Jessie Cannizzaro
lumbing has played a prominent role in Jessie Cannizzaros life

Why are there still so few women in plumbing?

Feb. 6, 2015
“Gender stereotyping begins at a very early age,” Vellinga said.  Many are still not sure what to think of a woman joining the ranks. Vellinga noted that plumbing is an old fashioned career track that made this country great. Vellinga said the last class of apprentices had six women. Next year, she’s hoping to top 50.

CHICAGO — Ever since she was a child, plumbing has played a prominent role in Jessie Cannizzaro’s life. For 30 years, her father worked as a master plumber; at first the work simply didn’t appeal to Cannizzaro. In a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt, she swore she’d never become one herself.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and you’ll find Cannizzaro working most of the hours of her day as a master plumber and owner of Milestone Plumbing Inc., Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Under her watch, the company has grown from one person to a team of five, and she hopes to hire more in the near future.

“Before I started the business, I had hobbies,” said Cannizzaro. “A friend of mine introduced me to her daughter and said, ‘Jessie owns Milestone Plumbing.’ I said to the girl, ‘Actually, Milestone Plumbing owns me.’”

Her path was a unique one, as she started by helping her father, who had suffered a stroke, as an apprentice while she was earning her undergraduate degree. After working with him throughout school, she ended up sticking with plumbing, graduating with a Business Administration Bachelor’s Degree and MBA. Now, she is in her 11th year as a professional and fourth year as a business owner.

Cannizzaro plays a unique role in the world of plumbing. It, seemingly, has always been something of a boys’ club.

“Women plumbers are hard to find,” she conceded. “I’d hire them in a heartbeat.”

The numbers show how few women are in the plumbing trade, as 2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 1.5 percent of the 553,000 plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters and steamfitters were women. If the scope is widened to the trades, women make up 2.5 percent of the workforce.

A report from the National Women’s Law Center said women in construction and related trades rose from 2.2 percent in 1978-1983 to 2.6 percent in 2012, while other industries, such as engineering (from 4.8 percent to 12.1 percent) and lawyers (from 13.8 to 32.6 percent) saw sizeable increases. But why are these numbers so low in the trades?

“You think it’s just dirty work all the time, but it’s really not,” Cannizzaro said. “Remodeling and service are actually pretty clean if you’re a tidy person. I come home at the end of the day and don’t look messy. Women think that the actual fixture installation is all really heavy work and you have to be built to do it, but that’s not true anymore. Old drain piping was cast iron and really heavy. There have been advancements in the use of materials and now we use a lot of [lighter] PVC drains.”

Chicago Women in Trades Executive Director Jayne Vellinga said another reason there are so few women in the plumbing business is because they simply never hear about it at a young age when ideals of a career are formed. Much of the hands-on work, for both boys and girls, has been cut out of the school system due to the push for everyone to go through college, but girls very rarely hear about plumbing as a career option.

“Gender stereotyping begins at a very early age,” Vellinga said. “Women don’t know much about the careers or benefits of the career. It’s just not presented as an option to women, either as students or adult students looking for work.”

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter expanded Executive Order 11246 to prohibit gender discrimination by government contractors. A goal from this order was for 6.9 percent of the workforce on federally funded projects to be women. However, enforcement of this rule slowed over the years.

“We all, I’m sure, thought 30 years ago that we would have been up to 10 or 20 percent by now,” said Vellinga, who has been with the organization for 15 years. “There’s never been enough money for enforcement. The actual regulation isn’t bad … Another part is that the regulation includes making a good faith effort. A contractor goes through their 16 steps and can conclude there are no women who are qualified and they couldn’t meet their goal. As a tradeswomen organization, we feel like some of these efforts aren’t really sincere.”

The solution to this, she said, is contractors who are willing to say “I have a 6.9 percent participation goal, why don’t we take more women into our program?” and there is no doubt an apprenticeship program would help. Contractors hold a lot of power in the battle for getting more women into plumbing, Vellinga believes, simply by not accepting no for an answer.

“Nobody out there wants to be a token,” Vellinga said. “Nobody out there wants to be hired to meet a goal. Of course women are grateful if that goal gets their foot in the door, but they’re there to learn like everyone else and want to be treated like an employee like everyone else. That might mean if they’re not good, let them go, but they have to have an opportunity to learn and stay with the company.”

Recognition, equality

Any industry will have its challenges for both men and women, Cannizzaro said. After all, no road worth traveling is ever completely smooth, but she noted that there have certainly been some situations where she truly knew she was a woman in a man’s industry.

“You’re always going to have some resistance,” she said. “One inspector came in and I had everything done to code. He just had this attitude that was very critical of the way I was going about testing.  He came down hard on me and asked to see my plumbing license. I’ve never, ever been on a jobsite and had to show that, except to this one gentleman. I still remember that guy’s first name and would recognize him; it definitely left an impression.”

In another instance, a customer asked Cannizzaro if she was, “just here to drop off materials, right?” and sat in the basement to monitor the work she did. However, in this instance, she won him over and was specifically requested by the man to come back for the next job.

“He was in his 80s and was not used to this being the norm,” she said with a laugh.

As for the reaction from other plumbers and contractors, Cannizzaro said it is mixed. Many are still not sure what to think of a woman joining the ranks. For her first job outside of her father’s business, she specifically requested to meet the staff before she joined, so as not to join a company where there would be resistance to her presence. She was well received and even hired one co-worker, a man she considers to be honest and trustworthy, at Milestone, where she employs all men in the field.

Social norms holding women out of plumbing is a very real thing, Vellinga said, as the average worker simply isn’t going to put themselves in a position to work in a field where they could be made miserable.

There are also still problems of discrimination, she said, as even women who get into apprenticeship programs may have trouble finding solid employment.

“Their success really counts on employers making a commitment to these female apprentices and giving them equitable ability to work and get on-the-job training, as well as not have them be the last hired first fired model that’s typical in this industry,” Vellinga said. “Sometimes this is not like an active discrimination; it’s neglect … it takes a lot more time to recruit women than to just put the announcement for a job where you always put it. Companies need to be making that commitment and saying ‘We’re not going to discriminate.’”

Youth movement

The low number of women in the trades has not gone unnoticed. A number of groups, including Vellinga’s, have been trying to make women more aware of the opportunities in plumbing and other trades through career fairs, education sessions and other ways.

“They’re responding to our outreach materials that speak to women specifically,” Vellinga said, adding that women usually pass right by general info and think they have no shot in the industry. “Part of what is myth busting.”

A large amount of myth busting is letting women know the monetary advantage of studying to become a tradeswoman. Starting plumbers will make $17 an hour, locally, get free classroom time and paid training and an increasing salary as benchmarks are completed. After five years, she said union plumbers make $45 an hour with full benefits and a pension.

In a time where many career paths are uncertain, employment among plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters is poised to grow 21 percent from 2012 to 2022, the BLS found. Forbes reported that plumbers make $50,000 across the U.S., on average.

“This is kind of the old fashioned career track that made this country great,” Vellinga said. “You have security, you know how much you’re going to make, if you get laid off from employer you can go to another employer and make the same wage. Everyone is always going to need a plumber.”

Mary Ann Naylor, communications manager for Oregon Tradeswoman Inc., said her organization also offers career fares, including one that speaks mainly to middle and high school girls. At the event, they get to build birdhouses, wire a light, climb a utility pole and other things the majority of schools simply don’t offer anymore.

“If girls get the opportunity to see all these workshops are led by journeywomen or apprentices, talk to women doing these careers, try the tools themselves, it demystifies it for them,” said Naylor said.

Future for women in plumbing

With the amount of retirements in the trades coming, something Naylor called the “silver tsunami,” there will certainly be the need for new workers. Vellinga said that there needs to be additional outreach, education and assistance for letting women know this is a job they can go after.

“I think apprentice programs have to be vigilant about equality and on-the-job training,” she said. “Women can be relegated to tasks that cannot end up qualifying them for work, such as sweeping and non-skill tasks — or moved from one jobsite or company to another rather than treating them as a valued employee that they want to invest in. It’s not always the case, but it can be.”

Chequita Loston with her classmate, Zahrah Hill, standing in front of Local 130 UA's table Chicago Women in Trades career fair in early 2015.

One woman who has driven off of the beaten path to become a plumber is Chequita Loston, a first year plumbing apprentice for Abbott Industries, Bensenville, Illinois. Vellinga calls Loston a great success story, as she got a Bachelor’s of Science in Public and Community Health Administration and an MBA because her mother told her she needed to have a university education. However, Loston always wanted to be a tradeswoman.

“My grandfather was a bricklayer, so he had me up on scaffolds since I was kid,” she said. “He taught me everything I know. He taught me there’s no such thing as a man’s job; ‘If you’re willing to learn, I’m willing to teach you. That’s the way you should go about life.’”

Loston was still the first from her family to get a college degree, but she knew she wanted to come back to her first love. Vellinga said she went through the apprenticeship program and scored a perfect 1000 out of 1000, ranking No. 1 in the class.

While it was initially a struggle to find her footing, as Loston said she certainly had to prove herself, she wasn’t afraid of the change and actively liked proving herself to those who thought a woman couldn’t become a plumber. So far, she hasn’t even heard any backlash or strife about her gender. 

Now, there may be many more women like Loston coming through the pipeline. Vellinga said the last class of apprentices had six women. Next year, she’s hoping to top 50.

“I’m optimistic that we can get a lot more female plumbers,” Vellinga said. “A lot of these women are really great. Women are 50 percent of the workforce; who would want to say no to 50 percent?”

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