Few people in the plumbing industry have chalked up as many unique experiences as Shane Bilson, he spoke to Kathryn Kernohan from one of Australia’s permanent research stations in Antarctica.
Many women think plumbing isn’t for them. But Tori Tomkins decided to use that thinking to her advantage.
“Honestly, I chose plumbing because there were less women in it and because it would make me stand out a bit more to employers.
“I thought it would be better for employment if I stand out – to be different to all the other apprentices that were out there and that might make it easy for me to get a job.
“I wasn’t too concerned about going into a male-dominated industry because I had worked in hospitality before and been a manager of bars, which is quite male-dominated.”
In choosing plumbing, Tori followed her mum’s advice to select a licensed trade. She also got a helping hand from a family friend and retired plumber, who pointed her in the direction of a pre-apprenticeship.
Pre-apps, as they’re known, are a great way for those interested in plumbing to get a taste of the trade and see if it’s right for them.
Fully paid pre-apps are now being offered to women as part of the Master Plumbers two-year $1.2 million Women in Plumbing program. In partnership with the Victorian Government’s Apprenticeships Victoria, the program aims to encourage women of all ages to join the industry and become potential future leaders in the profession.
Tori’s pre-app was a success and she began an apprenticeship in mechanical services, which specialises in heating and cooling. The sector has been in much demand since the arrival of COVID with the increasing need for high-performance ventilation systems.
After completing her apprenticeship with Plumbing Apprenticeships Victoria (PAV), Tori worked for large mechanical services company A.G Coombs for 2.5 years.
She recalls commonly being the only female plumber on site and initially being concerned she might be on the outer.
“I was a little worried about how some people might treat me, especially the older generations,” she said.
“But I found they were really excited to have a female apprentice because it was something different to what they’d been doing for the last 40 years.
“So they were super excited to teach me everything they know, which was really cool. I was treated just like any other apprentice, I didn’t get any special treatment. That’s what you want.”
Tori proved to be a natural plumber. Her work was recognised with a Medical Services Award in the annual Plumbing and Fire Industry Awards. Each year the awards honour employers and employees committed to safety and skill building in the workforce.
Tori’s career has since come full circle after she chose to become a field officer with Master Plumbers. She now works with Anne Boyle in the Women in Plumbing initiative.
“I couldn’t see myself on the tools for the rest of my life so I always saw myself going into this sort of role or a trade school teacher,” she said.
“What really motivated me to apply for this was the Women in Plumbing network that was being created. I was really excited by that.
“The network encourages more women to get into the trade and that’s what really excited me.”
Since she began her apprenticeship almost seven years ago, Tori has watched more and more women entering the profession.
She currently mentors apprentices and ensures they are being treated fairly on the job. All 27 apprentices Tori mentors are men, but she’s hoping that will change in the future as plumbing becomes a more attractive career option for women.
“There’s more awareness out there that plumbing’s actually something that’s achievable, something that women can do and that’s what we’re trying to push with the Women in Plumbing network,” she said.
Tori and Anne attend careers expos to reach young women who may be considering going into a trade. Much of their work is dispelling misconceptions about what it’s like to be a female tradesperson.
“Like many women, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do the physical side of it, but there’s always other ways to lift things rather than just hauling a big air-conditioner above your head – there’s mechanical lifting machines,” Tori said.
“I think a lot of women are pushed into caring-roles I’d say, like nursing and even beauty. “There’s also the pure fact that women just don’t know plumbing is an option.
“So that’s something we’re trying to help fix by getting out to schools, meeting careers teachers and going career expos to get our faces out there to say this is an option for you.”
Currently there are 30,168 qualified plumbers in Victoria, yet only 101 of them, about 0.3 per cent, are women.
But as Tori said, that’s changing.
“I think more women out there are saying, ‘You know what? We can actually do this’.”