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Students Mike May (left) and Reinaldo Schaffner watch as electrician instructor Kara Maude explains how to wire a job incorporating a selector switch during a lesson in her classroom at the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute in Alsip.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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Why these Chicagoans left other careers to work in ‘boots and jeans and ... with my hands’

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Kara Maude, Elbert Walters and John Felke take pride in keeping the lights on.

Kara Maude

Electrician instructor Kara Maude wasn’t supposed to follow in her parents’ footsteps.

They were union tradespeople who wanted their daughter to go to college and find work that was less strenuous than theirs. She followed their wishes at first, graduating from St. Xavier University in Chicago in 1995. But after four years of teaching social studies in a suburban high school, Maude had a kind of “quarter-life crisis” and quit.

“I realized that I didn’t want to be confined within four walls,” Maude says. “I need to be free, and need to be able to work with my hands and put stuff together and build stuff.”

She worked as an educator in the Cook County Jail for two years until a fateful meeting with an old softball teammate in 2001 who was an electrician. “I was just so interested,” she said. “After talking to her I thought — this is for me. I’m doing this. And so the next Wednesday, I was there.”

Not everyone was understanding at first, including her parents and her husband. Why would a college-educated woman choose the trades? “I don’t blame them,” she said. “They wanted something good for me, but what they didn’t know, that what was good for me was getting in my work boots and jeans and working with my hands.”

Now 46, living in Homer Glen and a mother of three, Maude hasn’t looked back. For most of the last two decades, she’s worked as an electrician for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 134.

For the past two years, she’s been an instructor at the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute (INTECH) Renewable Energy Training Center in south suburban Alsip, teaching second-year apprentices how to work with motors.

It’s as if she’s come full-circle.

“That’s the cool part of it is that now I’m back instructing again, but this time it’s the fun, hands-on stuff I’m passionate about.”

Elbert Walters III
Provided/Elbert Walters

Elbert Walters III

Elbert Walters III assumed his cousin had become a drug dealer.

The year was 1998, and his relative was also a young man in his 20s. How else could he afford to drive a fancy car with tricked-out rims? Walters was shocked when he learned the truth.

“My cousin was like, ‘No, man, I’m a third-year apprentice. I’m an electrician. I make 20 bucks an hour,” Walters said. “I was like, ‘Get out of here, where do I sign up?’”

At the time, Walters was working for TCI Cable and assumed his job as a technician was about as good as a black man from the South Side of Chicago without a college degree could do. But after being accepted into the Local 134’s apprentice program, his paycheck quickly surpassed what he was making before.

“Already as a first-year apprentice, I was making more than I was with the cable company,” he said. “The rest is history.”

Walters, now 47, initially took the union job to earn enough money to comfortably raise his daughters and pursue the “American Dream” but has since grown to love the work itself.

“Probably more than anything, there was a sense of pride because I’d take my kids someplace, and I’d tell them I helped with it, and they were amazed,” said Walters. “It’s not just, say, a shelf in a house. It’s, ‘Hey, my dad helped with this Chicago building that’s going to last and other people get to enjoy.’”

He’s most proud of the electric work he did on the CTA Red Line stations, including at 63rd Street, during a months-long renovation of the line along the Dan Ryan in 2012. “I’d never worked on trains before, but when it was all said and done, that particular station was one of the ones that had the least amount of issues,” he said.

These days, Walters is a business agent for IBEW Local 134. That means among other tasks, he’s fighting to make sure his colleagues also have the opportunity to earn a living wage.

“That’s the beautiful thing about the union, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that when I’m out on a picket, I’m fighting for them,” he said. “That company is taking advantage of you. You should be making what I’m making.”

John Felke, an IBEW member working at the Old Post Office
Provided/John Felke

John Felke

John Felke took the scenic route to the family trade.

His father, Jack, and later his two brothers were all electricians with IBEW Local 134. But Felke — who grew up on the northwest side of the city — opted for college and earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He spent the first 14 years of his career at Village Bicycle Center, the popular bike shop in Old Town.

But he grew tired of design and marketing work and decided to join his younger brothers as a second-generation union electrician in 2013.

Bikes “were fun, but what I loved when I finally got into the union apprenticeship was a sense of true brotherhood between people,” said Felke, now 34, of Elmwood Park. “It’s kind of corny, I know, but you build up this environment where everyone’s just looking out for each other constantly.”

Felke’s appreciation and involvement with the community aspect of the union is part of what led him to spearhead the local RENEW (Reach Out and Engage Next-Gen Electrical Workers) program in 2014. RENEW is a young worker group designed to help the union’s 12,000-plus members become more involved in social and charity events such as the Polar Plunge, highway cleanups and charity walks.

“We want to get our members involved and show that this isn’t just a job — it’s something bigger,” he said.

He’s also on a mission to break the stereotype many Chicagoans might have of the working class.

“My big thing is that I want to create a better image for the construction worker; they’re not just like a dirty guy you see walking on the street. We want people to think of them as people who also contribute back to society.”

Spending extra quality time with his family? That’s just the icing on the cake. His dad retired from Local 134 a decade ago, but because his ties are so strong, he still comes to meetings.

“He’s ecstatic that we’re all here,” Felke said.

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