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Brianna Krzewina never thought she would go to college. She went into the military after high school and did routine jobs after she was honorably discharged out of basic training. Her career path changed when she decided to join a friend who was volunteering to help at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) Annual Energy Fair in 2014. Although they initially offered her a place cooking, she asked for something more related to energy and was assigned to assist the master electrician and plumber in setting up the electricity and water for the fair. Brianna said that was when she fell in love with renewable and sustainable energy and electrician work. After the fair, she didn’t immediately go to college because she wasn’t sure that she could afford it and she wasn’t sure what type of program would fit her renewable energy interests. She continued to volunteer for the annual MREA Energy Fair and in 2016, at the age of 29, she started at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College as a full-time student, supported by grant funding.
Brianna enjoyed taking classes in both the electrical engineering and solar energy technology programs, but soon realized that the path to an engineering degree would require many more years of advanced mathematics and engineering coursework. She was very pleased to realize that the renewable energy work that she really wanted to do could be pursued with a two-year technical school education. She especially liked the technical college’s open lab format where the teacher would do a presentation on a topic and then the students were free to work on applications of that topic all day in the lab. “the open lab was helpful for learning topics such as DC wiring, power electronics and hydraulics, because there was no time pressure”, said Brianna. Her teachers all had real world experience, and were available for questions, plus she and the other students could explore projects together. She found that she understood these lab projects so well that she could help other people which reinforced her learning. She also completed an internship doing four solar installs under the supervision of one of her teachers, which helped her in her first job.
One of the unique opportunities Brianna enjoyed during her time as a full-time student was her being chosen for the N+I 11 day engineering student abroad workshop sponsored by a French nonprofit consortium. She was the only student chosen from WI and one of the few technical school applicants. She loved meeting French transportation and energy department heads and exchanging ideas and she came home with increased confidence in addition to life-long friends. She returned to Northeast WI Technical College to complete her Associates degree in Solar Energy Technology with a 4.0 gpa with highest honors.
Brianna’s hard work has paid off through an accelerated career path at NorthWind Solar. Although she started as a photon (solar) technician installing solar modules and wiring roof racks, she moved up in a year to a lead installer with her own crew. After another full season, she expressed interest in an open AC Tech position and was on her way to becoming a journeyman electrician. Her college program and internship gave her 2000 hours and her on the job experience will add another 3000 hours so she will be able to complete the 5000 hours required for journey worker status and then she will test this coming winter or spring. In addition to being able to pursue her interest in renewable energy-related electrician work while working for NorthWind Solar, Brianna has been able to join the Board of Directors at Northwind Solar, which is a worker-owned cooperative in Wisconsin. As a member/owner she receives an hourly wage and also dividends from the co-op profits.
When asked who helped her the most in pursuing her career, Brianna cites mentors at MREA (especially Jenny Heinzen, a master electrician, and Clay Sterling, a master electrician and plumber) and teachers at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) like John Hippensteel and Jenny Brinker. All of them gave selflessly of their time to help her learn. She hopes to pay it forward by being a mentor and teacher in the future.
What would Brianna like to tell women and girls thinking of pursuing work in renewable energy? She says that, “It is such a cool profession!. You make a difference in people’s lives, helping them get energy from the sun and to store it when the grid is down. In big ways like addressing climate change and in practical ways like wiring a house and turning on the switch and seeing everything you have done work, which helps people avoid blackouts, it is very satisfying”.
Brianna also likes that her day is never the same. Each job involves some creativity in figuring out how to get an install done. Plus, there are many different types of renewable energy jobs like technician, sales, marketing, design and administration and companies like hers are looking for qualified women. She says, “ It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, or where you are starting, there is a way for you to join the renewable energy field if you want to!”