By Susan Parrish
The Columbian, Washington
CAMAS, Wash. (AP) — Teeth gripping a plastic pipe fitting, Smokey Fritz climbed a ladder inside a house under construction. Fritz joined two lengths of flexible plastic pipe with the fitting, pulled a tool from her back pocket and crimped the pipe.
“If you don’t crimp a fitting right, it can leak,” said the 23-year-old apprentice plumber. “Water, out of everything else in the house, is the most damaging.”
Then she yelled to a co-worker: “Washer box is done!”
Fritz is likely the only female working as a plumber in her small county in southwestern Washington state. It’s a similar scene in Wisconsin.
Nationwide, about 9,000 women plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters and steamfitters comprise only 1.6 percent of the 564,000 workers in the trades field, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Although an American woman became a certified master plumber in 1951 — 64 years ago — the fields of plumbing and the other trades are still dominated by men.
The percentage of women in nontraditional construction work is about 2 to 3 percent, said Cynthia Polly Payne, spokeswoman for Washington Women in Trades, based in Seattle. In some government operations the percentage of women in trades is much higher, about 16 percent.
Most high school girls who attend the trade association’s job fairs “have no idea these opportunities are available to them,” Payne said. “And we’ve been here for 36 years. I don’t think young people realize the struggle that it’s been. Three steps ahead and two steps back is a real thing.”
Contractor Jack Harroun compared the male dominance of the trades to the female dominance in nursing. That scenario gradually has changed. Although men still make up only 9.6 percent of all nurses, the number of male nurses has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to the United States Census Bureau. Their numbers are projected to continue to rise. Harroun said he’d like to see comparable changes in the trades.
“I’m hopeful that women will start looking at the trades as a great opportunity,” Harroun said. “It doesn’t take brute strength. From running an excavator to doing plumbing, so much of what you do is technical. I’m hoping we’re past the point of the mental barriers that certain things are male jobs and certain things are female jobs.”
Trades offer family-wage jobs and “are a great avenue for success,” Harroun said. “You always need a plumber. You always need an electrician. If there’s any way we can highlight those opportunities for women, we should. We desperately need those technical skill sets.”
Harroun has a 3-year-old daughter.
“In my mind, she’ll be helping me run my company some day.”
The story of Smokey Fritz mirrors that of Lillian Baumbach, the first American master plumber who learned the business from her father more than 60 years ago.
Fritz is learning the business under the guidance of her father, Ted Fritz, and grandfather, Cliff Fritz, at Three Brothers Plumbing. Cliff Fritz began working as a plumber in 1968. Ted started plumbing in 1983 and Smokey in 2013.
“I told him not to do it,” Cliff Fritz said about his son.
“I told her not to do it,” Ted Fritz said about his daughter.
He has seen women working in construction: electricians, roofers, concrete workers.
Smokey Fritz was named after her great-grandfather, Dorman “Smoky” Housden, who was a cowboy, musician, truck driver, logger, orchardist and jack-of-all-trades. But he was not a plumber.
“I’ve always been a tomboy. Playing in the dirt. Riding quads,” Smokey Fritz said as she stood on a ladder to install plumbing in a new house.
After graduating from high school, she enrolled in college to become an American Sign Language interpreter. But the program is so popular that after a year of taking general college classes, she still couldn’t get into a sign language class. Frustrated, she stepped back from school.
“College is for some people,” she said, “but not for me.”
After working for a year in retail, she realized she didn’t enjoy customer service.
“I jokingly asked my dad if he would train me to be a plumber. At first, he was highly against it. He told me it’s a man’s world.”
Her dad worried she would be harassed by male co-workers, she recalled.
But her grandmother stood up for her.
“She looked dad dead in the face and said, ‘What if you had a son? Would you let him plumb with you?’ ” Smokey Fritz recalled with a grin.
She said Ted Fritz worried that the hard, physical work would worsen his daughter’s back problems. Determined to forge ahead, she got an OK from her chiropractor.
June 3 was her two-year anniversary in the family business.
“When she started, it spread like wildfire that there was a girl plumber,” Ted Fritz said about his daughter.
“So everybody had to come stare at her and they didn’t get the job done,” her grandfather, Cliff Fritz said, laughing. “When I first started out, there were no women plumbers. Back then, it was much more strenuous. Today, it’s all plastic (pipes). They’re lighter, easier to work with.”
During her first week on the job, Smokey Fritz experienced her worst plumbing disaster yet. She was helping her dad check fill valves on a finished house, but she was unsure of which valve to open. She chose poorly.
“I unscrewed a valve and all the water from the house poured onto me. I was soaked,” Fritz recalled. “Dad looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t mean that one.'”
Smokey Fritz has learned a thing or two about plumbing since then.
“She’s one I can send out alone on a job and I don’t worry about,” said her dad.
“She’s more meticulous than the guys,” said her grandpa.
$51,341 PER YEAR
Apprentice plumbers are trained on the job by a journeyman plumber. Next, Smokey Fritz will apply for her residential plumber’s card. Then, after at least 8,000 work hours and four years on the job, she can apply for a journeyman plumber’s card.
Currently, she is making $13.50 an hour at the non-union shop. About every six months, she gets a pay increase. In another year, she’ll get her residential plumber’s card and then her pay could increase to $18.50 an hour. From there, her hourly rate will continue to increase.
The local median wage for a plumber was $24.68 per hour or $51,341 annually in 2014, according to Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the Employment Security Department.
The Great Recession brought new home construction to a screeching halt in 2008.
“It all fell apart. People moved away, changed careers. My brother’s one of them,” said Ted Fritz, the sole remaining brother at Three Brothers Plumbing.
One brother returned to school and now is a radiologist. The other brother now installs heating and cooling systems.
But as the economy rebounded, there was more work than Ted Fritz could handle. Cliff Fritz came out of retirement to work with his son, and now with his granddaughter.
Smokey Fritz is in the family business for the long haul.
“I plan this to be my career until I physically cannot do this anymore,” she said. “But it is hard. It’s super physical. It puts a strain on your hands, your arms. You deal with heat or cold. It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 degrees or 30 degrees outside. You have to work. If you put your mind to something, you can do anything.”
Today, new housing construction is brisk.
“We have to rebuild the industry somehow,” he said. “With the lure of jobs working with computers and technology, it’s a struggle to find enough young people who want to learn a trade. No one wants to work with their hands anymore.”