an electrician. After learning they lived near each other, they began taking the train together and became friends. The couple both wore their work clothes to their first date.
Martinez says he is her "knight in shining armor" and also credits her friends with her success.
"I had a great support system, I call them 'My village' — my best friends," she says. "They made sure that I got through the apprenticeship. They took turns if my daughter was in school and had to be picked up and I couldn't do it, they did it. Having my friends as my support was the biggest help."
A day on the job
As a journeywoman electrician, Martinez works Monday through Friday and wakes up around 3:00 a.m. so that she can take her youngest daughter to daycare before catching a 4:20 a.m. bus to Port Authority.
She arrives at Port Authority around 5:45 a.m. and takes the subway or walks to her current construction job, an NYU construction project in Greenwich Village. She always stops to get a butter roll and a small coffee on her way.
She arrives at her site around 6:00 so she can eat breakfast and prepare for the day before work officially starts at 7:00.
The project foreman provides electricians like Martinez with a blueprint which maps out where cables should be placed and what devices will eventually be connected. First, she carefully collects all of the cables and ties she will need and then follows the blueprint closely.
Around 8:45 a.m., Martinez typically takes a quick coffee break and around noon, she typically takes a lunch break. Her workday typically ends by 2:15 p.m.
"The day is really short, especially if you've got work to do," she says. "Monday usually flies by. Sometimes, I'll work and it'll feel like time is flying. Like, it's lunchtime and everybody's left, but I'm still working and losing track of time. I like that: when I can work steadily without being bored."
Each night, she tries to go to sleep no later than 9:00 p.m.
"My goal is to beat 'Jeopardy!' to bed every night. If I can get to bed before 'Jeopardy!' I'm happy," she says. "And I try not to do overtime, whether it's staying late or coming in on a Saturday. If it's available, I stay away from it because I like to be home with my kids."
Work to be proud of
Martinez says the financial benefits of being an electrician far outweigh the early hours.
"The pros, of course, are the benefits and the money. [Plus] being an electrician is great because most of the modern world cannot live without us," she says, mentioning both the job security of being in a high-demand field as well as the satisfaction of providing a service people really need. "The most satisfying part for me of being on a job is starting something and finishing it, to see the results."
As a part of her local union, Martinez says she has strong health insurance and retirement benefits. She also notes that union pay transparency has given her peace of mind about how much she is being paid.
However, she admits that being an electrician can be physically strenuous and that working conditions can vary significantly according to the weather and job site.
"The cons of being in the business is the physical demands, sometimes it takes a toll on your body," she says. "Sometimes I go home and I'm filthy and the first thing I want to do is get into a shower."
Despite these challenges, she says her job has given her a sense of freedom and pride.
"This career has given me the freedom to do anything that I've ever thought I couldn't do… From buying a home, to buying the car, to sending my oldest daughter to college," says Martinez. "Going back to where I came from, I would have never thought that this would have been my career path in life, or just [my path] in general, but I'm happy that I listened and I paid attention to little things.
"I know where I came from, and I know what I went through to get to where I'm at, and I'm really proud of myself."
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