Vernica Martinez, 40, who grew up in the Fordham section of the Bronx, says she was forced to grow up fast.
"It was a tough neighbourhood: a lot of crime, a lot of drugs," she says. "I wanted to get out of the Bronx fast."
From the time she was 12, Martinez was incarcerated in the foster care system and later in the juvenile detention system. Her father died when she was 16 and her mother died when she was 19.
"I was released on 16 February 1999," she recalls. "My mother used to tell me, 'I'd rather go to bed at night knowing where you are and that you're safe than to have you completely on the streets.' Since then, I've been a law-abiding citizen."
Today, Martinez lives with her children and her husband about an hour from the Bronx in Orange County, New York, and earns about $51 an hour as a skilled electrician. Her positive path was paved by her career, she said.
"It was tough, growing up in the Bronx - tough streets. But I survived. I made it," she said. "The things I went through helped me later in life."
Here's what Martinez did and what it takes to earn more than $100,000 a year as an electrician in New York City
Getting the job
Martinez was released from the juvenile justice system at the age of 17 and planned to finish high school at a traditional school after learning she was pregnant. Her mother signed the necessary paperwork so she could get her GED and start working as a cashier at a local food mall.
"Things started to get better after I had my daughter," Martinez recalls. "I was in a shelter for single mothers with children, and I knew my daughter depended on me, so I had to do everything I had to do to make sure I was there for her."
She continued, "I know she deserves this world, and I would die to give it to her. She is the reason, my daughter, she saved my life. Having her because I was able to focus on her and make sure she lived the best life possible."
While waiting for a bus near Times Square with her young daughter, Martinez saw an ad for Non-Traditional Employment for Women (NEW) - a New York-based organisation that prepares, trains and places women in skilled construction, utility and maintenance trades careers.
"I just happened to look at the billboard next to the bus stop," she recalls. "It had those little numbers with pull tabs on them and I tore that off and I said 'I'll call them when I get to my mother's house.' I called, I got through and they gave me a briefing and said 'come to our open house'. The rest is history."
Martinez started the NEW program and quickly joined a general construction workers union, earning about $15 an hour.
"As time went on, I started to see the rights of working people to work because every day I went home with pain, I was tired, I was miserable. [Meanwhile], the electrician was laughing at the door," she says, prompting her to call NEW's apprenticeship director.
She began a six-month electrical apprenticeship programme in February 2002, while also working as a labourer to earn extra income. around June 2002, Martinez took her first job as an electrical apprentice with the Local 3 electrical union in New York, earning about $26 an hour - a rate she says is higher than a typical apprentice wages.
"It was a lot of money for me, I was 19 years old and had a baby at home. I thought I was rich," she says with a laugh.
For about six years, Martinez worked to become a skilled electrician, which allowed her to earn nearly $51 per hour
In her second year as an electrical apprentice at Local 3, Martinez met her future husband, Matthew, who was also an electrician. After learning that they lived close to each other, they started riding the train together and became friends. The couple both wore work clothes on their first date.
Martinez says he is her "knight in shining armour" and that she owes her success to her friend.
"I have a great support system and I call them 'my village' - my best friends," she says. "They made sure I got through my apprenticeship. They took turns if my daughter was at school and had to be picked up, which I couldn't do, and they did. Having my friends as my support was the biggest help."
A day at work
A skilled electrician, Martinez works Monday to Friday, waking up around 3:00am so she can take her youngest daughter to nursery and then catch the 4:20am bus to the port authority.
She arrives at the Port Authority around 5.45am and then takes the underground or walks to her current construction job, the New York University building project in Greenwich Village. She always stops on the way to pick up a butter roll and a small cup of coffee.
She arrives at her stop around 6:00 so that she can have breakfast and be ready for the official start of the day at 7:00.
The project foreman provides Martinez and the other electricians with a blueprint that shows where the cables should be placed and what equipment will eventually be connected. First, she carefully gathered all the cables and ties she needed and then followed the blueprint to the letter.
At around 8.45 a.m. Martinez usually takes a break for coffee at noon, and around noon she usually has lunch. Her working day usually ends at 2.15pm
"It's a really short day, especially if you have work to do," she says. "Mondays usually go by fast. Sometimes I'll be working and it feels like time is flying by. Like, it's lunchtime and everyone's gone, but I'm still working and forgetting about the time. I like that: when I can work steadily and not get bored."
Every night, she tries to go to bed before 9:00 pm
"My goal is to beat the 'danger! to bed every night. If I can get to bed before 'Jeopardy! I'm happy," she says. "And I try not to work late, whether it's late or coming in on a Saturday. If I do, I stay away from it because I like to stay home with the kids."
Work to be proud of
Martinez says the financial benefits of being an electrician far outweigh the early hours.
"Of course, the advantages are the benefits and the money. [Plus] being an electrician is great because most people in the modern world can't live without us," she says, while citing the job security of working in a high-demand field and the satisfaction of providing a service that people really need. "For me, the most satisfying part of the job is starting something and finishing it and seeing the results."
As a member of the local union, Martinez says she has strong health insurance and retirement benefits. She also notes that the transparency of union pay gives her peace of mind about her pay.
However, she admits that being an electrician can be taxing and that working conditions can vary greatly depending on the weather and where you work.
"The downside of running a business is the physical demands, and sometimes it takes a toll on your body," she says. "Sometimes I come home dirty and the first thing I want to do is take a shower."
Despite these challenges, she says her job gives her a sense of freedom and pride.
"This career gives me the freedom to do anything I don't think I can do ...... from buying a house to buying a car to sending my oldest daughter to college," Martinez said. "Coming back to my hometown, I never thought it would be my career path in life or just [my path], but I'm glad I listened and paid attention to the little things.
"I know where I'm from, I know what I went through to get to where I am, and I'm proud of myself."
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