Women in Plumbing: 'Challenging and rewarding'
Mitchel and Roni Cary moved their two daughters - Michelle and Melissa - from New York City to suburban Atlanta in 1978. The Carys wanted a slower pace where they could raise their daughters, and Decatur, Ga., provided the right environment.
But finding a job was difficult for Mitchel Cary, a plumber since the 1960s. So he struck out on his own, starting his plumbing business at the kitchen table while wife Roni left flyers - “Relocated plumber from New York needs work” - at local hardware stores, grocery stores, laundromats and the library.
“The phone started ringing, and the business took off,” he says. “As summer approached, Michelle was 8 and Melissa was 10. They wanted designer jeans. I told them I’d give them half the money and they’d have to earn the other half. So they came with me on the truck and worked with me.”
The sisters say that part of the reason they went to work with their dad was to spend time with him.
“He worked all the time and was never home, so if we didn’t go hang out with him when we were out of school, we didn’t see him,” Melissa (now Melissa Moskowitz) recalls. “But I swear to this day, I do not remember doing any work! I know we did things to help him - went into crawlspaces, took down walls - but all I remember is him talking to people, collecting money and we’d go get something to eat. Then it was off to the next house. He’d finish that job and say, ‘Let’s go to the movies!’ This is what we thought was work and making money.”
He gave them tasks that kids would like to do and they enjoyed the attention they got from customers, Mitchel Cary says. So every summer he would get them in the truck and take them with him.
“Between the oddity and the pace I was used to working at, we gained all sorts of popularity,” he notes. “We’re still out there and people are still laughing at us, but who cares? We’re having fun with it.”
In 1986, Ms. Magazine featured the Carys in its October issue. Eighteen and 16 at the time, the sisters told the interviewer that they got to make a mess and not get in trouble for it - why not be a plumber?
But both sisters admit that plumbing is hard work.
“There is no ‘I can’t,’ there is no ‘I didn’t think about it,’” Moskowitz explains. “Dad would send me out with the guys and they put me through my paces. By the time I came into the industry, everything was plastic. But I had to learn how to run cast-iron pipe, caulk a joint - they made me cut cast iron with a hacksaw just so I knew it could be done.
“I am a real plumber; there is nothing that I’ve come up against that I didn’t learn at the start.”
Hard-working, conscientiousAt 20, Moskowitz began taking classes in order to get her plumbers license. She didn’t tell her father because she wanted to surprise him. When the day came to take the exam, she asked for the day off. She should have known something was up when he didn’t ask any questions, she says.
“I had taken the classes and the exam with a friend, and his mail came earlier in the day than ours did,” she says. “One morning he called and told me he got his license. But I didn’t get mine that day. The next day I checked the mail and there was a letter for me. I opened it up and there was my license. My dad was on the porch and asked if I’d gotten it - he knew all the time what I’d been doing.”
Georgia has three types of plumbers licenses - journeyman, restricted masters (residential and light commercial) and unrestricted masters, which allows plumbers to work anywhere in the state and do anything related to plumbing. Moskowitz took the unrestricted masters’ test and passed, making her the youngest licensed female in the Southeast. “You’ve never seen a man so proud,” she says of her dad.
Having taken over her truck two years before, she recruited Michelle (now Michelle O’Keeffe) as her helper.
“The guys are great and there’s no substitute for brute strength, but Michelle was the best helper I ever had,” Moskowitz says. “She didn’t really want to be out in the field, but she was the mechanical one. I was the book person. Somehow that switched and she ended up on the business end and I ended up in the field.”
O’Keeffe didn’t always work for the family business. She worked in restaurants and retail stores - she even sold cemetery plots. But she always came back to plumbing.
“I worked out on the trucks for years and somehow got moved into the office,” she notes. “Recently my dad said he’d like me to get my license. So I went to school and got my master’s license in 2011. Getting my license made me feel like a million bucks, and it made my dad so proud.”
O’Keeffe runs the office, while her mother does the bookkeeping. But when someone in the field needs help, O’Keeffe is the first person to get grabbed.
Born in Montana, Peterson learned her plumbing skills in the U.S. Air Force, the second woman plumber in that branch of the military. “I had a chance to be an air-traffic controller when I joined the Air Force but chose plumbing instead because I was mechanically inclined,” she explains.
She left the service and worked at the University of California at Davis. Peterson received her California plumbing license in 1993. She was a union plumber for about 10 years before moving to the Atlanta area to be closer to her brother. She received her Georgia plumbing license last year.
Before she’d even heard of M. Cary and Daughters, she noticed Moskowitz driving by in her truck. “I worked for Roto-Rooter at the time and had gotten lost,” Peterson says. “I drove past Melissa on one of the roads and she had her name on her truck. I couldn’t believe it was another woman plumber!”
Moskowitz had noticed her, too, and was excited to see another woman plumber working in the field. Flash forward three or four years later, and Peterson is calling M. Cary and Daughters for a job.
“Michelle practically hired me on the phone!” she laughs. “I love it here and would like to see more women apply for jobs here.”
At 12 years old, Kelley was setting fixtures for her uncle’s plumbing company. She subsequently worked with horses for awhile and even trained to be an emergency medical technician. But she finally decided that she would pursue a plumbing career.
“It’s not that I grew up wanting to be a plumber, it just kind of happened to me, so I stuck with it,” she explains. “It’s a good trade and I like it. There’s something different every day.”
Kelley received her journeyman’s license in 2004 and her master’s license in 2006. She also is certified as a heavy equipment operator.
The women have experienced little intolerance on the job because of their gender - just the occasional older man who doesn’t want “girls” working in his house. They just walk away and send a male crew out to the job.
“A lot of time when the guys go out, people are expecting a female plumber,” Peterson says. “They’re disappointed when one of the guys shows up!”
M. Cary has two licensed male plumbers - Andrew Bennett (licensed in 2005) and David Malone (licensed in 2011) - as well as three male apprentices: Andrew Majok Marier, Ian Carby and James Holmes II.
Women and older people prefer women plumbers because it makes them feel safe, Moskowitz says.
“We listen to what they have to say, we pay attention to details and their concerns,” Peterson adds. “We’re very conscientious about people’s homes and leave the jobsite as if we were never there. And Michelle can talk to a customer who is panicking on the phone and calm him or her down. People feel comfortable with us.”
Male plumbers who don’t abide by the company rules have been fired by the women on the jobsite, Mitchel Cary says. The company takes very seriously the trust its customers place in its plumbers and won’t tolerate plumbers who disregard that trust.
“This is not your usual plumbing company!” Cary says with a laugh. “The women gravitate toward us and we’re thankful for that because they’re a little more articulate than most fellas. We’re very blessed in all the people who are attracted to our company.”
The old house specialistsWhen the Cary family moved to Decatur, they settled in a historic area. Many houses date back to the 1900s, some even to the 1800s. In those early years, Roni Cary wore many hats to keep the company going. And her daughters learned about old plumbing.
“Some of these antebellum homes have plumbing parts that no longer exist,” she remarks. “But that’s our forte. If someone has an old building that they’re renovating, we pull out all the old parts. We’ll clean them up, refurbish them and they get recycled into someone’s restoration.”
Mitchel Cary adds: “You have to have a light touch with some of this older stuff and that is our specialty. I’ve been a plumber for awhile, so I’m looking for a challenge. I’m a dinosaur - I’m lead and oakum and steam boilers. To pump life back into something, there’s more satisfaction in that than to just swapping it out for a new part.”
But while Mitchel Cary is old school, his daughters and other plumbers have taken to the high-tech plumbing fixtures such as touchless faucets and low-flow toilets. “I am thoroughly proud of my girls - they’ve taken it to the next level,” he says. “My girls know about the technical stuff.”
“It’s awesome when you go into someone’s house and they have a lavatory, and in the back of that lavatory is the tank for the toilet, and you flush it on the sink and it goes through the wall and it flushes into the toilet,” O’Keeffe explains. “And people love the way old toilets look, even though they’re 5-gallon flushers. We are some of the only people in town who know how to rebuild those.”
What advice would they give women considering a career in plumbing?
“I say, do it,” O’Keeffe says. “It’s a challenge, it’s rewarding, and at the end of the day, you’ll sleep good. You’ll get more out of an apprenticeship program at a plumbing company than you will going to school. On-the-job training is the way to go. You get paid, you get the hours in for your license. We send our apprentices to school, so they get both.”
The others agree. It’s hard work, but very gratifying to find a customer’s problem, solve it and see the finished product.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Moskowitz says. “I had a career day in high school, and after all the hands got raised for the doctors and the lawyers, they asked if anyone wanted to do anything different. I raised my hand and said I wanted to be a plumber. And the entire gym laughed at me. But that’s OK. I love what I do.”
'Sometimes you have to take a chance'Karen O’Neil began her journey in the plumbing industry at the local union hall. She stayed home to help care for her ill father instead of going to college. Her first job was in the shipping department of a book distributor.
“After seven years, I was ready to climb the walls!” O’Neil recalls. “In 1985, an electrician friend said I should try a trade, so I went down to the union hall, put in my application and got a plumbing apprenticeship.”
She was the first female to make it through the apprenticeship at her local - her biggest accomplishment, she says - and became a journeyman plumber in 1990. She’s now a project administrator for mechanical contractor Louis N. Picciano and Son (Vestal, N.Y.), but spent more than 20 years in the field as a plumber.
“The best part about working in the field is you’re not always doing the same thing,” she says. “You’re not working in the same place and you’re not always working with the same people. So it’s really never boring.”
O’Neil does miss working in the field but admits that the job gets harder as you get older - and plumbers’ bodies take a lot of abuse. She finds different challenges working on the project management side as she maneuvers through the bidding process, gets crews set up and obtains the right equipment for the job.
For women considering a career in plumbing, O’Neil recommends attending a technical school for a couple of years, if they can, and find out if they like it.
“I’m hoping women will read this and consider plumbing as a career,” she notes. “It’s not for everyone, but I know there are women out there who can do the job. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding. Sometimes you have to take a chance.”