By Jim Curran, Executive Vice President, Electrical Connection and Dennis Gralike, Director, IBEW/NECA Electrical Industry Training Center.
A job is good, but a career can inspire greater possibilities and the passion to achieve them. Such was the case for Sabrina Westfall, who 20 years ago began her fulfillment journey for what she was truly passionate about – construction that shapes our world. She began learning all she could about the industry, aligning herself with valuable resources. She found one such resource in the Electrical Connection which unites the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1 and the St. Louis Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). IBEW/NECA creates careers in the electrical industry.
“I liked working with my hands and was particularly interested in electrical and communications work, which is rapidly changing our world,” said Westfall. “The IBEW/NECA Electrical Industry Training Center offered an incredible opportunity to explore that passion. It’s a 100% free of charge, allowing me to earn a living as part of the program and the training was top notch” IBEW/NECA invests $3 million annually in training.
As Westfall completed 10,000 hours of training, her skills helped build projects at UMSL, the Washington Avenue revitalization and renovations for Big Brothers Big Sisters. “You could tell she was something special,” said Dennis Gralike, director of the training center. “She had a desire to succeed and overcome any challenge, well worth IBEW/NECA’s investment in her career development.”
After graduating from the training center in 2005, Westfall’s fortitude was tested when the Great Recession dried up work in 2008. Her response was to tap two programs supported by the Electrical Connection to not only broaden her skills, but also ultimately launch her own electrical contracting company.
“At some point, you have to take your destiny in your own hands,” said Westfall. “I wanted to be an indispensable asset to the NECA contracting community while at the same time build the skills to join that community as an entrepreneur.”
Westfall began reading books, going to seminars and taking classes. She prepared for her electrical masters’ exam by taking several continuing education classes at the training center. These again were 100% free and funded by IBEW/NECA with no tuition or student loans. It was also a necessary step to start up an electrical contracting business. Certified as a master electrician in 2010, Westfall‘s skills were in greater demand. In 2014, she launched J West Electrical Contracting.
Construction, though, is an unforgiving business for startups, bedeviled by late payments for services and aggravating cash flow issues. Only 36.4% of construction startups last five years. To ensure her sustainability as a business enterprise, Westfall tapped a 13-year-old program also supported by the Electrical Connection IBEW/NECA partnership – the Regional Union Construction Center (RUCC).
Launched in 2006 by the venerable labor-management group, Saint Louis Construction Cooperative, RUCC helps minority- and women-owned union construction companies sustain and grow business. Using volunteers from the area’s contractor, legal and accounting community, it mentors startups with business advisory boards. IBEW Local 1 Business Manager Frank Jacobs serves on the RUCC board.
“RUCC represents an extraordinary commitment to workforce and entrepreneur development by the Electrical Connection and the union construction industry,” said Alan Richter, RUCC’s director. “We equip startups with a support network, encourage emerging construction businesses to address tough issues such as cash flow, expenses and negotiating with prime contractors. Sometimes this means declining jobs that would be bad for their business.”
Now in its fifth year, Westfall’s J West is doing well. It has worked on projects at Ballpark Village, Lambert Airport and Washington University. She’s worked with other large NECA contractors including Bell Electrical Contractors, American Electric & Data, Guarantee Electrical Construction Co., and RJP Electric LLC. “Being able to work with other NECA contractors gives us the opportunity to work on larger projects as a second tier subcontractor,” noted Westfall. “This allows J. West to be seen by larger general contractors and have our work evaluated in hopes of being a prime contractor in the future.”
“It would have been easy to remain an electrician or just be a two-person small project electrical contractor,” said Westfall. “But the Electrical Connection partnership is committed to career fulfillment in so many ways. If you have the passion to succeed, IBEW/NECA is a great partner!”