Crystal Rourke says life wasn’t quite as tough two years ago as it now sounds.
Yes, she was going through a divorce and often had to work three jobs to support her three sons. They included working as a probation officer, a corrections officer and driving for Lyft. She also worked towards a graduate degree so she could become full-time probation officer.
Through it all, she tried to maintain a positive attitude, though that wasn’t always easy.
“Fake it until you make it,” the U.S. Army veteran said with a laugh. “I was just pushing and pushing forward.”
In early 2018, while working for Asplundh, the international tree-trimming company, and still attending school, Rourke finally got a well-earned break.
A co-worker told her Xcel Energy, a longtime IBEW utility partner in Minnesota, was hiring groundmen and drivers and encouraged her to put her name on the books at Minneapolis Local 160.
Initially, Rourke was hesitant to do so. She feared she would be “laughed out of the office.” She overcame the initial fears, however, and after applying, she was called back for an interview. Rourke said the person interviewing told her she was qualified except she lacked a tanker endorsement, which allows drivers to haul 1,000 gallons or more of liquid and gas.
She immediately drove 15 minutes to a Minnesota motor vehicle branch office, studied for the test on her phone and earned her endorsement later that afternoon.
With that, Rourke was hired in April 2018 and earned Local 160 membership in the process. She’s left her other jobs and now is able to spend more time with her sons – ages 15, 13 and 9 – and to provide the family with quality health insurance.
She’s also the focus of the latest in a series of national television advertisements, which highlight the value of IBEW membership for young people looking for a career that will provide a stable, middle-class life without the burden of college debt.
“It’s my freedom ticket,” Rourke, 35, said. “It’s my way to make my own way, to provide for my family and be able to take off weekends and holidays.”
“I’m not just surviving; I’m living. That was a huge deal for me. If you told me a year ago where I’d be now, I would’ve felt like I’d won the lottery.”
Rourke grew up in rural Missouri, but it wasn’t an easy childhood. She was adopted at age 5 and her mother died when she was 14. She became estranged from her father and was sent to live with family members in Tennessee, where she finished high school before joining the Army. She met her ex-husband in the military and their first son was born in Germany.
“Her enthusiasm is just so impressive,” Local 160 Business Manager Robert Boogren said. “She never seems to have a down moment. It’s amazing she’s turned into such a positive person because things could have easily gone the other way.”
After being discharged, the couple settled in Minnesota because it was close to her husband’s family, Rourke said. Two more sons came along.
But even with her military background, finding a full-time position that provided the family with financial stability proved difficult. Rourke enjoyed her work as a corrections officer but it hardly paid enough to take care of the family’s bills.
“Working in jail taught me how to interact with people and how to communicate,” she said. “You’re outnumbered [by the inmates] and you don’t have a lot of physical tools in your toolbelt. You have to rely on your mental toolkit.”
Working outside is nothing new. Rourke fondly remembers baling hay and feeding the pigs on her family’s Missouri farm – even while her grandmother and grandfather said she should be in the kitchen doing “women’s work.”
Serving in the Army and later working for Asplundh convinced her she could handle herself in a physical environment dominated by men. Rourke said she is one of just four women out of 165 field workers in Xcel’s Electrical Utility Construction Department.
She’s always tried to stay physically active, but it’s even more important to her now. Rourke is training for her first marathon in Las Vegas in November. She’s also become an avid rock climber. It’s all about showing her co-workers and superiors she can drill a hole into the hard ground, lift poles and not get worn out throughout a long day.
“She did not shy away from the physical part of it,” Boogren said.
Boogren said he hopes Rourke’s success will inspire other traditionally underrepresented groups to seek out utility jobs with other IBEW employers.
“Crystal is going about it the right way,” he said. “She goes out and applies herself and has a great story to tell.”
For Rourke, the journey over the last 18 months still is a bit unbelievable. She’s thankful for the job with Excel and the IBEW membership that went with it. She has a good relationship with her ex-husband, which allows her to travel to out-of-town assignments.
the labor movement; she spoke at the Sixth District Progress Meeting earlier this year. She also would like to mentor young women who are going through tough times, in part because landing a job that takes care of a family’s needs can be difficult to find.
“This has been a crazy sort of joy ride,” she said. “I’m finally starting to reach the point where I don’t feel like the bottom is going to drop out on me.”
That’s due to being a good worker and having the power of her union behind her.