Trades pathway alum tells women: When it's broke, you can fix it

Solei Donahue completed GCU's Pre-Apprenticeship for Electricians pathway last year and is now working in the field and encouraging other women.

She stood in the 4 a.m. winter dark waiting for a ride to the worksite for a 6 a.m. start to her first day with Corbins, an electrical contractor in Phoenix. “I didn’t want to be late,” she said. “To be on time is to be late.”

Thus began the electrician career of Solei Donahue, who grew up on the Gila River Indian Reservation and was always told if she wanted something fixed, she had to fix it herself. She got her gloves and safety gear and joined an orientation of mostly men.

Donahue, who had just completed Grand Canyon University’s Pre-Apprenticeship for Electricians pathway in December, was delighted.

“It’s my biggest thing, being a female and just being able to do the stuff all these other men are doing,” she said. “I’m like 5-foot-7 and I saw girls there way shorter than me, and they are out there lifting conduit and 10-foot heavy pipe, you know?”

Solei Donahue is an apprentice at Corbins in Phoenix.

GCU’s Center for Workforce Development has championed women in the trades. Since the electricians pathway began in the fall of 2022, consistently around 10 percent of the enrollees for the 15-week program have been women during an era when the profession nationwide is only 2% female.

“Women are multitaskers and detail oriented, so a career in the trades is a natural fit for those who are looking for unconventional careers,” said Shelly Seitz, the center’s program manager who on Wednesday night was elected board director of National Association for Women in Construction's Phoenix chapter. “Employers have realized the value that women bring to these jobs and the companies are making strong moves to diversity their workforce.”

GCU’s Workforce Advisory Board is adding a Women in Trades subcommittee for the 2024-25 academic year to attract even more women.

It didn’t take long for Donahue to feel comfortable; she met two other women at the job site who had completed the GCU pathway – sisters Janet and Lisette Amaya – also working as apprentices for Corbins, one of the pathway’s sponsors.

Donahue, 19, has an independent streak, growing up far from everything and raised by a single mother.

“I’ve always been a tomboy, played basketball, played outside, got dirty,” she said. “My mom was always working, and she always said that I taught myself to ride my bike.

“Growing up, if we had to fix the car, she would say, ‘C’mon Solei, we are going to fix the car.’ She always made sure I knew basic mechanics so I would know how to fix something if it came down to it.”

GCU's Shelly Seitz encourages women to join the trades.

Her mother, Janice Antone, gave up her own chance at higher education to take care of her children. Antone said calling a handyman wasn’t an option. She taught her daughter to change a tire, replace a headlight and repair a toilet, among other things.

“She was always tinkering. If something is broke, Solei can fix it. She loves to be the handyman,” she said.

But it had yet to connect that Solei would be interested in a trades career, even as she moved the family off the reservation to attend school in Chandler, then finish high school in Avondale while working various casino jobs.

When she brought Solei along to son Jaden Donahue’s visit to GCU to inquire about pursuing a psychology degree, she was told about the trade pathways. Solei recalled how much she enjoyed a sixth grade experiment, using wires to hook up a potato-powered light bulb.

She thought of that potato later as she was making her own circuits in a series of GCU courses that prepare participants for apprenticeships, coincidentally alongside Tom Sillar, who also lived on the reservation and was in her Chandler sixth grade class.

After Donahue completed the pathway, she signed on with Corbins, began working at QTS, a data center in Phoenix, and will soon start her classes at Western Electrical Contractors Association Apprenticeship.

Solei Donahue's favorite part of the job is working with tools.

“My favorite part is just being able to learn new things, the knowledge of being an electrician and being able to be hands-on with tools,” she said.

Her mom is also proud, saying “she is already earning almost as much as me,” and helping pay rent.

Antone recently joined her daughter at a Flagstaff workforce summit convened by the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity. Donahue was one of the first speakers.

“I don’t know how to say it but being a person who works at a construction site in front of people who run things – big office officials – was fun to be a part of,” Donahue said.

She wanted to share her inspiration to other girls and women, describing in her speech that soon after coming into her first electrical foundations class at GCU, she realized it was what she wanted to do with her life.

“It gave me the confidence to keep pushing myself to stand for all the women in general, including young women in my community out there who think joining a trade is scary,” she said in the speech. “It was my fourth month on site when one of the security girls had told me that I am her inspiration and how strong I am for working alongside these men. That comment alone is reassurance that I am achieving one of my many goals of inspiring other women to pursue an occupation outside of teaching, nursing or beatification.”

Her mom looked on with pride.

“Afterwards, we got in lunch line and they were shaking my hand,” Antone said. “They were thanking me for doing such a great job raising my daughter.”

One who can fix a toilet, build a circuit and is on the way to becoming a journeywoman electrician.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]

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