Apprentice Spotlight: Rebecca Wallen

Rebecca Wallen
Modesto, CA.  |  By Andrew Lott and Vince Sugrue

“Don’t be afraid to be different” is what Rebecca told me as we finished up our coffee and conversation at the hip coffee spot “The Queen Bean” in Modesto, California on a cold Sunday afternoon in early January. The last question I had asked her before wrapping up our interview was, “If you could say one thing to 10,000 people – what would you say?” I think that the mantra of “Don’t be afraid to be different” is actually quite fitting for Rebecca. She’s a 30 year old vegetarian Union Sheet Metal Worker from Modesto with a passion for community organizing who spends her free time rocking out on a drum set. Meeting Rebecca reminds me that being different isn’t a bad thing, and makes me appreciate how interesting and unique everyone is within this trade. We all have a story to tell, and as a second year Apprentice working for Brown Sheet Metal, her story is one of both loyalty and persistence. She’s loyal to the trade, her family, and the Union fight. She’s persistent in wanting to learn and perfect her craft, and in the way where she recognizes the world is filled with complex challenges – and she wants to take them on to help be part of the solution in solving them. Welcome to Rebecca’s Sheet Metal Story.

Rebecca, how did you decide to become Union Sheet Metal Worker?

I was born in Modesto, and the only time I haven’t lived here was when I was going to UC Merced for 3 years. I was one semester away from graduating with a degree in Environmental Engineering. I ended up getting burnt out and the theory alone wasn’t for me. I learned how to design things, but realistically, I couldn’t build anything I designed. I learned about all of these problems in the world, and how, although there’s no solution, we just do the best we can to mitigate all of the problems. I didn’t know how to build anything. I didn’t learn how to go from the theory to the practicality of it all.

After I left UC Merced, I was looking for a job – and my dad, the welding instructor at the Modesto JATC, Daren Wallen, suggested I take the apprenticeship test. Sheet Metal had always been a prominent part of my life with my dad and my uncle Mark Wallen both being Union sheet metal workers. I passed the test and got sponsored by Brown Sheet Metal. Since then I haven’t looked back and have fallen in love with the trade.

What was your experience growing up in a family of Sheet Metal Workers?

I loved my experience growing up in a family of Sheet Metal Workers. My dad, who helped raise me along with my grandma after my mom passed away, has always been stoked on showing me his craft, and the different tools he used to complete a project. I remember being in high school taking Agricultural Mechanics, and I did a research project on Sheet Metal Workers. It’s just always something that has clicked with me as a respectable means of making a living. I’m also living with my dad right now, and it’s funny, because I’ll come home, and immediately we’ll talk shop. I’ll tell him about what I was working on, and 5 minutes later we’re drawing pictures on pieces of paper figuring out strategies of how to create efficiency in the installation or seeing if we should approach a challenge in a different way. His passion has now turned into my passion. I have to give my dad a lot of credit too, because he’s always made me feel capable and empowered me throughout my childhood. He never made me feel limited by being a female.

What do you like most about being a Sheet Metal Worker?

I like working with the tools and machinery a lot. The other day, I was in the shop working on the V-18 – a big band saw that handles a lot of material – and it can be a dangerous experience if someone isn’t trained properly. To be honest, that makes me feel like a badass. I’m doing something not a lot of women do, let alone people in general.

I also like the mentorship aspects of the trade. I’ve been grateful for the mentorship I’ve received from family members, but on the job, I’ve had really positive experiences with individuals who want to see me improve and learn. I remember Rob Laney at CMI being stoked at how excited I was to learn and I learned a lot about how to consciously pay attention and retain the information through the process. Mentorship is vital within Local 104. We have to get the older journeypersons to pass on their knowledge. You just can’t get all of it in school, so much is on-the-job training. I appreciate everyone at Brown Sheet Metal because I feel like I’m really learning something every single day.

Finally, I like the fact that this trade is so mentally stimulating. This trade is the practical side of math and science. I love problem solving, and while I go through my apprenticeship, I’m simultaneously learning and problem solving. You have to be intuitive in this trade, and you have to find the balance between working fast and executing perfectly. I think that’s something I’m working on right now in figuring out how I develop that skill. The foremen and journeypersons around me have been incredibly supportive in helping me develop as a sheet metal worker. 

You’re extremely active in Local 104’s Campaign for Jobs Program, why?

It’s important that we keep this Union alive. Participating in the Campaign for Jobs has really helped me feel connected to my community and to our Union. It’s helping me understand why we are involved in the community and what it means to secure future work opportunities. I’ve also learned how to effectively communicate with others in the community – be that through door-knocking for candidates who fight for us. Although politicians aren’t always going to do what we want them to do, those who we support in the Central Valley are committed to working family issues and protecting our wages/benefits.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I want to be a better sheet metal worker, I want to have learned how to ride a motorcycle, and I want a house or some land. I see myself staying in Modesto, more involved in our Union, and wanting to be running work. I specifically want to stay in Modesto because growing up, a lot of my friends were dissatisfied with how things were in our community and decided the best thing for them to do was to move away. That doesn’t feel right to me – I feel like if you see a problem within your own community – where you’re from and where your family is – if you’re capable, get your hands dirty and make it a better place yourself.

This article was originally published in the Local 104 Journal.