Women at work: Plumbers a rare breed, one told ‘not what girls do’

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SHARE Women at work: Plumbers a rare breed, one told ‘not what girls do’

Hispanic female, former makeup artist with a gag reflex issue — that’s not what comes to mind when one thinks of a plumber.

But it’s an apt description of Chicago resident Cristina Barillas, who shocked family and friends 14 years ago when she told them she was planning to work in the male-dominated trade.

<small><strong>Journeyman plumber Cristina Barillas (right)  teaches student Dewanna Smalley at the Chicago Woman in Trades workshop.</strong></small>

Journeyman plumber Cristina Barillas (right) teaches student Dewanna Smalley at the Chicago Woman in Trades workshop.

“My mom said, ‘It’s a job for men. People will look at you weird. It’s not what girls do,’ ” she said.

“But … once I got my license, my family [realized] this is a career for me, something I want to be in forever,” their attitudes changed, she said, adding that now “they call me for questions and advice.”

Barillas, a journeyman plumber, is among the mere 1.1 percent of women working among the 553,000 plumbers, pipe layers, pipefitters and steamfitters in the U.S., according to the Labor Department.

Also among them is apprentice plumber Zahrah Hill, 23.Asked what she finds rewarding about the trade, she replied, “The look on peoples faces when I say I’m the plumber, and when I leave with the problem fixed and they’re like, ‘You go girl.’ ”

The field is one more women should pursue, women plumbers say. They cite pay, which for journeymen plumbers is $46.65 an hour — $72.56 an hour including benefits once one completes five-years of training. And apprentices start at $15.90 an hour in pay and $36.42 an hour with benefits, according to Plumbers Local 130 in Chicago.

Despite the compensation, the industry’s image hurts recruitment. So said Jayne Vellinga, executive director of Chicago Women in Trades, which works to attract women and help train them for high-wage, nontraditional careers.

“Think toilets; many women and people in general can’t seem to get past [that],” Vellinga said. “It’s true that there are icky moments in this trade, not just in terms of human waste, but also [the] crawling around in basements, rats, etc. But most women actually work in new construction and don’t endure conditions any more difficult than other trades.”

Sarah Stigler, 33-year-old board chairwoman of Chicago Women in Trades and a journeyman plumber, said there needs to be greater education about the diversity of the work.

<small><strong>Journeyman plumber Sarah Stigler, Board Chair of Chicago Women in Trades.</strong></small>

Journeyman plumber Sarah Stigler, Board Chair of Chicago Women in Trades.

Barillas notes her work history has been varied. She is based at O’Hare Airport, where she does maintenance and service work. Prior to landing at O’Hare, she did residential work, including new construction and renovations replacing water heaters and dishwashers and repiping apartment buildings. She also worked laying water and sewage lines and trimming out kitchen, sink and bathroom fixtures for individual units.

“I have not one time dug in any toilet,” said Hill, who became an apprentice in May. “Of course it’s going to come, but that represents only a small part of what plumbers do.”

Recently she has worked on jobs installing water meters for Chicago residents. She stressed that plumbers have cause to be proud of their work.

“Plumbers protect the health of the nation,” Hill said. “You can live without lights. You can live without gas. You can’t live without water. If you don’t have water, you’re up the creek, and you have to know how to get rid of your waste.”

For 30-year-old apprentice plumber Symone Holmes, the trade has led to greater financial security.

“I grew up in CHA housing,” she said. “We were on welfare. Now, I don’t have to stand in the welfare line. I can get my own apartment and afford lights, gas, rent and everything else with no headache.”

<small><strong>Apprentice plumber Symone Holmes working on a site at the University of Chicago earlier this year.</strong></small>

Apprentice plumber Symone Holmes working on a site at the University of Chicago earlier this year.

Her interest in plumbing began when she was a student at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, where she decided to take a plumbing class and heard a presentation from Chicago Women in Trades, Holmessaid.

But barriers continue to keep many women from pursuing the field, including gender stereotyping, lack of information and preparation and discrimination, Vellinga said. Still, progress is being made.

“For the plumbers in Chicago specifically, there has been some improvement recently as the program switched from a subjective interview to an objective experience form for new applicants,” she said. “Overall, I’d say the selection process is reasonably fair, and women do have a good shot at being accepted into the program if they can test well and are physically fit enough to pass the strength tests they require.”

But keeping women on board is a challenge.

“In terms of retention, I’d say we still have a lot of work to do with the contractors,” Vellinga said. “Women’s ability to build long-lasting careers in the industry is dependent on whether or not they are able to work steadily … and receive solid on-the-job training” —not just temporarily meet an Equal Employment Opportunity goal for someone.

“It really isn’t enough to say we’re not going to discriminate; numbers won’t improve without targeted efforts to recruit and retain women specifically,” Vellinga said.


Zahrah Hill, an apprentice plumber, works with journeyman plumber Randy Barrowman. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times

Hill shared an incident where she got an unexpected reaction because of her gender. Shortly after she and her male partner arrived at a customer’s home to install a water meter, the customer refused to let her work.

“He said, ‘Women don’t do this kind of work,’” Hill said. “My partner said, ‘It’s a new day.’ But the customer [insisted], ‘She can’t do this work in my house.’ ”

Hill left and her partner joined her in what she viewed as a show of support.

“He knew I knew what I was doing,” Hill said of her partner.

Recently Hill worked on a job at an elementary school, where she had a more pleasant experience opening a little girl’s eyes to possibilities in the trade. When she and her partner walked into the school, the childstared at her partner and then turned her gaze to Hill.

“He’s this rugged guy,” she said of her partner. “Me, my hair is in braids. I still try to be feminine, with mascara or lip gloss, but I was dressed to work. She looked at me and was like, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Baby, I’m replacing the water fountain.’ She said, ‘You know how to do that stuff? I didn’t know girls could do that.’ I said, ‘Girls can do everything.’ I loved it. It made the day.”

Stigler says to succeed in the trade a woman needs a sense of humor, thick skin and to know when to speak up for herself.

“You have to get used to the temperature of the water and recognize this guy has my best interests in mind, even though he called me a blank. But that’s what he calls everybody,” she shared. “The trades culture is different. Understanding how to take people is a big part of it. You have to take punches like everybody, work your way up and conduct yourself in a way that people respect you and understand you. And you have to know when to advocate for yourself.”

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