Editor's note: We received plenty of responses to Ellen Rohr's December 2005 column, “Women In Plumbing?” which was itself a response to Jim Olsztynski's September 2005 editorial, “Why Do Women Shy Away From The Trades?”

Finding, training and keeping employees, male or female, is one of the biggest problems facing the PHC industry. PM, along with Supply House Times and PM Engineer, have teamed up to sponsor “Innovative Thinking 2006: Hiring-Training-Retention,” June 12-13, at the Emerald Pointe Resort, Lake Lanier, Ga.

Ellen will be just one of the speakers featured during the two-day conference for contractors, wholesalers and engineers. She will lead a panel discussion, “Women In Plumbing: Old Dogs Vs. New Chicks,” comprised of women executives from manufacturing, wholesaling and contracting - including the subject of her column, Jennifer Courchaine.

For more information on the all-star lineup, including PM columnists Al Levi and Paul Ridilla, visit the link at the end of the article.

I enjoyed Ellen's column on women in plumbing and the portrait of Jen Courchaine, who I just ran into at a supply house. I couldn't resist pointing out to her that I'm 63 and still installing water heaters.

I've participated in many discussions of why there are not more women in the trades, particularly as my generation, who was inspired by the women's movement in the early-1970s, is now retiring without young women to fill our shoes. I have trained three women, two of whom are working in the plumbing trade, and have had countless “shadows,” several of whom have gone into the trade. I have spoken to students in junior high, vocational education, Girl Scout jamborees - any opportunity that presents itself - and I would like to do more when I retire.

I have found that girls and boys still grow up in different subcultures. It's not until their late-20s that young women shed the stereotypes they grew up with and begin to discover who they really are and what they might like to try. But by then, there is no easy entry point. In Boston, we have Women in the Building Trades that runs a pre-apprenticeship program, which has been very successful.

My own story is somewhat similar to Jen's in that I was a single mom having been widowed when my son was 3, and I was working as an auto mechanic. I knew I could not handle a full-time job and night school at the same time; so I did night school first, then got hired by a company of women in Boston.

I found it a lot easier being trained by women. For one, it was easier to ask questions and not have to participate in one-upmanship conversations like I've experienced in all-male shops. Also, my responsibilities as a parent were acknowledged.

Although I subscribe to PM and find something of interest in each issue, I am put off by the emphasis on being big as well as the fact that, with women being such a minority in the trades, most of it is clearly addressed to men who make up the bulk of our trade. I would be interested in continuing this discussion of how to attract women to the trade.

Barbara Taggart

Cambridgeport Plumbing

Cambridge, Mass.

I had already decided to e-mail you while only reading halfway through Ellen's article. I wanted to share my experiences with trying to get women, much less anyone else these days, interested in a career in construction. We all know the facts: This industry needs 250,000 new people per year in construction and that number is rising annually from between 4 percent to 15 percent. And the average age of people in construction today is 50. Meanwhile, we baby boomers are starting to retire.

I do career days for the local school districts and have kept my ears open to the reasons why our youth are not interested in the trades as a career. They all say that if you don't go to college, you won't get a good job. Or the work is too hard. Or they don't want to work in a job where they are likely to get hurt.

The last item about getting hurt is a new one to me, and was a pretty common statement I heard from two groups of kids that I talked to just last week. What I have come to understand is that if you work in the trades you are considered to be a second-hand citizen, who is too dumb to get a good job, which is hard work and likely to hurt them.

But I do love explaining about how a person gets into construction, the apprenticeship process and how many employers will pay for it. What other employer is going to pay for someone's college education? Plus, I always ask the teacher in the class what the top and bottom salaries are for that district; it's usually somewhere in the range of $34,000 to $75,000. You should see the teacher's face when I tell the class that our top plumber makes more than $90,000.

I usually finish up with explaining downsizing and the concept of jobs going overseas. Until technology gets to the point where you can construct a complete building in China and bring it over here, our jobs won't be downsized or outsourced.

I have been in construction my entire working career and have the luxury of having climbed the ladder into management. How many other entry-level positions have no glass ceiling?

The few women I have met in construction have almost always impressed me. They raise the bar for all the others in their trade. They seem to know more about the word quality than anyone else I know, they pay attention, and the word re-work is rarely used when talking about them.

My daughter used to go on service calls with me when she was young. While she is not in construction today, she can set up a ladder and climb it safely, instinctively knows which way to turn a screwdriver, and isn't afraid to take something apart to see what's wrong with it.

We do need more Jennifers to come into construction. But how we find them and entice them to take a look at this as a career path … I'm as lost as the next person. But I am an old dog who is always willing to listen.

Harry Parker

Dual Temp Co. Inc.

Allentown, Pa.

For once, I believe that Jim O. is wrong! For some time now, I have felt strongly that there is a way to get this accomplished. The women techs that we have had have characteristically been the top producers, in that they can really relate to the target customer.

Larry E. Ross

Mr. Rooter Corp.

Waco, Texas

I finally got to check out Ellen's column regarding women in plumbing. Very well--written. The service plumber Ellen profiles seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Perhaps despite all the advances we have made in improving our own company culture, we still haven't created the environment that is supportive of women.

After all, we are still “guys” trying to do a better job with the business-side of contracting. How do we reconcile the important issues that crop up with female employees that we depend on? Pregnancy, family care, school closings and a host of other availability issues have traditionally fallen upon the woman of the house to handle. I'm not saying it is fair in the least. However, the nurturing instincts in women are stronger in most cases than for the guys.

My sister carries the major financial burden in her home and has a fair amount of responsibility at work. She rarely is absent. Her husband has normally been the one to deal with the surprise domestic challenges and has received quite a bit of abuse from other men over the years. We have a big job ahead if we also must change social thinking. Perhaps part of the answer is larger shops to allow more flexibility of hours and days.

Steve Dohner

Benjamin Franklin Plumbing

Dayton, Ohio

I'm interested in anything Ellen has to say about women in the plumbing industry! I have yet to have a women apply for a field position. I think good women would be more successful than a great male technician. Think of the trust and comfort level a woman has when dealing with a woman vs. a man.

Kelly Herrmann

Herrmann Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning

Cincinnati, Ohio

I just opened my own business last December. I would be interested in “wooing women to plumbing and heating” for future career opportunities. If you do not receive too many replies, DO NOT stop banging the drum. I want everyone in my company to be seen as true professionals. Women are not afraid to ask simple questions in order to learn. Some men just nod their heads and say, “Of course I know how,” then go out and screw it up and blame the product. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Kevin A. Gerrity

Solutions Heating, Radiant & Plumbing Inc.

Sandwich, Mass.

I am employed as the gender equity specialist at Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsboro, Mass. My job is to recruit, retain and support young women in nontraditional occupations. Our construction cluster chairman informed me of your recent article in PM, and suggested I contact Ellen since we presently have one female graduate working as a plumber's apprentice and six other upper-classwomen currently enrolled in our plumbing program at Greater Lowell. I am excited about the prospect of participating in her efforts to “woo women into plumbing.”

Tricia E. Camire

Greater Lowell Technical High School

Tyngsboro, Mass.

I am a plumbing instructor at a regional technical high school in Massachusetts. I would be very interested in learning how to woo women into the pipe trades. I have been actively recruiting young women into the plumbing program, but did not have much success. Any female students who chose plumbing did not last for issues other than gender. I did have one female student who graduated two years ago, but have not had much success since.

Marty Henry

Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School

Marlboro, Mass.

I received a call today from the local high school that institutes a work/study program. They have a young lady of 16 who has completed two years of classroom time in the plumbing trade and would like to go to work as a plumber. I'm not absolutely sure that I will be able to accommodate her work/school schedule (although we are certainly going to try), but I want her, after reading Ellen's articles, not to get frustrated if finding a position is difficult.

I'll be sending this young lady a copy of that column on Jennifer Courchaine to encourage her to see what a rewarding career this is.

Len Bush

Len The Plumber

Baltimore, Md.

A Related Letter

I was excited to read the letter from Melanie Aldrich regarding Ellen's column, “Do I Look Like A Plumber?” (Letters To The Editor, January 2006). It's always exciting to see women being successful in this industry.

I've been trying for years to get young women interested in a career in plumbing/HVAC with little success, but I'm happy and proud that we now have two young ladies who are sophomores in our local vo-tech high school in the plumbing shop.

A good way to try to interest any youngsters is to speak to high school students about the industry and the advantages and importance of a career in the plumbing and/or HVAC.

I attend the open house for prospective students each year and talk to the youngsters and their parents about the industry. Many schools have career days. If not, many would be happy to have someone come and discuss future careers.

Best of luck to Melanie.

Gerry Calfo

Calfo & Haight Inc.

Wilmington, Del.

More Information, Please

This refers to your Hydronic Controls column covering electricity measurements in the December issue of PM.

I realize that these columns are intended to convey only the basic principles involved and not be so technical that they discourage many individuals who should be reading them from doing so. But I feel that by not at least touching on some things and at least acknowledging their existence, it can cause some consternation to the reader when he tries to make an application in the field.

For example, by not at least being aware of power factor, a serviceman trying to evaluate the performance of a piece of equipment may be misled into putting more significance than he should on the fact that the result of dividing the rated watts of the equipment by the voltage does not agree with his ammeter.

And, likewise, he should be reminded that, when making calculations, the value used must be the actual voltage delivered to the equipment, not the rated nameplate voltage. A residential water heater is rated at 240 volts, but around here it's not unusual to have only 230 volts, or less, available at the terminals. This may lower the amperage 4 percent to 5 percent and its output, or recovery, 8 percent to 10 percent, or more.

N. P. Kauffman

Kauffman Mechanical Inc.

Dornsife, Pa.

Carol Fey responds: I understand what you mean about electrical principles when you say that not “at least acknowledging their existence can cause some consternation to the reader when he tries to make an application in the field.” However, I think that all too many plumbing and heating technicians make no application in the field at all - because they've found the subject of electricity too complex to learn. My analogy is that teaching beginning electricity is like teaching a foreign language. First, you teach some words, and only then do you teach how to put them into basic sentences. Including all the rules of grammar - which are eventually critical to using the language right - overwhelms the student, and he quits because it's too hard. There are thousands of plumbing and heating techs who have given up on ever learning electricity because too much was included in their early lessons.