The plumbing industry is experiencing a labor shortage. So why not hire women?



"The skilled trades may not always be the easiest career choice a woman can make. Like a stranger in a new town, there are plenty of difficulties to deal with before one can feel at home -- long hours, physical labor, forms of harassment. But, the knowledge and the skills gained are things women can develop and increase."
-- Shinae Chun, director of the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau, speaking at the 2001 National Tradeswoman Conference in Denver.

The Department of Labor's Women's Bureau defines "nontraditional occupations" for women as those which women comprise 25 percent or less of the total employed. In 2001, of the 6.3 million people classified as working in the construction trades, only 153,000 of them were women; that works out to only 2.4 percent, according to the Women's Bureau.

Yet hourly wages for plumbers and pipefitters are typically much higher than that of hairdressers or child care workers -- at least double, sometimes triple the amount. For single moms, laid-off workers and women trying to get off welfare, that can mean providing a better life for themselves and their families.

"I made more as a first-year apprentice with the UA Pipefitters Local 208 in Denver than I would have as a fifth-year teacher," says Susan McDaniel, co-owner of Carrboro, N.C.-based Ms. Fixit LLC.

McDaniel and Pat Smith run Ms. Fixit, which serves the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. McDaniel is a third-generation plumber; her father and grandfather started the family business, C&D Contractors Inc. of Wilmington, Del., about 55 years ago. (Her older sister currently runs the company, her younger brother is a field supervisor, and her 81-year-old father continues to work in the field.)

She received a bachelor's degree in elementary education, but as there were few teaching jobs at the time, she worked in Delaware and Colorado as a plumber/pipefitter and HVAC mechanic for about 10 years. As a foreman, she had five men working for her.

"I realized that I had hit the glass, or copper, ceiling and unless I started my own business, I was pretty much at the end of the line in the industry," she says. "I didn't feel capable of running my own business at the time and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life as a foreman in a field that was pretty hostile to my presence. I was also tired of having to continually prove myself to my co-workers and subordinates."

So she decided to change careers. She considered mechanical engineering, but wanted to be closely involved with computers. She ended up in electrical engineering and computer science. Unfortunately, she couldn't find a job in her specialty, so she went back to her roots -- plumbing.

Smith is new to the industry; in October 2001 she was laid off from her job as project manager at a dot-com business. She and McDaniel, whom she knew from graduate school at the University of Michigan, had opened the shop in August 2001, so she began working as a full partner while trying to find work in the technology sector. She made the decision (or it was made for her) to give plumbing a try.

Although she is currently the company's business manager (she has a bachelor's degree in business and an associate's degree in computer programming), she did work in the trenches when she first signed on at Ms. Fixit.

"I was the 'plumber's helper' and all-around gofer," she explains. "But the business aspects of my former job have proven extremely helpful in writing estimates and agreements in our current business."

They have two full-time female employees, and they hire male subcontractors when needed. "We hire young women who are interested in learning the trade and provide as many resources as possible to enable them to flourish as plumbing contractors," Smith says.

Role Models

Of the many hurdles to women joining the plumbing field, the key one seems to be lack of opportunity. There are a few training programs popping up that try to attract women to the industry (see "Plumbing Training Program Targets Women," October 2002) and, of course, the vocational schools. But young girls don't seem to be aware of the opportunities afforded them in the trades; they aren't given the option.

Obviously, the plumbing trade won't appeal to all women; it's certainly not a glamorous profession. Some women may be turned off by the physicality of the job.

"There are some men who have told me that I shouldn't be on the job because I don't have enough strength to do the work," McDaniel says. "My opinion has always been that I have to use my brain more when I have to lift things. My back isn't as strong, so I have to figure out alternative ways to move heavy items, such as by mechanical means.

"I believe it would be better for everyone if they used their brains a little more rather than trying to muscle through; there would be a lot fewer injuries, especially back injuries."

She adds that for some women the drawback is the fact that they might not be able to get work. There are quite a few plumbing and other construction-related companies that are reluctant to hire women; that's why she and Smith started their own business. With the shortage of skilled workers in the trade, she is confused by this attitude.

"Find a mentor, even if it's a long-distance one," she suggests. "A woman in the trades, or a man who is willing to be a sounding board and not discount your experiences."

Smith agrees: "If the young girls in junior high or high school could see women as role models doing this kind of physical work, and who are successful at it, it would make a big difference. They wouldn't feel so out of place. I'm sure there are girls out there who think, 'I'd really like to try that, but people are going to make fun of me.' They need to believe in their own abilities.

"For me, this experience has been very empowering to go into supply houses and know what I am talking about. I have overheard a few snide remarks, but you've got to blow it off. You can't get bent out of shape over every little thing," she explains.

"If you do, you're not going to last very long," McDaniel adds. "Develop a thick skin, and learn to take some ribbing. Choose your fights carefully or you will burn out. And learn to fight softly, letting your actions, ability and worth speak for you, rather than your anger."

Community Involvement

It's been a little more than a year since Ms. Fixit opened its doors, and the company has developed a reputation in the community for doing high-quality work.

"We pride ourselves on a clean, professional job with friendly service and satisfied customers," Smith says.

McDaniel and Smith attribute their word-of-mouth business to their work with many community organizations, particularly SWOOP (Strong Women Organizing Outrageous Projects), a nonprofit group formed after Hurricane Fran that takes on projects for the elderly and disabled.

The women have also been puppy raisers for Canine Companions for Independence, which breeds and trains assistance dogs to aid people with disabilities other than sight-related, such as the hearing-impaired or those confined to wheelchairs.

They also donate time to women's shelters and rape crisis centers, and give blood. "I would guess that for every hour we donate [to the community], we get 10 hours of paid work as a direct result," McDaniel says.

All in all, the two women find their work very rewarding.

"My previous line of work was filled with more meetings than action and few tangible completions," Smith says. "Now I work in a business where the meetings are few and short, and we actually finish a job!"

And despite the "nontraditonal" aspect of the profession, they firmly believe that women have a place in the plumbing contracting business.

"This work is totally doable by women," McDaniel says. "There's no doubt in my mind that someone who is motivated to do it, can do it. That's the message that I got from my father -- no matter what I wanted to be, if I wanted it bad enough I was the only person standing in my way. If you have trouble getting hired or finding someone who will hire you, just keep pushing. Eventually you'll find someone who will give you a chance."

Ms. Fixit will!

Vocational School Discrimination

Even though Title IX -- the law that bars sex discrimination in all aspects of federally funded education -- turned 30 years old this year, girls are still getting the shaft in vocational schools, according to a report released from the National Women's Law Center.

In June, the NWLC filed 12 petitions for "compliance review" with each of the Department of Education's Department of Civil Rights regional offices. The organization provided statistical data and requested Title IX investigations of -- and demanded remedies for -- sex discrimination in vocational and technical education across the country.

"We want the Department of Education to investigate what discrimination exists," says Leslie Annexstein, senior counsel for the NWLC. "The numbers we've uncovered show the range of opportunities for female students are slim, and the young girls who do choose a 'non-traditional' field continue to face hostile environments."

The nonprofit organization has been working since 1972 to advance women's legal rights, and considers high school vocational and technical education programs as a way to provide a path to economic independence for many young women. But its findings across the country have found such programs and schools severely lacking in opportunity.

For example, the report found that in New York City more than 13 vocational schools are at least 70 percent single-sex, with three schools exceeding 90 percent male enrollment.

It could be that women just aren't interested in the trades, and these numbers reflect that. But the NWLC wants to make sure that young girls aren't being left behind by a system that has long neglected their needs.

"Guidance counselors' techniques are antiquated and steer girls to traditionally female -- and typically lower-paying -- jobs," says Annexstein. "Whether overtly or subtly, counselors' biases are compromising these young girls' ability to support themselves."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cosmetologists (a traditionally female trade) earn a median hourly salary of $8.49 and child-care workers earn $7.43. In contrast, students in the higher-wage -- predominantly male -- careers can earn median hourly salaries of almost $20 as plumbers or mechanical drafters.

Title IX is the law, the NWLC points out, and as school districts upgrade and modernize their vocational systems, they must make sure that female students are part of the progress. No one should get left behind.

For more information about the NWLC report, visit www.nwlc.org or call 202/588-5180.

Department Of Labor Grants

For almost a decade, the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau has awarded Women in Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Occupations grants to qualified community-based organizations for the purpose of increasing the number of women in high-skilled occupations, including the building trades.

The program provides training to women in pre-apprenticeship programs, giving them the physical and mental training needed to succeed in the trades, as well as technical assistance to employers and labor unions to establish apprenticeship programs, recruit women and help overcome barriers to women in nontraditional jobs. So far, more than 30 groups have been awarded grants.

"Apprenticeship is a great opportunity for women to gain valuable skills that can advance their careers with better-paying jobs," says Women's Bureau Director Shinae Chun. "By expanding the skills of America's working women, we are addressing the needs of our workforce and assisting women in the development of rewarding careers."

The Women's Bureau administers the WANTO grants jointly with the DOL's Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services. For more information about the program and the grant application process, contact Diane Faulkner, 202/693-6752. For more information about the Women's Bureau, visit www.dol.gov/wb or call 800/827-5335.