Trading the Classroom for Circuits, She’s Launching a New Career

Selena Chaves in Valencia College's AST training room at the Poinciana Campus.

The first thing you notice about Selena Chaves is her joyful attitude and helpful demeanor. That, coupled with a drive to succeed and thirst for knowledge in the electrical field, has positioned Chaves to accept a four-year apprenticeship with Central Florida Electrical JATC and a role in Walt Disney World’s maintenance department, working at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

Once a substitute teacher, Chaves, 26, was inspired to change careers by a friend, another female electrician who has been working in the field for more than 20 years. “She is part of the union and told me about this program about four years ago,” says Chaves. “Some time has passed but it has always interested me.”

Chaves finally decided to pursue her passion — and that decision opened her to a world of opportunity that culminated in an offer from Disney.

“I like construction. My father works in construction, so I’ve been around it for a long time,” she adds. So when she learned that she could take classes at Valencia College’s Accelerated Skills Training program for free – thanks to a Bank of America and a grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity – she was sold. Plus, “getting an education with no debt is another big thing that piqued my interest,” she says. “Now was the perfect time to apply and get into this program and, of course, who wouldn’t want to opportunity to work at Disney?”

For Chaves, the timing of her training worked to her advantage. Valencia launched its Residential Commercial Electrician program in 2022, but her 2023 cohort was the first class to partner with JATC. Indeed, Chaves was the first Valencia student to join the JATC as an apprentice, a vital step to becoming an electrician. An apprenticeship through JATC consists of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and a minimum of 900 hours of classroom instruction during the four-year program.

Chaves said the experience she gained from Valencia’s Residential Commercial Electrician program and the knowledge she absorbed from instructor Mark Rivers were integral to her landing a job with Disney through JATC. Rivers, who was once a lead safety electrician at Proctor & Gamble, “is an expert in the field, and he has a lot of knowledge that he imparts on us,” she says. “It was one of the main reasons why Disney chose me.”

Valencia’s Residential Commercial Electrician class, which is taught at Valencia’s Poinciana Campus, helped Selena transition from teaching to the world of construction. But she is quick to acknowledge that her previous work experience – six years as a substitute classroom teacher – set the stage for her career change.

“As a substitute teacher, you learn to follow a plan. Mark told us that following a job plan is very important and most injuries happen when people deviate from the job plan. Following instructions is key to being a good electrician and staying on task and focused,” she says.

And as a substitute, she had to adapt to many different situations and environments. “When working with different people as a substitute and going to different schools and classrooms, you learn to be adaptable in different circumstances. In construction, you also have that change in environment and change in personnel, so adaptability is key. I’m already used to every day being different,” Chaves says.

Chaves worked with young students and in some autism spectrum disorder classes. Now, she is shifting to a career that she hopes will lead her to a foreman role one day or even the lead for supervising electrical safety.

“Mark was a lead safety electrician for Proctor & Gamble, and he enjoyed his job. He was able to travel with the position, so that might be something I’d consider,” she says. “I would love to go to all 50 states; I have that adventurous spirit.”

For now, Chaves is thrilled to be working for a company that means so much to Central Florida and people all over the world.

— by Larry Hall