CLEVELAND — Autumn Wells is a sophomore at Plumbers Union Local 55 in Cleveland.
This means that she is training to become a plumber, a job that is not very common for a woman in the United States.
“What we do is commercial plumbing, which is all the water, sewer, gas and drying lines to all your retail stores or apartment buildings, hospitals, pretty much everything,” Wells said. “Trade is what keeps the world going. Really, we build everything.”
Only about 3% of women in the workforce work in skilled occupations, according to the Department of Labor. Wells is often the only woman on job boards.
“I thought there would be a lot more women in the trade. But that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Wells said.
However, when Wells comes to class, she has Doreen Cannon as her mentor and instructor.
“We need to let women know that this is a career option for them. Women don’t even see it as a career option for them. And that’s what we have to say here. Look at me, if I can do it, you can too,” said Cannon, full-time instructor and president of Plumbers Union Local 55 and president of the Cleveland Building Trades Committee for Professionals.
Cannon has a four-year college degree and spent many years working in retail chains and management before deciding it was time for a career switch.
She was a plumber for 14 years and is now an advocate for women in the trade.
“Because there are so few, there are no role models, right? If someone drives by a construction site with little girls in the car, do they ever see women at work? Probably not. Because there are so few. So it’s really the idea that women don’t realize this is a career for them. And it’s a great career,” Cannon said.
“Again, going back to no pay for education, talking about excellent pay, excellent benefits. Excellent pension plans. I mean these are all things that, there are a lot of single moms who have changed their lives when they start a career like this because they can now provide for their families.
Cannon is the role model many young women need to believe in themselves that they can do whatever they want.
“I really enjoy seeing a female teacher. And again, because there are so few women at work, I may be the first time that one of these new apprentices or apprentices has come into contact with a woman, with another female plumber. So I think it’s good. I think it’s important,” Cannon said.
“And I will say that the younger generation definitely has different views than I mean, think back to the 60s and 70s. There were no women in the trade, right? So I think in general the newer generation is more open to so many things. So I guess it won’t be so much of ‘oh my god, there’s a woman at work’.”
Cannon said there are many myths associated with the skilled crafts; that trading jobs are for people who couldn’t make it in college or that they’re all dirty jobs.
“I think the most important thing is to get rid of that stigma that you go into construction when you have no other choice. And that has to change. Because as I said, this is not so, none of these apprenticeship programs are easy. The training is grueling, the tests they have to pass to get those certificates are not easy. So it takes a lot of effort,” Cannon says.
One of the biggest myths is that skilled crafts jobs are only for strong, muscular men.
“Physical strength should not be a deterrent to anyone. Because there are also young guys who are short in stature who may not be as strong as a woman. There are men who are nearing retirement who will clearly not be as strong as a 20-year-old woman. So it’s really not, it should never be a deterrent. And safety is a big part of our industry, right? Because it can be a dangerous job. So you are not expected to do something that someone cannot physically do. We have machines, we have equipment to help us with these things that are not humanly possible to move alone.”
Wells’ favorite part of her job is breaking those stigmas.
“Just the fact that I can do anything a man can do, that I can prove myself wherever I go,” Cannon said. “Women can do everything a man can do. We just have to set our sights on it and make it happen.”
At the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 38Amy Metzgar is a third year student who is also severely outnumbered.
“Out of ten people in my class, I’m the only woman,” Metzgar said.
Like Wells, that doesn’t stop her. Instead, it motivates her.
“We are breaking stereotypes every day,” Metzgar said. “It’s a great opportunity for high school students, especially women, to come and apply. Times are really good now. And as if we need people.”
Cannon said that as baby boomers are retiring, merchants, especially merchants, are in high demand.
“Baby boomers will be retiring en masse in the coming years. So we have a lot of people that we’re going to lose from the trade, a lot of people with a lot of knowledge and history and we really need to start replacing those people,” Cannon said. “Now is a good time for women to get involved.”