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Union electrician sees huge improvement in safety protocols, but some still think he’s crazy to do the job

“I was meant to do this,” said Joe Fitzgibbons, a member of IBEW Local 134 for 16 years. “I love it.”

This organized labor profile was underwritten by IBEW Local 134.

In the 16 years Joe Fitzgibbons has worked as an electrician and member of IBEW Local 134, he’s seen a lot of changes from when he first started — when many workers were nonchalant about safety — to today when safety is constantly drilled into workers, and professionalism and production is at an all-time high.

One thing that hasn’t changed during that time is his love for his job.

“I think I was meant to do this,” Fitzgibbons said, a third-generation IBEW electrician from Mount Greenwood.

Joseph Fitzgibbons, an electrician with the IBEW Local 134 union, running wire through a newly constructed office building.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

However, he said it was his older brother who works as a city of Chicago electrician at O’Hare International Airport, who followed his father around on jobs more as kids.

“By the time I was out of high school, my dad was closer to retirement and not doing as many side jobs,” Fitzgibbons said. Despite that, his father didn’t fail to notice his younger son’s penchant for tinkering with electrical things.

“My dad was like, ‘Hey, you like the work, why don’t you try it out? It’s a nice career.’ I had to take a test, and then you have to wait for your number to get called, just like a fireman,” Fitzgibbons said.

He got the call and started his five-year union apprenticeship in 2004, when he was 20. Now, 16 years later, he’s worked his way up to foreman and currently works for Lyons & Pinner Electric Companies, which is based in La Grange. He lives on the far South Side with his wife Annie and their four children ranging in age from 1 month to 13 years old.

Joseph Fitzgibbons, an electrician with the IBEW Local 134 union, running wire through a newly constructed office building.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

One thing about electricity is most people are afraid of it, Fitzgibbons said.

“No one wants to do our work. People are scared of it, and they probably should be. It’s really like, ‘Are you crazy enough to be an electrician?’” Fitzgibbons said.

Noting the changes he’s seen since he started, he said back then most union electricians carried hacksaws to cut pipe, and a measure of one’s aptitude was often measured by the speed that you got it done.

“That’s how they knew you were an electrician because you actually would work hard at being fast at that, but nowadays everybody has battery-powered cutters. Back in the day, all you had was a hacksaw, and if that blade was dull, you had to make it work,” Fitzgibbons said.

And while technology has enabled IBEW electricians to do a lot more with a lot less manpower these days, the biggest shift he’s seen over the years is the focus on safety.

“The safety thing has doubled over, in a good way. Everyone should be wearing a hard hat, everyone should be wearing glasses, safety gloves, but back when I first started, they had to just be near you. Now it has to be on you,” he said.

He also noted that as a foreman he’s required to take the National Fire Protection Association course on the National Electrical Code every couple of years.

Fitzgibbons said the lessons have paid off, as he’s never been around an incident where someone was hurt on the job.

“It’s dangerous. Everyone’s policy is to turn off [the electricity], yet people sometimes don’t like to hear that. A business owner may not want to turn it off, but you have to,” Fitzgibbons said. “I’ve been around things that have happened like having a switch blow up, but I’ve never been around any injuries.”

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed work for many, but Fitzgibbons said he’s remained busy. However, he did say there are concerns about how the virus may change office work habits — something electricians would feel the impact of.

“There’s a big scare now. Are people going to be back in their offices? Do we need to build more office buildings now?” he asked.

Despite the uncertainty, Fitzgibbons said his career has provided a stable living for him and his family, and the trades is something more young people should consider.

“All my friends went to college,” he said. “I always had a full-time job when they were in college and was the only one that had money.” The added bonus: no college loan debt.

“It’s a solid career, and I love it.”