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A growing number of leading plumbers are taking on female apprentices, Kathryn Kernohan finds out why.
Jorden Horwood hasn’t encountered many female plumbers across his 16-year plumbing career - and it’s fair to say he’s far from alone.
Although plumbing remains one of the most sought after and reliable industries in Australia, as of last year, only 101 of the more than 30,000 registered plumbers in Victoria were women. That’s less than one per cent of the overall workforce.
So, when Master Plumbers approached Jorden, who runs Horwood Plumbing, and asked if he was interested in taking on a female apprentice he didn’t hesitate to say yes.
As he reasons, getting a head start in the plumbing industry can be overwhelming for anybody, let alone women who for so long have been dramatically under-represented.
“Plumbing is such a male-dominated industry and it can be intimidating even for a young male to enter the industry, so I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for some young women,” he says.
“I’ve been a member of Master Plumbers for as long as I’ve run my own business and used their services a number of times for training opportunities and to access apprentices, so when the opportunity came up to give a female apprentice a go, I thought it would be great to try something different and hopefully give somebody a good start to their career.”
Creating a better gender balance across the plumbing industry is the key goal behind the new Women in Plumbing program, a Master Plumbers and Plumbing Apprenticeships Victoria initiative backed by the Victorian Government’s Apprenticeships Victoria program, which was launched late last year.
The two-year, $1.2 million initiative aims to improve participation rates for women in the plumbing industry by creating a connected community of aspiring female students, apprentices and plumbers.
It spans everything from education and information made available to promotion of plumbing career pathways to young women, through to paid Certificate II pre-apprenticeship opportunities and direct entry into apprenticeships through Plumbing Apprenticeships Victoria (PAV), Master Plumbers’ Group Training Organisation.
Women in Plumbing has dedicated field officers and an increasingly busy calendar of networking and social opportunities for women in the industry, but host employers like Jorden play a critical role in providing leadership and mentoring.
Jorden was the first Master Plumbers member to take on a female apprentice as part of the program and says his experience couldn’t have been better.
His 20-year-old apprentice was straight out of school and had previously worked in her parents’ hospitality business before deciding to pursue a trade.
“The thing I liked about her straight away was her attention to detail. With some young guys, you struggle to hold their interest and attention when you’re trying to teach them. But with Chelsea, she took everything in, and at the end of every day we’d talk about what she’d learned and how we could apply that knowledge in the future.
“She was also really punctual and I definitely can’t say that for all of the young guys that I’ve worked with!”
Chelsea worked a day a week with Jorden for close to three months and eventually secured an apprenticeship at a commercial company.
“I think Chelsea’s personality and skill set is really well suited to a commercial team, I was really pleased for her that she was able to secure that opportunity and that I was able to play a part in giving her an introduction to the plumbing industry.”
For Chris Malcolmson, owner and director of Reliable Plumbing, having female plumbers as part of the team is nothing new. Several years ago, he made a deliberate decision to increase the number of women in his business and these days 75 per cent of his apprentices and trainees are female.
“It wasn’t a token thing, they had to be there of their own right. We have had some successes and some failures overall, like you’d expect, but it’s really just tapping into a talent pool that some others don’t,” he says.
“I’ve always been a staunch advocate of welcoming more female plumbers to the industry, they bring a different dynamic. For us it is just the norm now, it’s what we do. Overall, it says a lot about your business being inclusive, progressive and clients love it too”.
Chris has hired female apprentices both through PAV and on his own. He says that early on, the business made the decision that it would have the same expectations for female plumbers as it would for anyone else.
“We made a point that we wouldn’t be compensating for anything, and for women, they’d be expected to do what any other plumber would be doing. We had the same expectations as we would for men. Our female workers are accepted as part of the team, no differently to anyone else, and they’ve got huge respect across the company. Another important thing I’ve noticed is that they stand out in terms of organisational skills and communications - basically I don’t think our male brains allow us to multi-task the way women can!”
The female apprentices Chris has employed range from school leavers to mature-agers transitioning from other careers.
“In general, we find that mature agers excel quickly, whether they’re male or female, compared to some who’ve just left school and may have different motivation levels. One of our female apprentices, now in her fourth year, was a qualified baker before joining us. She is an absolute superstar and has the ability to run a company one day.”
Both Jorden and Chris say that the plumbing industry is far more welcoming to women than it once was - but that industry leaders can play a pivotal role in making things even better for future generations.
“The industry is definitely more accepting now than it was when I started 16 years ago, and when you used to hear a lot of inappropriate jokes and comments. You hear that less and less now and thankfully when you do, it is dealt with quick smart,” says Jorden.
“Nobody, including females, should have to put up with bad behavior on sites or in workplaces. A program like this is not only good for helping women get a foot in the door but also good for everyone else in the industry too.”
Chris has enjoyed a 25-year career in the industry and recalls that he never encountered aspiring female plumbers in trade school.
“It definitely would have been harder for women to enter the plumbing industry back then, there would have been a lot of rubbish stereotypes and attitudes that fortunately are much better now. The best thing we as employers can do to make things even better is to give women a chance to get their foot in the door and see all the great things they have to offer,” he says.
In fact, there’s been such a cultural shift that Chris’ two young daughters have grown up knowing that there are viable and welcoming careers in trades that are available to them.
“They’ve grown up helping me on the tools, getting involved when we renovated our house and knowing that one day if something breaks, they know how to use power tools to fix it. There are no expectations on them to pursue a trade, but they know those options are open to them.”
As for why other employers should become host employers to support the next generation of female plumbers, Chris says the answer is simple.
“Why wouldn’t you? We know that at the moment there’s a skills shortage in the industry and female plumbers open up a whole new stream of talent you may not have considered. At the end of the day, if you’ve got reservations about it, you’re closing yourself off to a huge range of workers who have plenty to offer your business and your clients.”
If you are interested in pursuing a career in plumbing or if you are an employer looking for a female apprentice, contact Anne Boyle on 0487 433 828 or [email protected]