Paula C. Montiel Arias: Electrical Engineer Turned Electrician and Back


Having just completed her third year in the IEC Apprenticeship Program at IEC of New England, Paula C. Montiel Arias is well on her way to an exciting career — one she hadn’t really considered coming out of high school in Central Florida. 

“In my family, it was black and white; there was no gray,” Paula explains. “After high school, you go to college. After I graduated high school in 2016, I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa to major in electrical engineering. I was having a rough semester at the beginning of 2019. When I came home for that summer, I told my mom that I needed to take a break as there was just too much theory. I needed to see something practical.” 

Paula found what she was looking for in Orlando at the Orange Technical College — a year-long, hands-on electricity program with a great lab. She finished the program in six months but before heading back to that electrical engineering degree, her professor, Pete Schmidt, directed her to an engineering assistant job. 

“This was November of 2019 and I started at a relatively new signage company, a start-up, designing layouts and testing power supplies,” she recalls. “I loved my job and thought I could do this awhile and then go back to school to finish my degree.” 

Then the pandemic hit, and she saw her friends back at the University of South Florida struggling to finish their degrees with interrupted internships, less opportunities, and lots of heartache. She thought her better path was to keep working and not incur more student debt. Then, she got furloughed from the signage company and began working any job she could get — theme parks, lifeguard — to make ends meet. 


Apprentice Program Saves the Day 

That time she had spent at Orange Technical College once again saved the day. As a graduate of the program, Paula was emailed regularly about job openings. When she saw that APG Electric, headquartered in Clearwater, FL, was looking for an electrical apprentice, she pursued it and was hired. That’s where things really came together for Paula. 

“APG paid for me to go through the IEC Apprenticeship Program at the Florida West Coast Chapter, and I was all in,” she remembers. “I began to see how all the theory I had been learning and all the math and equations that I loved were actually being applied in the field. Everything clicked for me.”

Her only regret? Not knowing about the trades and apprenticeship earlier. 


Student of Two Chapters 

After starting out with APG and the Florida West Coast Chapter (FWCC) with in-person first-year apprenticeship classes, her husband landed his dream job with ESPN in Connecticut, and they moved. Year two she continued with FWCC as a distance learner. Finding out that IEC New England was based in Connecticut felt to Paula like “everything happens for a reason and God puts everything in our path.” She transferred there for year three and works with IEC member T & T Electrical Contractors. 

“The transfer was very smooth,” Paula says. “I’m glad it all worked out, and I’m glad that I’m here. The distance learning year was a bit of a challenge because second year is all about transformers, but it had to be that way during the pandemic when everything switched to Zoom. It’s just not the same seeing a picture; I want to touch and feel and do it.” 

Paula sometimes finds it challenging to be a woman in a male-dominant field and says it can feel like being back in grade school where there are two captains picking their teams.

“It was the same in Florida and in Connecticut that the captain looks at me and may think I’m not strong enough to do something, but I love proving people wrong,” she says. “I don’t believe this job is about who is stronger or who can lift the most; it’s about how to do things in the most effective way. Give me the chance, and I’ll show you how I can do it all.” 

Paula truly appreciates IEC instructors because they are not people you see only in the classroom like her college professors. Her first-year instructor, Asdrubal Cermeno or Alex, is an APG service journeyman, so Paula often worked hand in hand with him in the field in addition to learning from him in the classroom. 

“I liked how he held me to a bit of a higher standard because he was working with me and he wanted me to be better,” she says. “He challenged me and I worked really well with him. He would explain things, give me the chance to think about it, and not just tell me what to do. I owe a lot to Alex.” 

Her second-year instructor was Norm Runk, who was a county inspector. He would share pictures of what he was finding on inspections, which taught them to think like inspectors. During this remote year, Paula found it interesting to learn from the inspection angle. 

“My third-year instructor, Denis Vaillancourt, also works for T & T so I once again have that opportunity to see him in class and in the field,” Paula says. “There are so many reasons why the combination of classroom instruction and field training goes together so well. It’s like a puzzle you get to work through hand-in-hand with journeymen who have gone through the same process who can give guidance but also be open to your ideas.” 

She likes that every day is different — she enjoys rough-in work, bringing wires to receptacles, troubleshooting and tracing circuits, digging (though it was easier to dig in always warm Florida than Connecticut), generators and transformers, and learning to work with the other trades involved in projects. 

“I like the problem-solving, thinking about how to best run wire for efficiency,” Paula says. “Every day is different. Working with the other trades is perhaps my favorite part — it’s like a puzzle and maybe I’m finding the corner pieces or edges and they’re filling in the top side or something. It’s really great to see the completed result.” 

Paula looks forward to finishing fourth year and obtaining her journeyman’s license. Then she’ll have been in the state two years, so she can take advantage of in-state tuition to finish her electrical engineering degree while continuing her electrical work. Whichever side she works on, she’ll have a better understanding of the needs of the other to better complete jobs. 

“An engineer may specify four-inch pipe, but the person in the field knows that four-inch pipe is not going to fit in that wall,” she explains. “Once I do become an engineer, I hope to smooth out those things that get lost in translation. We all want to get this job done in the most efficient and best manner. If I can make my prints and designs more legible for everyone out in the field, that’s great. This is a great career — it’s a full-time job with benefits, there’s room for growth, and it challenges your mind and your body. Believe me, I’m telling my little brother and little sister about the opportunities available to them.”  

Why Become an Electrician? 

“It’s a very rewarding career, and there is always room for growth. You are not going to get bored; there are new challenges every day. You are going to keep your body and your mind active. Yes, electricity can seem scary at first. You need to follow safety protocols and stay focused. The IEC Apprenticeship Program combines the classroom and the hands-on work to be sure you are prepared.”

— Paula C. Montiel Arias