It’s no secret the construction trades are in a workforce crisis. Many articles have been written, including in the pages of this magazine, about that emergency and how to attract people — young people especially — into a construction career. The plumbing industry in particular has a tough job because it is still combatting old stereotypes of slogging through sewage, using old-school tools and equipment, and the plumber’s butt crack.
Today’s plumbers are water experts. They are members of a profession that helps protect the water families and businesses use every day. They use technology to help solve problems and be more productive on the jobsite. They are professionals who respect a customer’s home or place of business whether they are on site to install a new water heater or unclog a drain.
It can be a very lucrative profession for those who like to work with their hands as well as interact with people. And it’s becoming more appealing to some women as plumbing contractors are becoming more willing to teach them how to be a plumber.
Of the four women you’re about to meet, only one started her career as a plumber. The others were a school bus driver, a teacher and an emergency services worker in their former lives. All four of them are with four different Mr. Rooter franchises across the country. But whether they own the business or work for a franchisee, they’ve found a profession they are passionate about, one that gives them enormous satisfaction by solving their customers’ water problems.
Dzejn(pronounced Jane) Stamenovstarted her plumbing apprenticeship in 2012, recently reached her 4,000 hours and is working toward her license at Mr. Rooter Plumbing of San Antonio. Her entry into the trade started with plumbing issues she had in her home. Her emergency services job didn’t pay much. A family friend who is a master plumber at Roto-Rooter saw her potential and convinced her to try plumbing as a career.
“He knew the way I worked and got me a job with them,” Stamenov says. “I love plumbing! I love being able to interact with different people every day, not only serving their needs but also being able to educate them about their plumbing as well. I enjoy working on my own and doing the best I can for my customers.”
A plumber in the Army National Guard, Laurie Bencestarted her apprenticeship in 2003 after leaving military service. She started her civilian plumbing career at Advanced Mechanical Systems of Stow, Mass., where she worked toward and received her Massachusetts master plumber and master sheet metal licenses. After moving to Rhode Island, she began working at Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Rhode Island, where she is a licensed journeyman plumber.
“I enjoy the customer service aspect of it,” Bence says. “It’s a different job every day. I also enjoy not taking the stress of a job home with me at night.”
For Kathleen St. Croixand Robyn Roth, it was their husbands who gave them the plumbing bug.
Sixteen years ago, St. Croix was a school bus driver and part-time waitress when her husband Duncanquit his job as a maintenance worker to start a drain-cleaning business. After watching him work 80-hour weeks for a couple years, she left her job to work with him, taking over the office responsibilities so he could concentrate on customers.
“I’ve always been a customer-service person,” St. Croix says. “Then we got a big contract with SUNY Hospital, which required a commercial driver’s license for a vacuum truck. I had a commercial driver’s license, so I drove the truck. Our two sons were his helpers and he started training them. I would go out and pump septic tanks and grease traps, and the boys would help me. And it blossomed into a successful business.”
After 11 years, that successful business was making between $800,000 and $1 million a year, and caught the attention of Mr. Rooter. After much research and soul-searching, the St. Croix’s made the decision to be a Mr. Rooter franchise — Mr. Rooter Plumbing Of Greater Syracuse, N.Y. — with St. Croix as president of the company. In 2015, the company took in $2.3 million in revenue.
With 13 employees — including her two sons, who are registered journeyman plumbers, and the oldest recently tested for his master’s plumber license — and 14 various trucks, the company covers Cayuga, Madison, Onondaga and Oneida Counties, a population of about 860,000 people.
Roth was a school teacher and her plumber husband Timworked for his parents’ commercial plumbing company. She worked with him on small remodel jobs during her summers off.
“I learned how to read blueprints and all the different terminology,” Roth recalls. “I was doing the grunt work, but he would show me how to sweat a joint or solder copper.”
About seven years ago, the couple was approached by Mr. Rooter to own a franchise. By that time Roth was taking time off work to care for their adopted children. Over the years they had thought about owning a business, and a plumbing franchise seemed like a good fit for the Roth family. After researching the franchise and discussing with their family, the couple became co-owners of Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Yavapai and Coconino Counties, Ariz. It serves customers in those counties and parts of Maricopa County with nine technicians, two trainees, three field and support staff and 11 service vans.
Roth is the current Mr. Rooter Woman of the Year. In 2014, she and her husband were awarded the franchise’s Personal Achievement Award (demonstrated outstanding achievement in sales, an increase in manpower or personal growth, or advanced franchise development) and Top Gun designation (the top 10% of Mr. Rooter Plumbing owners across North America).
While St. Croix and Roth don’t have women plumbers working for them, they do want women to join their businesses.
“In my opinion, women plumbers are better with the customer-service part of the job, which is the first priority at Mr. Rooter,” St. Croix notes. “Having women plumbers on staff shows the diversity in my company, that we want to provide our customers with the best service we can with the best service people, and it doesn’t matter who they are. If our technicians are presenting themselves as professionals to our customers, it shouldn’t matter if they are men or women.”
Roth agrees: “I think women bring a unique view to any job, but in a male-dominated profession they can bring a different energy. Generally, women are better with interpersonal skills and communication. And for some of our women customers, they may feel more secure having a woman come into their home and fixing their plumbing problem.”
Both have had women apply for plumbing technician positions at their companies, but none accepted their offers of employment. St. Croix, who has applicants go on ride-alongs, wondered if her male techs were making the women uncomfortable.
“On the ride-alongs, we try to get applicants to every kind of job – plumbing, drain cleaning, a dig job — so they get a good feel for what they’ll be doing,” she notes. “I asked our techs to give me their honest opinions about having a woman plumber on staff — all said that as long as she could do the job, they didn’t care about her gender. This is a woman-owned business and I want women to work for me.”
Stamenov finds that same attitude in her job. “The men that I work with in the plumbing industry enjoy working with me because I always get things done,” she says. “I take pride in my work. I get along really well with them.”
Bence agrees: “For the most part, men in the industry have been supportive. Once in a while I come across someone who doubts my ability but after working with me, they have a change of heart.”
That goes for customers, too. “Nearly all of my customers are surprised I’m a female plumber,” Stamenov says. “A lot of men and women customers have told me they are very proud of me. I believe a lot of customers feel more comfortable and safe around me because I am a woman.”
As more and more women enter nontraditional occupations, the novelty of them working beside men is wearing off, even in the trades. As long as women have the knowledge and training to perform the job well, clashes between genders in the plumbing and heating trades are a thing of the past.
But the job does come with some challenges for women, strength probably the most obvious. Bence and Stamenov agree, but plumbing manufacturers continually work on making their products lighter and more ergonomic without sacrificing performance. It’s about working smarter, not harder.
“Being a woman in a male-dominated trade has challenged me but also inspired me to prove to myself and others that I can do it and be good at it,” Bence explains. “I have worked my way up the ladder at both plumbing jobs that I have had through my work ethic. If you work hard and acquire the knowledge needed to get the job done, it will pay off as it has for me.”
Stamenov adds: “Women have been told for years that they can’t do this or that, but I’m sure more areas in the trade might be appealing to women, especially if it is advertised that training is available. Everything is a challenge in life; if men can do it, then women can, too. Plumbing is hard at first, but if you are open to learn, allow yourself to grow and don’t underestimate yourself, you can succeed.”
Plumbing can offer women a career that pays well, has enormous job satisfaction and will never be outsourced. “If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, then take a leap,” Bence notes. “It is a very rewarding field financially, physically and mentally.”