Welcome to the newest page on my site! This is an in-depth interview with Stephen Carthy, a freelance writer from Saskatchewan whose work has been published for various newspapers, magazines, and web sites all over North America. We conducted this Q&A session back in 2005, but the information is still all valid. I hope you enjoy this personal peek into my life and experiences within the trade... HERE WE GO!!!
1. Tell me what influenced you to enter the plumbing trade. Did you have family in the business? Where did all of this start?
Where did this all start... good question, I want to know this answer too! My dad has been in the Mechanical Contracting business for most of his life, he has owned a couple of companies in the past and so I was naturally exposed to trades early on. This doesnít mean that I was interested while growing up, but rather it was an integral part of our lives as it was his chosen career path. I'll never forget when I was about eight years old, we were asked in school what our fathers did for a living and I announced proudly "he's a plumber!" I remember him saying to my mum later "...a plumber!?! By geez, doesn't she know that I own a huge contracting company and have 100 plumbers who work for me?" Thirteen years later I became one of his apprentices. My parents just so happened to excel at parenting and taught us all that we could achieve anything that our sights and hearts were set on, so I'm sure that approach had something to do with where I am now!
When I started, it was a bit of a stumble into the trade; my dad had his smaller commercial and residential business running on the Island and my humble beginnings involved driving his truck to pick up supplies and such. This was an okay place for me to be because frankly, I knew how to drive! There's only so much driving and errands that you can do in a day, so naturally I gave a hand with some of the other work that needed to be done. I worked with one of his plumbers digging trenches, I helped his gas-fitter out when needed, Johnny Earl taught me to solder (that's dad), and all the while he filled my head with the basics of what I was doing. It didn't take long for our situation to evolve into an apprenticeship from there.
2. Tell me about your personal experience during your apprenticeship and after. What reaction did you get from male coworkers, bosses, other apprentices and customers? Did you find that they didn't take you seriously? Was there sexism involved? If so, how did you handle all of that?
Woah woah woah! Slow down there Stephen, one question at a time! In the beginning I was uncomfortable with suddenly calling myself "a plumbing apprentice" when just previously I was known to be "working with dad". I knew that I was at the absolutely bottom of the ladder and had a long haul ahead of me; not only did I need to acquire the basic understanding that most guys get throughout their schooling and lives, but I also needed to learn how to use hand and power tools... with an audience! It was definitely unusual for the other guys on the jobsite to have me there, all of them were very supportive and I guess proud in a way. Much of my understanding of the other trades came from my first two years on the job; everyone seemed to take me under their wing to have a small hand in my experience and understanding of construction. It was a critical development time for me and I had no feelings of negativity coming from other apprentices, tradesmen, or bosses as they all knew I was serious. One thing was for sure: I worked very hard, and they could see that. There was a bit of an awkward feeling sometimes of not really sexism, but more like... too much enthusiasm with having me onsite? I found that the majority of the guys assumed more of a fatherly role (as I was only 21 at the time) and they did wonders for curbing any questionable advances or discussions. Supervisors have always been great for hollering "get back to work!" to anyone hanging around me while I was trying to work, so I really appreciated that. I learned to work with this dynamic throughout the years, and humour is the best way for me to handle these situations. I'm a strong proponent of getting out of the kitchen if you can't take the heat, and there's no way I'd survive in that kitchen! I am the one who needed to change and learn how to react to the roughness of a jobsite, and humour I found, is the best way. These guys appreciate having me there and I have not asked them to change the rules or their ways, so it works for all of us and I'm much more comfortable in the end!
3. How did your friends and family react to your career choice?
They were thrilled - everybody needs a plumber! Certainly it seems everyone would love to have one close to or in the family... unfortunately I have six siblings! Everyone proudly supported me through my apprenticeship years which ultimately took six years for me to complete. I've made a lot of moves around the continent since then, and found that everyone everywhere seems excited to know a plumber... especially a qualified one! I have never experienced opposition to the fact that I'm a plumber in all of my many years in the trade.
4. Why did you start your own business?
Well, the truth is I was laid off from a Project Coordinator position that I had been trying out. I am attempting to not say fired, but I felt the same indignity. I was suddenly left stranded with absolutely no notice given and felt for the first time that I did not have control over my own situation. This vulnerability coupled with my husbands' persistence in encouraging me fueled the whole crazy idea! In retrospect, I wondered why I didn't do this sooner, but I think that the years and wide range of experiences were necessary in order for me to gain the confidence required to go into business. In the beginning, I had to remind myself repeatedly "you're a plumber, that's the foundation needed here". Thank goodness it's all been going according to the plan, and I'm very proud of the level and quality of service my business is becoming known for. It's tough running the business as well as the project, but hey... I'm just the woman for the job!
5. Did you encounter any barriers to starting the business because of your gender? If so how did you deal with them?
I experienced indifference from government employees during the business startup, but I'm sure they see all sorts and kinds of individuals starting up different kinds of businesses. The only thing I encounter from other tradesmen and clients is first surprise and then often relief or excitement. It seems that my gender is the very thing that sets me apart from other plumbers and it's been a very powerful tool in my roster that unfortunately others can't purchase!
6. As an independent plumber, do you experience any challenges that you think a male plumber would not face?
That's a great question - I think the male plumbers out there can face anything; on the most part they are thoughtful, clean, safe, and generally want to solve your household issues for you. They are doing their job well, however the client may not feel entirely comfortable with what they need to ask or have fixed. Our plumbing is very intimately connected with us, and people don't always like to share that with strangers. This is our personal space and we don't like others poking through our personal effects. And with an embarrassing situation such as your toilet backing up and overflowing onto the floor, it's always a little uncomfortable having anyone else have to deal with it! It seems that if someone is going to have to do it, well let's call this chick in to do it! The other plumbers can certainly take care of it, but it's easier for women to say tell me "I flushed a pad down there, but I didn't know it would do this!!!"
Ladies! Don't flush your pads down there, it will certainly do bad things and I probably don't live in your city!
7. What reaction do you typically get from male customers and from female customers?
Of course women in particular feel very comfortable with me, as well as the gay community, and I have an extremely relaxed attitude which enables them to ask anything they want. I was surprised to learn that the same reaction comes from the average male out there as well; they have a dire plumbing situation, and they are professionals in other fields who just have no idea about what's going on or how to fix it. That's stressful for them because they're the man of the house! I think, dare I say, that the male population feels just as relieved to have me turn up as the women and gay community do, because they can relax with the fact that they don't know how to fix the problem and they don't need to pretend to. Who knew? Usually everyone wants to know if what happened was their fault, if there's anything preventative that they could do, and does this problem happen with other people's plumbing too. They always seem appreciative and relieved when I assure them that having these sorts of problems are the nature of having the luxury of modern indoor plumbing at your disposal!
8. What advice would you give a young woman who is considering the skilled trades as a career path?
For the record, I have the same advice to men and women who are considering the trades: I would advise them to be completely open and hungry when learning about this massive and limitless trade. They world will literally be your oyster, and no one will be able to take it away from you once you have it, but you must enjoy what you've chosen for a living. It's going to be dirty and grueling at times, and it will be rewarding and exciting at others. In fact I find that it starts with dirty and grueling and becomes more rewarding and exciting as the years go by, so I'm really looking forward to my next decade! If you truly enjoy the skills and knowledge that you've worked so hard for, then the trade will give back to you more than you could imagine. I feel very proud to have such an honest and invaluable trade to offer everyday people. If I didnít have this kind of passion, I would probably feel that my life sucks and I'd wallow in self pity daily about my crappy job holding me back. Attitude is absolutely everything, and I have plenty of that... :)
9. If you had it all to do over again, is there anything in your career that you would differently? If so, why?
I don't ponder this sort of stuff, I'm a jump in with both feet kind of gal and take whatever lumps and bumps come with it because that's what life's about... but just for you, this one time Stephen! If there was one thing in my career that I would do differently... it would be... I can't do it! I don't have anything! Sure I have lots of low times, and I've had struggles with certain areas or had difficulty working with family sometimes, but it's the tough times that make you so strong and resilient. When you think about it, when have the good times given back except in the moment? I wouldn't trade any difficulties that I've experienced because they have made me who I am today. I have more confidence, stronger interpersonal skills, the foundation is set for another few decades of learning, and I can take the bumps and bruises that come in either physical or emotional form. The only thing that can possibly get in my way from here is me, and that just isn't going to happen!
This is the second interview that we held at a later date. Some questions are similiar but the answers might be different this time around - his questions are just so loaded! I have oh so many responses swimming around but have tried to be succinct with my answers... :)
1. Do you see a great demand for plumbers? Is there a shortage?
Yes, we actually have a trades crisis on our hands and we are short of many qualified people, especially plumbers. This creates an immense demand for them.
2. If there is a shortage, what do you think is the cause? Why wouldn't more people be interested in the field? Especially women?
The shortage, from what I can see, comes from the technology boom that occurred in the early 90's; computers suddenly took over as "the" career direction for many people, and schools in particular responded to that by offering more computer/technology driven courses. Of course this is where students want to push forward as the exposure and rewards for excelling in this field have proven to be seemingly unlimited! It makes complete sense, you have to move with the times... but everybody? It felt like you shifted to the trades only if you didn't have many other choices in life, perhaps it seemed to require more brute than brains or skill - but nothing could be further from the truth. I cannot imagine anything more gratifying than actually constructing a project from paper with your brain, hands, and crew to its final completion. I don't think the problem is with people not being interested, male or female, it seems to be more about people wanting to move ahead with technology... what they don't realize is that the trades are moving alongside of technology, at a very fast and exciting pace.
3. Have you in the past, found that the work is sporadic and/or seasonal? Do you think that people are put off entering the trade because of that? Are there ways a plumber, or apprentice, can even out their work flow to compensate for slow periods?
There are a couple of different offshoots of the plumbing industry that could make it seem seasonal. For starters, any new construction, as in beginning with bare ground, can be much more difficult depending on the weather. When you need concrete to set, during the rain or snow seasons are not ideal times. This doesn't mean that construction always stops, but it means that you want to consider the conditions in relation to what phase you are working on, which requires advanced planning. Sure your hands can get icy cold on the job, and working in the rain is not always the most fun, but it is part of pushing through on something bigger. You feel, once again, immensely gratified that you worked through it, your past that point and you are stronger from it. If you are working in the service field, then you don't experience a slow season as holding back pressure and sending waste away is a very exhausting job for your home to keep up with. I'd say that maintaining peoples home systems is a full time job, and when the season turns nasty then this maintenance can suddenly and severely increase! I personally even out my workload by keeping myself open to any and all opportunities that present themselves to me. As a result of this, I have been on some extremely creative and unique projects which is always fun.
4. Do you find the work strenuous and physically demanding? Is this a factor that would cause women, in particular, to avoid the field?
I have certainly found the work extremely physically and mentally demanding at times, but this shouldn't be a deterrent. I think my apprenticeship years were particularly demanding as I felt that I needed to prove myself to everyone. The early years are the same with any industry, you start at the bottom and work your way to the top - this certainly applies to the trades. I dug trenches for two years! But I also learned the basics, learned to solder, worked with other trades, and basically blazed a trail as one of the very few women plumbers in BC in the early 90's. Women should not avoid the field for fear of the trade being too difficult; I think that you should assess your own strengths and weaknesses (as you should for any career choice) to determine if you are suitable for the challenge. If you are not afraid of learning, or getting your hands dirty, or progressing in life by working hard then you might consider the trades. I truly believe that if you can't take the heat then you shouldn't be in the kitchen... some people are meant to be here and some clearly are not, and it will be up to the individual to learn as much as they can about this trade before deciding to enter it - unless you chuck it all and dive in head first like I did!
5. Some people seem to believe that the work is also messy, and yes, even gross, at times. Do you think this deters some people from trying it?
What about women in particular?
People honestly believe that being a plumber means that you deal with (ahem) POO all day long... this is not true! If you were a service plumber who happened to specialize only in clogged toilets, then this would be true - but nobody specializes only in clogged toilets. There are definitely going to be some gross times in this field, regardless of your gender, but the important thing to remember is this: modern plumbing, as in managing and disposing of human waste in a safe and stylish manner is what makes us civilized. If we cannot maintain this waste, civilization as we know it will crumble: diseases spread, water sources become contaminated, and we have an endless supply of smelly human fertilizer taking over. We can place ourselves in this situation quite easily when observing disasters like the tsunami in Thailand, so I'm personally very proud of participating in and maintaining our current civil society. But at the same time I feel that I have a skill that can save lives, and often feel the need to provide disaster relief when they occur... which I find, interestingly enough, is the exact opposite situation from the question: I will deal with the messiest, nastiest side of plumbing if/when I choose to do it for humanitarian reasons, which will not be a deterrent.
6. This is the same question I asked you earlier. What advice would you give a young person, male or female, who is thinking of pursuing plumbing? Is there any advice you would give to young women particularly?
It's tough to offer advice that applies to everyone across the board. I think a crucial part of excelling in plumbing is to not be timid - be hungry to know more about it. My dad has been in the mechanical trades for 40+ years, and he's still learning about everything it has to offer and where technology is taking us. He is passionate about his work, and gets really excited about our trade's progression - but if you are the type who is nonchalant about what you do and just want to score steady good paying work or contracts, then I imagine it would feel like the same rut that you would experience in any career that you weren't excited about. If you genuinely enjoy what you do, then your chosen profession will give back to you as much as you can possibly soak up! As far as plumbing goes, the sky is the limit... or should I say the ground is the limit?
7. I have also asked this one before. If you had it all to do over again is there anything you would do differently and if so how would you do it?
If I had to do it all over again... should've, would've, could've... I don't ponder this stuff very often. I really try to be the best sponge that I can be and absorb what ultimately becomes learned common sense. Once you've reached this point, then you are in the position to tackle situations that you haven't been presented with before, as you have a base foundation of understanding to work from. So if I would do anything differently, it would be... honestly nothing. Sorry to disappoint, but this is such a dynamic trade that resembles a vast maze more than a straight line that you have the opportunity at every single junction and corner to make changes or observe closer or back up and try that again. It allows too much freedom to grow at your own pace for there to be any regrets.
8. Are there any specialty areas in your field that you think will be particularly popular, or rewarding, in the future?
I'm going to apologize for being cryptic in yet another answer! There are different perspectives that allow for the same situation to be popular, rewarding, necessary, or damaging all at the same time depending on where you sit. I have a couple of angles where I place myself: one is from the point of view of the average homeowner who has their own career direction or life that is not geared towards any trade whatsoever; I find it very rewarding to give them basic information that dispels some of the myths and fears surrounding their own household system. My other point of view is a big one: we've succeeded in managing our waste for the average city or remote home in a safe manner for humans - now it's time to shift our focus to a bigger picture, which is the environment. It is not enough to feel good about our own households sanitation, we need to think beyond that and ask questions like "Where does it all go from here? What happens to it then? What choices can I make about my practices to lessen the overall impact?" If everyone could become more concerned with the environment and what we're doing to/with it, then we will be severely advancing our own civilization. Isn't that a rewarding and exciting concept?!
9. Besides fixing and installing plumbing, what other types of work are open to plumbers? For example, is it a good background for opening one's own plumbing supply store or some other related type of business?
It is certainly a wonderful foundation for opening a supply store or service company, however it's not essential for you to be a qualified plumber in order to own these businesses. Other branches from the trade are gas-fitting, sprinkler-fitting (not as in lawn irrigation, but as in fire protection), pipefitting, or heating. There's also divisions of the plumbing trade such as Residential, Commercial, and Industrial applications which all can be specialized in on their own, or combined if you have the time and manpower. An entirely other branch that I am immersed in is full kitchen and bathroom renovations; I'm finding this very exciting, as I am tearing out the old, dreaming up the new, installing and finishing it. This is particularly fun for me because I have a crew and project to oversee, the clients to coax along, and design ideas and techniques to explore and implement. It's a great personal advancement for me to shift from being on the tools to being creative as well as "the boss". I hear I'm a pretty good one... :)
10. I read on a website that women who live alone, and single moms, prefer to call a woman plumber when they need help. In your experience, have you found that this true?
Without a doubt... wouldn't you feel safer if you were a single woman living alone? Unfortunately, it's not that they "prefer" to call a woman plumber, not too many places have such a luxury! When they do stumble across one, you can bet that these women have found their plumber for life, but there aren't enough to go around. I would like to take this opportunity to express that the male plumbers out there are for the most part extremely personable, clean, friendly, and efficient. They know it's scary for a lot of women out there to have a stranger in their home, and these plumbers are very conscious of this and go to extra lengths to make the visit non-intimidating and pleasant. Of course there's always going to be the big, smelly, hairy guys with their crack hanging out but that's how some of them just are! I find that single women, single moms, single guys, other tradesmen, professional couples, underprivileged people, the elderly, the gay and lesbian community, and every race of every type of person out there seems to have the same reaction to me standing on their doorstep: they relax, smile, and seem to feel safe as well as confident that their plumbing issues are going to be addressed...and they often choose to become my unofficial apprentice for the session!