Part 2 of this series continues the discussion of finding new avenues to recruit future workers. While the first part dealt with immigrant/ethnic workers, this installment concerns recruiting women into the industry.

For Part 1 of this series, click here.

For Part 3 of this series, click here.

"The long-term story in the labor force has been the growing participation of women, but this had minimal impact upon construction crafts."
-- "Craft Labor Supply Outlook: 2005-2015"
Construction Labor Research Council, 2005

In 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 64.7 million women employed in the United States, 46 percent of the total U.S. labor force. Yet women comprised only 0.9 percent of all 635,000 pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters; 1.4 percent of all 351,000 HVACR mechanics and installers; 3.9 percent of all 152,000 sheet metal workers; 3.2 percent of all 1.2 billion construction laborers; and 5 percent of all 121,000 construction trades helpers.

Obviously, the plumbing and piping trades won't appeal to all women; some may be put off by the physicality of the job. But that doesn't mean women can't succeed in this profession; they just have to work a little smarter and find alternative methods to completing certain tasks, such as using mechanical equipment to lift heavy objects. (Think of all those back injuries and muscle strains your technicians and installers get each year, and this sounds like a good idea, right?)

I first wrote about this subject a few years ago (“Women In Plumbing: Where Are They?” November 2002). Since then, the only thing that seems to have changed is that there are more groups dedicated to women in nontraditional careers, such as the building trades, and an increase in the number of plumbing/piping training programs, some targeted at women. However, gainful employment for women in the trades is still elusive.

One positive trend is that privately held women-owned firms are diversifying into nontraditional industries. A nontraditional industry or occupation is one in which women make up less then 25 percent of the total number of workers. According to the Center for Women's Business Research, one of the areas seeing the greatest growth in the number of these firms (50 percent or more owned by women) during the 1997 to 2004 period is construction, which saw a 30 percent growth. In 2004, women-owned construction firms were 23.9 percent of all privately held construction firms.

As most jobs in the U.S. economy are still thought of as “women's work” or “men's work,” it can be difficult for women to enter nontraditional occupations, such as plumbing or mechanical contracting. But that doesn't mean women shouldn't try, or that employers shouldn't look at qualified female applicants when filling positions.

Why should women look into the construction trades? Well, money is one reason.

“While women have made some important gains … with slowly increasing numbers in the professional and administrative occupations, (a good percentage) are still segregated in low-paying industries in clerical and services jobs,” writes Rose Neufeld in her book, “Exploring Nontraditonal Jobs For Women.” These jobs include secretary, bookkeeper, cashier, waitress and retail salesperson.

A new study released earlier this year by Women Work!, a national nonprofit organization and network for women's employment, states that there has been a dramatic increase (39 percent) of single mothers and displaced homemakers (women whose sole or primary job has been homemaking, but who have lost their main source of income through divorce, separation or widowhood) - from 15 million in 1994 to 20.9 million in 2003.

The report, “Chutes and Ladders: The Search for Solid Ground for Women in the Workforce,” includes additional findings:

  • Single mothers and displaced homemakers are “poor” or “near poor” although they are working;
  • Those who are employed are overrepresented in low-paying service occupations with few, if any, benefits; and
  • More than half have not completed education beyond high school.

“More than ever before, (these women) must be looked to as the solution for filling the workforce gap, much in the same way that women were actively recruited to fill a skilled worker shortage during World War II,” states Sandra McGarraugh, chair of the Women Work! board. “It worked then and it can work now.”

Consequently, women can make more money in the construction trades. A March 13, 2005, Parade article on what people earn named plumbing as one of the “hot jobs” of 2005, with a starting salary of $30,500 to $41,500. That's more than what some college graduates start at (this journalism graduate surely didn't!).

Another reason is job satisfaction. Many women working in low-paying jobs are not happy or fulfilled, but lack the education to move into other fields. Construction and related careers such as plumbing and heating involve hard work, but today, there are more and more programs available for women to obtain the training and skills needed.

“Most women in construction agree that earning high salaries, acquiring important skills and deriving job satisfaction make the hard work very worthwhile,” Neufeld says.

Why should plumbing and mechanical contractors look at women as technicians and installers? The biggest reason is the lack of skilled workers in the industry. Large amounts of new construction trades workers will be needed in the years 2005-2015 primarily because the baby boomer generation will begin to retire and leave the labor force, states a report recently released by the Construction Labor Research Council, and the construction industry must focus on attracting new entrants to the construction trades.

Women, particularly single mothers and displaced homemakers, “add value to the labor force beyond simply filling an anticipated labor shortage - they represent a dedicated and highly motivated workforce,” the “Chutes and Ladder” report states. “Mid-life and older women workers possess qualities above and beyond the necessary job skills desired by today's employers, such as commitment to doing quality work and loyalty to the company.” And critical for the future of the U.S. economy, and possibly the construction trades, is investment in women's education and training.

Training For Nontraditional Jobs

If you look hard enough, you can find technical training and/or apprenticeship programs for women in the construction industry. Many technical/ vocational schools are offering plumbing/piping training, some even geared toward women. Check your local community colleges to see if there are programs available. You can also find many regional and state organizations dedicated to women in the construction industry or women in nontraditional jobs (see resources list on page 66).

There are a couple of federal programs to help employers fill skilled labor positions. The first, the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-530), provides technical assistance to employers and labor unions to encourage employment of women as apprentices by preparing employers to successfully recruit, train and retain women.

Under the law, the Labor Department is to inform employers of technical assistance available through an outreach program. Grants are made to community-based organizations to deliver technical assistance to such employers and labor unions. Assistance may include:

    1. Developing outreach and orientation sessions to recruit women into employers' apprenticeable and nontraditional occupations;
    2. Developing pre-apprentice nontraditional occupational skills training to prepare women for apprenticeships;
    3. Providing ongoing orientations for employers, unions and workers on creating a successful environment for women apprentices or women in nontraditional occupations;
    4. Setting up support groups and facilitating networks for women in nontraditional occupations, on or off the jobsite, to improve their retention;
    5. Setting up a local computerized database referral system to maintain a current list of tradeswomen who are available for work;
    6. Serving as a liaison between tradeswomen/employers and tradeswomen/labor unions to address workplace issues related to gender; and
    7. Conducting exit interviews with tradeswomen to evaluate their on-the-job experience and to assess the effectiveness of the program.

One such program was recently started in the Chicago area. The Chicago Women in Trades received a $2.1 million grant last fall for its Women In Skilled Trades project. The WIST project will create a network of community and public partnerships to “build a bridge” to construction jobs that provide self-sufficient wages for women.

“This program will assure that women, an untapped labor pool, have the necessary access and training to secure highly skilled, good quality positions, and the support system to allow them to succeed in those positions,” says Lauren Sugarman, president of CWIT. “The construction industry … benefits each time an additional tradeswoman is trained and is at work in our community.”

Through the three-year grant, CWIT will build a network comprised of various construction and building trades groups, the Illinois Commerce and Labor departments, 21 community colleges, and 19 career centers to do outreach and training. The program will also assess the effectiveness of outreach, training and industry placements to determine best practices and program improvements.

The other federal program is conducted through the Labor Department's Employment & Training Administration. President George W. Bush's High Growth Training Initiative is designed to provide national leadership and prepare workers to take advantage of new and increasing job opportunities in high growth/high demand and economically vital industries and sectors of the economy, such as construction. You can get more information on this program at the ETA's Business Relations Group site at

Recruiting Women

Before you develop a strategic recruitment plan to increase the number of women hires, your company should conduct a self-assessment to compare what it is doing to recruit women to the “universe of known strategies,” says the National Institute of Women in Trades, Technology and Science (NIWITTS). You should also perform a statistical analysis of your selection process by gender to determine if women are being “disproportionately screened out” at any stage of the hiring process.

Finally, you should determine what women-specific recruitment strategies to use. Options will differ from one company to another. Some ideas include:

  • Recruiting Web page for women - The Internet is a great way to recruit women applicants, says NIWITTS. Add a section for women in trades occupations on your company's recruitment pages where you can feature bios of your women employees. Include an e-list sign-up to send e-mail messages to multiple applicants at once.


  • Career expos - These should be two or three hours long and held on the weekend or in the evening, in order to accommodate potential applicants that are already working. According to NIWITTS, there should be a role-model panel of three or four women employees from a variety of areas in your company who talk about their work. Also include information on the application and selection process; tips to help women prepare for the physical agility test, if applicable; keynote addresses from the CEO and a high-ranking female manager; and a place where attendees can ask questions.


  • Media coverage - Provide your local press with human-interest stories on women working in male-dominated fields in your company, says NIWITTS. Provide press releases with key statistics on women in nontraditional jobs nationwide and in your company.


  • Publicity materials - If you are seeking to attract female candidates, make sure that at least one third of the images on your Web site, brochures, flyers and other publications are images of women employees. NIWITTS says that female applicants are less likely to click through to your recruitment information if the homepage only carries photos of male employees.


  • Target list - NIWITTS says to reach out to women who are physically active by posting flyers in gyms; locker rooms of women sports teams; and facilities for rock climbing, karate, kickboxing and similar activities. Another good source for women candidates are women who have male-dominated hobbies, such as aviation, skydiving, target shooting and car restoration. Women in the military reserves and veterans' groups should also be pursued; contact your local military base or reservist center to find out how to connect with them.


  • Long-term strategies - You may want to approach two- and four-year colleges with occupational education programs in the community and develop a partnership to recruit women students, maybe a co-op program or internship.

We've seen that there are untapped labor pools for the pipe trades in ethnic workers and women; the final part of this series will provide some insight and tips on recruiting students into the industry.

“The Pretty Plumber” - Lillian Ann Baumbach Jacobs

The first woman master plumber in the United States was Lillian Ann Baumbach Jacobs in 1951 at the age of 21. She spent a lot of time at her father's plumbing company, W.J. Baumbach Plumbing & Heating, Arlington, Va., as her father, cousins and uncles were all plumbers. By the time she was 12, she was a regular plumber's helper for her dad.

After shadowing her father on jobs, she served her formal apprenticeship, moved on to journeyman plumber and eventually passed her master plumber's exam with one of the highest scores in the class.

A local paper dubbed her “The Pretty Plumber,” and her story attracted national attention. Jacobs received hundreds of letters from around the world, some including technical plumbing questions and marriage proposals. A U.S. Army infantry company stationed in Korea during the Korean War elected her as its pin-up girl.

Jacobs was featured on the television show, “What's My Line?” and was also interviewed by Walter Cronkite, one of her favorite experiences.

She married an auto mechanic, George Jacobs, and had two daughters. She was president of Baumbach Plumbers from 1976 until her retirement in 1989. She died from complications from leukemia in 2000. For more information, visit

Education/Training/Recruiting Resources

For resources on educating, training and recruiting women, check out these organizations, magazines and books. These are only some of the resources out there; you can also search on the Internet for “women in nontraditional employment.” Also check out book stores for other books on nontraditional careers for women.