It’s a (Wo)Man’s World

by —13 December 2019

Taylor Vollum’s family history sparks a career as an electrician

You might say Taylor (McCabe) Vollum is drawn to electricity.

A class in high school sparked her interest, but Vollum, 24, comes from a long line of electricians. The first woman in her family to join the profession, she’s following in the footsteps of her father, her grandfather, her great-grandfather and her great-great-uncle.

The fifth-generation electrician completed her five-year apprenticeship in May 2018, then passed the required state test to get her journeyman’s license three months later.

Vollum, who lives with husband Vern Vollum in a house outside of Lavina, took a job in the spring as a service electrician in Billings with Yellowstone Electric, working with customers to solve their electrical problems.

“It’s a challenge and it’s different every day instead of just the same thing,” she says. “And my dad’s the same way, so he’s probably who I got that love for it from.”

Though Donald McCabe, a master electrician, is now working for Yellowstone Electric in Big Sky, he owned McCabe Electric for 10 years, until he sold the company in 2014. He continued working for the company until fall 2018, and that’s where Taylor McCabe completed her apprenticeship.

The family’s electrical dynasty started early in the 20th century. Great-great uncle Harry McCabe served in World War I, starting in 1917, as a master electrician. He was part of the 10th Balloon Company of the U.S. Army, according to Robyn McCabe, Taylor’s mom.

“When he came back from the war, he was a grain buyer in Montana, owning grain elevators all over Montana,” Robyn McCabe says, adding that he lived in Straw and Hobson. “We have found elevators with ‘McCabe’ still on them in Big Sandy and Richland.”

Great-grandpa Roy McCabe, born in 1916 in Buffalo, was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 532 and worked in Billings his entire career.

Grandpa Dave McCabe, born in 1940 in Billings, also was a member of IBEW Local 532, working throughout the United States, including in Billings. His assignments ran the gamut from nuclear sites to Colstrip to the Denver International Airport.

Like his father and grandfather, Donald McCabe is an IBEW union electrician. And now, so is Taylor.

But the youngest in that chain didn’t grow up assuming she’d become an electrician. She, her mom and her brother would help out with the family business from time to time.

“We would run light fixtures to my dad or help him sweep up a house,” Vollum says. “That was as close as I ever got into it.”

Then, during her senior year attending the Career Center in Billings, in the 2012-13 academic year, she took an electrical class.

“I just wanted to see what it was about because my whole family did it,” she says.

Each year, students build a house, and Vollum was part of the team that wired the single-family structure. By the time she was done, “it just clicked” and she decided she wanted to join the trade.

Through the union, electricians in training are granted apprentices’ licenses. They work under journeyman and master electricians.

At first, her dad tried to talk his daughter out of it. He knows how physically challenging and hard on the body the job can be.

“My mom finally told him to let me do it,” Vollum says. “So, I started out in the residential program because my dad thought he was going to kick my butt that first summer and I wouldn’t want to keep doing it.”

She acknowledges that working as an electrician requires a lot of physical strength, as well as strong hands.

“You’ve got to be able to pick up quite a bit of weight, 250 feet of Romex rolls (of wire) when you pack those into a house,” she says. “You have to haul tools in, pack ladders, bend conduit.”

Still, she persisted and by the second summer, her father directed her into another program that taught her how to wire buildings in commercial and industrial settings.

In addition to on-the-job training, Vollum joined other Montana apprentices for five weeks a year in Helena, a week at a time. She completed labs and assignments before going back on the job to apply what she’d learned.

And all the while Vollum was getting paid on the job, getting a bump in pay as the number of hours she worked increased. Unlike her husband, who’s still paying student loans for a two-year mechanic’s program, Vollum finished up with no debt.

Once she got her journeyman’s license, Vollum worked for the company that bought out McCabe Electric, until this past March. Then she joined her father in Oregon on a commercial construction project, where she spent about 2½ months until she returned to Montana.

Before she went to Oregon, Vollum only knew a couple of women in Montana who worked in the electrical field. During her time away, she met more female electricians.

“I had to go to work on a big job to realize how many more of us there are now,” she says. “Which is pretty cool because I thought we were a rare breed in the ranks of electricians.”

Still, a woman working in a trade that traditionally has been dominated by men presents its challenges. Vollum told about one “very terrible” journeyman electrician who supervised her during part of her apprenticeship.

“I’m not sure if it was because I was a female or if he didn’t like me or if it was a little bit of both,” she says. “But that was the hardest summer of my whole career, working under him.”

Some tended to be too helpful, doing her job for her or easing her workload. Others, though, treated her just like every other apprentice.

“I appreciated the journeyman electricians who didn’t mollycoddle me and let me do my job because that’s how I learned,” Vollum says.

All the hard work brought a high degree of satisfaction when she graduated from the five-year program.

“It was pretty cool to have that feeling that I have a journeyman’s license in my pocket,” Vollum says. “And that I’m officially a fifth-generation electrician.”

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