Every now and then, I am moved to mention how very few women find their way to this wonderful industry. My intention is to draw attention to the opportunities and encourage more women to take advantage of them. In my columns, I have introduced you to a couple of terrific women plumbers. About a year ago, I also hosted a panel discussion at the Innovative Thinking convention sponsored by Plumbing & Mechanical, Supply House Times and PM Engineer. Brilliant women from every corner of the plumbing world shared ideas for recruiting and supporting women in the trades. It was a proud moment for me.
My hope is that I have helped people expand their recruiting, hiring and training to include women. It’s a win-win-win in an industry suffering from a shrinking skilled labor pool.
I started this month’s column with the idea that I could introduce you to a woman plumber who shares my views and is excited to promote women in plumbing.
Then I met Casey. Guess what; Casey doesn’t care one way or another. For her, it is a nonissue.
I had imagined that Casey would help me spread the word, but she had something else in mind.
Nothing To Do With Being A WomanA couple of years ago, I visited with Jeff Wise, a plumber in northern California. He was getting ready to retire and called to ask me a couple of business questions. He mentioned that he had a daughter who was a plumber.
“Your daughter is a plumber?” I latched on to that comment like a bass on Jimmy Houston’s lure. “How did she get into plumbing?”
Jeff replied, “I was having a hard time finding employees. She started going on jobs with me to help out. We have fun working together and she seems to have a knack for it.”
I made a note to contact Casey Wise and her new boss to see if they would help me bang the Women in Plumbing drum. A couple of months went by, and I got a call from Frank Park, owner of Dittmann Plumbing Co. Inc. in San Mateo, Calif.
“My friend, Jeff Wise, told me you were going to write an article about Casey. We haven’t heard from you so I thought I would give you a call.”
I laughed and liked Frank right off the bat. “Thanks for calling, Frank. I am all about promoting women in the trades and I would love to interview you and Casey.” We set a date, and I dusted off my Helen Reddy records. “I am woman, hear me roar…”
When we met for the interview, Frank and Casey were ready to go on the speaker phone. I worked my way through a few background questions.
Casey went to college for a bit, and didn’t do that well. It wasn’t a good fit. She started working for her dad just to help him out and discovered that she really liked plumbing. However, the business part of the business didn’t appeal to her.
“I saw what my dad went through. I wasn’t interested in the stress of being an owner. I like driving the truck, meeting people and doing service work. If a customer doesn’t like you, you are not going to make it in the service business. I listen to my customers and try to make them comfortable about what I can do for them.”
So I asked Casey, “Lots of people will read this column. You have an opportunity to encourage women to explore this trade and men to open up to the idea of women in plumbing. What would you like to share with the Plumbing & Mechanical readers?”
She replied, “I don’t feel the need to promote women in the trades. For big commercial work, I think being a woman is a challenge. There are some jobs that women are just not physically cut out for. I like being a service plumber. It just works for me for now.”
I felt my plans for the column going down the drain. I pressed, “Have you had to overcome obstacles that your male counterparts have not had to deal with?”
“Some plumbers have given me a hard time. One guy was such a pest that I left that job. Every now and then I get ‘hit on,’” Casey chuckled. “I have also found that my women customers, my ‘mom’ customers, really like it that I am a woman, so that has been an advantage.”
Dittmann Plumbing Co. specializes in condo service and repair and water heater replacement. When Frank learned that Jeff was retiring, he visited with Casey about coming to work for him.
“I look for plumbers who like to do service work,” he said. “That’s what we are all about. You can train the technical skills, but you have to be someone who gets along with people. Casey fit the bill and I was happy to hire her and give her a shot. Turns out she is a fantastic service plumber.”
Frank is passionate about plumbing. He’s a third-generation union plumber who loves fixing things and teaching what he has learned to the new kids in the trade. Frank and his team charge time and material. He encourages his plumbers to customize their trucks and organize their stock to suit their individual preferences. Each plumber’s name is pinstriped on their hand-painted trucks. (Casey’s name is painted in pink.)
Frank’s systems are in stark contrast to most of what I teach and preach. And he is doing just fine, thank you very much. He has been to the seminars; he is good friends with all the gurus. Frank is aware of all the progressive ways to run a profitable business. He has been a plumber for 44 years and the company has been in business since 1924. His company is debt-free and he makes money every year.
He mentioned that if he were to start his business today, he might do things differently and would probably charge flat rate. He just chooses to do things his way, kind of “old school.” It occurred to me that there is no arguing with a happy man.
It also occurred to me that it is not Casey’s responsibility to raise the industry’s estrogen level. Her responsibility is to find a way to be of service, to craft a rewarding life and to find supportive people to work for and with. At this point in her life, Dittmann Plumbing is a good fit. And it has nothing to do with Casey being a woman.
As I started to wrap up the phone call, Casey jumped in, “We have a lot of fun together at this company. We hang out together. Every eight weeks, we go together to the blood bank and donate blood. We’re planning a big Fourth of July bash. At least once a week, we go out to dinner together, with our families. We are friends and every day we have fun. That’s what makes it work so well.”
Frank is 62 years old. Casey is a 20-year-old tradesman, on her way to apprentice status. Someday, she plans to hang up her wrenches and raise a family. She may transition to a job as an inspector or a back-flow specialist, something less physically taxing that still allows her to use her technical skills. Frank assured her that when she has a baby someday, Casey is welcome to take him or her along on service calls.