Austin Gearlds, Eason Franklin, Evan Gowdy, and Zay Naing proudly hold their diplomas. On the left is IEC Middle Tennessee first-year instructor Bill Ralston. On the right is fourth-year instructor Frank Seeney.
Seeing a class graduate brings loads of feelings, and they might be different whether you are the apprentice turned journeyman, family, contractor, IEC instructor, or chapter leader. For leaders of the IEC Middle Tennessee chapter, formed in 2019, those feelings were off the charts when they graduated their first class on June 14, 2023.
Perry Patterson, owner of TEAM Electrical Contracting Inc., was keynote speaker at graduation. He also is one of the chapter’s founders and a longtime supporter of well-rounded training. When hiring, he looks for electricians, not simply installers.
“You learn in the field and need to go to class to learn more,” Perry says. “Let’s learn theory, let’s learn why we do what we do. That’s why we wanted to start a school and did so through the IEC chapter. We were so frustrated because we had only been getting installers.”
Perry was beyond excited when the first-year apprentices started class at IEC Middle Tennessee in 2019 and he promised them he’d be there to see them graduate. Perry was present at the 2023 graduation and he expressed how proud he was of their accomplishments. Perry also challenged them to continue to learn so they can grow in their career, a message that was similar to IEC President Cecil Leedy in his recorded comments to the graduates. Perry says he spoke individually to each graduate after the ceremony as well.
“These graduates stepped up and they took responsibility,” he says. “They took time away from their families to better themselves. It takes a lot of commitment to go to school.”
IEC Middle Tennessee President Justin deGraauw, president of deGraauw Electric LLC and also a chapter founding member, speaks similarly of his feelings about seeing the completion of the four-year cycle.
“In 2018, we started having some meetings and discussed not having enough electricians and how we needed to fix that,” Justin says. “Walt (Czyrnik, IEC director of chapter development) came down to share what National had to offer. We decided to form an IEC chapter.”
Perry and Justin both addressed the challenges of these past four years, but with a sense of accomplishment. Just a few months after the first-year class began in 2019, COVID-19 hit and they had to pivot and take their classes online. That, of course, took much energy and slowed initial efforts to further develop the chapter, find its brick-and-mortar location, hire staff, and recruit additional contractor members.
IEC Middle Tennessee Executive Director Catherine (Cat) Niles joined the team June of 2022, just after the chapter acquired its building and has had a fun and productive year setting up the location and positioning the chapter for the future.
“The chapter had been borrowing space, renting space from industry partners and associate members, and they didn’t have a space to go to permanently,” Cat says. “They were learning the curriculum as the years were increasing. They’d really been challenged but stuck with it, and now they’ve been through a full cycle. I could tell that members of the board of directors present at graduation felt how meaningful it was to see this class graduate.”
For the 2022-23 school year, IEC Middle Tennessee had 4 fourth year students – Eason Franklin, Austin Gearlds, and Evan Gowdy who worked with Extreme Electric, and Zay Naing, who worked with deGraauw Electric. There were 4 third year, 6 second year, and 37 first year students, demonstrating the difference having a permanent location and a reputation carries.
Cat says the graduating class was small, worked together well, and felt great on graduation night. It was important to her that this first class — and all future classes — know the network supporting them.
“I want these apprentices to see the community and network that’s behind them,” she says. “I told them ‘there are a lot of people that want to help and support you now and later. If you need help or connections, they are here for you long term.’”
Super Success Story
While Perry, Justin, and Cat celebrate the accomplishments of all IEC Middle Tennessee graduates, they are extremely proud of graduate Zay Naing, deGraauw Electric. Zay started the apprenticeship program knowing very little English, speaking and reading Burmese.
“Zay was very enthusiastic about joining the school,” Justin says. “He is hard-working, responsible, and well-liked by all he encounters. Before he was hacked, his Facebook name was Zay IEC Naing! He is a very dedicated family man and just received his U.S. citizenship in the fall of 2022. He is still learning English but has improved tremendously over the last few years. He was apprentice of the year for IEC Middle Tennessee for all his hard work and dedication. Since graduation, he is lead electrician at a Middle Tennessee State University tennis facilities improvement project for deGraauw with FTM Contracting.”
Cat seconds Zay’s strong work ethic. She said his records show he missed only two classes in four years.
Zay acknowledges that the apprenticeship program was very hard for him as he didn’t understand English well.
“I like electrical work, as it provides good money for my family, it is rewarding, and it makes me happy,” Zay says. “I am very proud to have been named apprentice of the year, to take on new and different jobs, and to finish them.”