I've had a thorn in my paw ever since I read Jim Olsztynski's Editorial Opinion in the September issue of PM. Jim's main point:

I've had a thorn in my paw ever since I read Jim Olsztynski's Editorial Opinion in the September issue of PM. Jim's main point:

“This is going to get me in trouble with some readers, but I contend the main reason women are so disinclined toward trade work is that they are, well, women.”

Jim, my friend, you are not in trouble with me. I just find the premise troubling. Is it true? And even if it is true, should we still make an extra effort to entice women to join the trades?

When I was president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, there were 248 trucks in the franchised fleet. Not one of them was driven by a woman. I have personally enjoyed blessed success as a female in a male-dominated industry. However, I have not demonstrated any ability to recruit, hire and train women as plumbing professionals.

Give Up Or Dig Deeper?

Hey, Jim may be right. He's a smart fellow and the stats are with him. Why do I feel so uncomfortable about his position? Is stating that “women are disinclined toward plumbing because they are, well, women” kind of like saying that black people don't like golf because they are, well, black? (There may be some folks in Augusta who are still in denial about Tiger.)

Should we give up on wooing women to the trades? If men were flocking to the trades, it would be less relevant to ask or answer that question. However, you, dear reader, request articles on “finding and hiring good people” more than any other topic in PM surveys.

Maybe we should dig deeper. What is it exactly that keeps women from this great industry?

In his editorial, Jim O. shared that he asked his daughter whether she ever considered a skilled trade career. She responded with “a blend of disgust and laughter.” I have had the same reaction when I've asked job-shopping women friends, “How about becoming a plumber?”

“Ewww, gross!”

The Gross-Out factor for plumbing is nowhere near the Gross-Out factor for traditionally female-dominated fields, such as dental hygienists, nurses or -- horrors! -- child care professionals. In these occupations, the human waste is still attached to the humans! Yuck!

I've learned that it doesn't often get nasty-dirty in plumbing. Not nastier than changing a 3-year-old's diaper. Not if you are doing the job properly and using the right tools.

So, is it the nature of plumbing work that repels women, or the stereotypical image of the cigar-chompin', dirty-overall-wearin', butt-crack-exposin' plumber? Is that the Gross-Out factor?

Also, when I mention how much money a plumber can make, the grimace usually disappears. However, still not one of my gal pals has asked me for an application.

In the USA, the gap between men's and women's wages is statistically closing. Still, it exists. And I wonder, do women know how much money they can make as plumbers? An advantage of doing “men's work” is getting paid “men's wages.”

The money is an essential component of the job. However, it is not enough to woo women, or men, to the trade with the promise of big bucks. To be super successful in plumbing, one has to be able to create and fix plumbing systems, and enjoy doing it.

That's one of the things my friend Jennifer Courchaine wanted me to tell you when I visited with her about women and plumbing.

Portrait Of A Woman Service Plumber

Jennifer, or Jen, is a service plumber at Winters Plumbing in Cambridge, Mass. Her boss, owner Tim Flynn, called me to brag on Jen.

“Ellen, Jen has been working for us for two months. Since she started, she has been No. 1 or No. 2 on the scoreboard for sales and we get only rave reviews from her customers. Technically, she is spot on. And, she is a pleasure to work with. I want you to meet this woman!”

I wanted to meet her, too. I had just read Jim O.'s words and was starting to feel that thorn.

Why did Jen become a plumber? What did she think about wooing women to plumbing? I gave Jen a call. Between service calls, she told me her story.

Jen's father owned a construction company. Jen wanted to tag along when he took her brother along on jobs. Her father told her that little girls should stay home and bake cookies. That didn't sit well.

Jen's mother, however, dispensed “You can do whatever you want to do” encouragement. In high school, Jen's trade tech teacher showed her how to install a faucet. She gave it a try and easily assembled it. She liked it. Her teacher sealed the deal when he said, “You could get paid $75 to do that.”

Jen's first plumbing work was in commercial new construction. Her supervisor was a tough mentor and he treated her fairly. Some of her co-workers were supportive and others were indifferent. One was mean enough to disrespect Jen with disparaging “port-a-potty” graffiti. He was fired when another sub blew the whistle.

“I stuck with it because I loved plumbing and was getting good at it. I had a 'full-circle' moment when my dad asked me to plumb his new house,” Jen told me.

An ambitious woman, Jen was driven to move forward in her career. She tried working in a showroom and for a wholesale supply house. But she found she missed working in the field. So she got back in the plumbing truck.

With each job, she learned new skills: septic systems, wells and pumps, new work, and service work. Then, she found her favorite -- flat rate service work. Customers loved knowing the price up front. And the company had a productivity-based pay system.

Jen said, “It makes sense to me. If you deliver more, you get paid more.”

Alas, Jen found that the on-call requirements were not working out for her. As a single mom, the logistics became unwieldy. (Another reason why women shy away from the trades? More so than men?)

Like so many plumbers do, Jen thought the best solution would be to start her own business and be her own boss. Ah, the freedom! The wealth! When her son became ill, the advantages of business ownership disappeared like jumbo prawns at a buffet. She looked for another position as a service plumber.

Ultimately she found Tim Flynn and Winters Plumbing.

“The hiring process took three weeks. I had to prove myself to get hired. It means something to make the grade. I respect Tim for running a tight, disciplined shop. I like systems and organization. We are super busy, but it's productive, not chaotic. And, there is opportunity to move up the ladder.

“I love serving customers. Sometimes, when a customer opens the door, there is a moment of confusion, like, 'Where's the plumber?' But I win them over.

“I can't see myself as a service plumber when I am 60 years old. I don't know that I would hire an old lady to replace a water heater!” (Hmmm. It is an awkward picture. Does the image of a 60-year-old man plumber create the same discomfort?)

I found it interesting that Jen has experienced so much of what is good and what is bad in this industry. Have you had many of these experiences? I've heard variations of every part of her story dozens of times. Interestingly, Jen's most painful challenges were presented by other women, not from men.

I asked Jen what she thought about women and plumbing.

“Be honest with yourself. Don't become a plumber just to prove a point. I met a woman apprentice who decided to become a plumber just because she wanted to prove that she could do it. I don't think she will last in the trade. You have to want to do it. You have to really like the work. And you have to have a backbone. You are going to get some flak. You've got to want it enough to put up with the hassle.

“Don't hire a woman just because she is a woman. Pay attention. Be careful that you aren't lowering your standards or expectations because she is a woman. Keep it real. Can she do the job? Use the same criteria and hiring process you would use with male applicants.

“I am thankful to those who were open-minded enough to give me the opportunity to work and learn side-by-side with some of the best plumbers in the industry. And, it's nice to see that times are changing and more and more plumbers are setting higher standards in the industry.”

Thank you, Jen, for your perspective.

What do you think: Is it possible to entice women to become plumbers? If so, is it worth spending time and energy figuring out how to do it? Would you be interested in a “roundtable” discussion focused on answering this question: How can I encourage women to pursue a plumbing career at my company?

What if we spent a day brainstorming ways to help grow your business by finding, recruiting and hiring great women plumber-candidates? We could gather at roundtables and tap into our collective, creative minds. We could create a list of things to do that would help women see what a great career you have to offer.

What good could come from a day like that?

I don't imagine that we will significantly increase the percentage of women in the trades. But we may solve some problems for you at your company. Got a thorn in your paw? Let me know.

If you would be interested in participating in this roundtable discussion, send me an e-mail saying, “I'm interested in wooing women to plumbing.” My e-mail address is ellen@barebonesbiz.com. Or, visit my article online at www.PMmag.com and click on the “I'm interested in wooing women to plumbing” button.

When I told Jim O. about this column, he predicted that only five or six people would respond. He may be right. If he is, I'll let this go. If he's wrong, Jen and I will host a lively discussion.