How I Became the Exact Opposite of What You’d Expect Me to Be

Most of you who happen to be reading this blog know that I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl. What only a few of you will know is what my day job is. I am an industrial instrumentation technician by trade, and many times since I began this career I have been asked how I happened to come into such an occupation. It’s a valid question. Even in this day and age the industrial and construction trades are a vastly male-dominated field, and even without going into the gender issue I simply do not appear to be the kind of woman who would do this kind of work. I’m small, I don’t appear to be very strong, and I enjoy activities that lean to the artistic side of the spectrum, and yet I do a job that requires a lot of grunt work, numbers and technological understanding, and often lands me in positions that are dirty, loud, and either extemely hot or extremely cold.

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This was once my desk. Can you FEEL the dirt and stress?

So how did an artisticly-inclined girl with aspirations of becoming a novelist wind up in such a physical, technology-based, male-dominated profession? Well the first thing that you have to understand is that, while I’ve always loved the arts and greatly enjoyed such activities as writing, drawing, and singing, I was actually an extremely well-rounded child. To say that I was a nerd would not be stretching the truth in the slightest. I loved school for most of my younger years. I was always great at things like writing essays and book reports, but I was also very good at math and very interested in science. Often on this blog I will focus on the parts of my childhood that lead me to wanting to be a writer, but there were many other important aspects of my childhood that lead me on different paths. I’ve always loved understanding the way something works. When I was two years old my father caught me shoving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into our VCR. In that moment he explained to me what the VCR was for and showed me how to use it, and I think that instilled in me a desire to know how everything worked. When something broke in our house I would take it apart and try to fix it. I rarely succeeded because the problem was usually electrical, but it was fun to try. And it didn’t have to be an appliance or gadget…if anything at all broke I would try to find a way to fix it. I remember once when one of my grandmother’s frames broke, I was determined to repair it for her. The piece that makes it stand up had snapped clean off, leaving two little holes where it had once been. I took a piece of scrap wire – a nice, stiff piece – and carefully bent it into a sturdy rectangle, the ends of which I poked through the holes in the frame. I was extremely proud to have “engineered” a solution. I felt an extreme sense of pride every time I managed to correct a problem.

Sometime in high school I decided that I was going to aim for the technologies, but I wasn’t sure which field to aim for. During my senior year, right around when we were supposed be starting to apply to colleges, one of my teachers told me about this program that was supposed to have an excellent reputation for graduates getting jobs right away. I never was 100% clear on the course or the jobs that would result from it, but it had something to do with GPS sytems. Since I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do exactly, and I had to start applying to colleges asap, I decided to go for it. As it was, that particular program was not in the cards for me. Oh, I applied, and I got in…that was no problem. But in early August of that year I got a letter from the school, letting me know that the program had been cancelled and that if I planned to attend that September I had to choose a new field of study immediately.

I can remember being panicked. I hadn’t been thinking about what I wanted to take because I had already been enrolled. I scoured the course schedules, looking for something technology-based that wasn’t too mechanical (I had absolutely no interest in cars) or design-centric (I also had no interest in sitting in a room drawing up plans for the rest of my life). What I landed on was something that I didn’t even really understand, but it sounded interesting and I was in a hurry. That program was a dual-graduate program. In three years I could graduate with a diploma in Electrical Engineering, and with one further year I could graduate with a Bachelor of Technology in Controls and Instrumentation. As it turned out I did both, though not with ease. There were some courses that nearly broke my spirit (having a professor with an extraordinarily thick Chinese accent and extremely poor anger management issues did not help), and there was one point during my third year when I nearly had a nervous breakdown, wondering what the hell I was doing and how on Earth I had come to find myself in these strange courses (programming languages were a huge surprise to me, and I don’t believe for a second that there is anyone on this planet who truly understands VHDL language).

But I got through, somehow or another, and I was lucky enough within six months of graduation to get a call from a paper mill located only an hour and a half from home. I moved to town for the job and promptly found out that four years of schooling had taught me positively jack. Don’t get me wrong, quite a bit of the stuff I learned in school was totally necessary, but let me make this perfectly clear: until you have actually worked in the trades, you know nothing.

The rest is history, I suppose. I spent five years at the paper mill, doing industrial maintenence. I was the first and only woman to ever be on the instrumentation crew at that mill, an honor that I’m fairly certain I still hold. I learned a lot, whether it was doing complex calculations and redesigning parts of the overall control program, or hanging underneath a grim-drenched pulp refiner with grease in my hair and dirty water dripping off my wrench and into my mouth while I fought with a jammed valve. And then, when the mill shut down, I took the (for me) ultimate leap and travelled out West to try my hand at commissioning work, which involves significantly less grease and grim, but significantly more unfortunate weather issues.

But when it comes right down to it, when people ask me how I wound up in this job, I always have to think about it for a moment or two before I answer, because honestly, half the time I don’t even know. What I do know is that winding up in this career, however unlikely it may seem when you look at me, has worked out for me. It’s not always glamorous work, but I enjoy it, and it allows me to take care of my family.

And until I become a rich, famous novelist, it’ll just have to do. 😉

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