The Master Plumber Who Thinks More Women Should Learn a Trade

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Photo: Jan Stromme/Getty Images

Erin Swetland, 36
Master plumber
Minneapolis, Minnesota

I got a fine-arts degree in painting but quickly realized isolated life in a studio wasn’t for me. I bought a house during the 2009 downturn. It was super cheap and a shit hole. The bathroom walls were squishy, everything was gross. I had a plumber in and while he was working I thought: This guy’s job’s awesome. He gets to use his hands, talk to people, solve complex problems, he has a license to be nosy, and it even seemed kinda creative.

When I said that to him he was like: “Come on, Erin, you seem like you’re fully capable of doing this, too.”

My mind was blown.

In those stupid career fairs nobody ever suggested to the little girls, “Get into a trade, you’ll make a shit ton of money, and you can have a lifelong career.”

At the time the union wasn’t accepting any applicants — the wait list was long because the economy was such shit. So I did a year’s plumbing program at a tech college. Normally you do an apprenticeship, and with the union it takes five years, and you have night school two nights a week, and you learn all sorts of different skills like welding, soldering, isometric drawing, and then after five years you take tests and become a journeyman plumber.

So after this short course I was like, I need a job — now. I went to the Plumbing Supply House (it’s kinda like Home Depot) and said, “Do you guys know anyone who’s hiring?” The guy said, “Oh yeah, I know this one guy … Tony.”

I cold-called Tony and said: “I have no plumbing experience except a year in tech school would you like to hire me?!” He’s like, “Are you joking with me?” I was like “Um no?” and he was like, “You’re a lady, right?” and I was like “Um yeah?” and he was like, “Huh … well, come to the shop today.”

I arrive and meet this small well-built 60-year-old black Mexican guy standing on the back of his truck, his leg up on some tool, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, resting his arm on his knee. He’s like “So … you wanna be a plumber.”

I replied ” … Yes?”

“Why?” he asked. I said “I want a skill that can’t be outsourced. I want a trade that will be with me forever.”

He paused and then goes, “Come in tomorrow, we’ll see how it goes.”

I think part of the reason he took a risk on me was because he wanted to support minorities in the trades. I worked with him for two and a half years and it was awesome.

He was like a dad figure, I was his apprentice. I went with him on all his jobs. His goal was to teach me everything he knew and have me go on bids, because I’m a good talker and people usually trust women more. Especially single women: They might worry about having some big, beefy lug coming into their home. Tony was banking on me sticking around because I’d be good for business.

After two and half years, my cousin-in-law who works for a large national company called Harris Companies told me they had a minority “goal” and had to fill the position. They got the contract for the new Vikings Stadium. I called and they were tripping over themselves to take me out for coffee. They signed me up on the spot.

I had to break up with Tony. It was heart-wrenching. I wanted to vomit. I said, “Tony, I have something to tell you.” And he was like, “Are you leaving me?” I cried and said “Yes I am!” … I explained there’s so much more money in the union — I’m in Local 34 St. Paul — and all the benefits, and the retirement. He totally sulked. He was dejected, it was so sad. But he got over it. We still love each other.

It was a crazy transition because Harris does large-scale commercial buildings. They brought me on right away with the initial team of plumbers that started on the stadium. It was the middle of February, the ground is frozen. We were dragging ground thaw blankets and hoses so we could excavate and lay pipe. It was fucking plumbing Olympics.

At first there were days where I was worried I couldn’t handle it. Some of the pipe was extremely heavy. Luckily I am quite strong, but things would happen. We would be unloading a truck of 20-foot long pieces of six-inch plastic pipe, which are hard to wield. I go up to take a pipe, and my foreman is like “Don’t overexert yourself!” And I’m like, “I want to be part of the team … Just let me take this stupid piece of pipe and if I fail, just let me fail.” In a way it was nice to hear concern, but on the other hand I don’t want to feel like men are treating me differently.

We start at 7 a.m. and go to 3:15 p.m. Before we start work we do our bend and stretch. It’s light stretching to prevent injuries but it looks like an aerobics warm-up, very ’80s: all the guys in their reflective gear rotating their hips, and touching their toes, leaning over to the side — which they call beer-mug pose.

It’s very hierarchical — what I imagine the army feels like. We are all working toward a common goal, it’s physical, and there’s a lot of danger, especially in large-scale commercial work. So, you have to trust. I was on the crew that installs the pipes that handle storm water when it rains. These pipes are the largest pipes that exist on a site generally, so we were lifting things that were like 1 ton up 300 feet in the air. It’s terrifying for a while until you understand the physics of what you’re doing or you’ve done it enough that you’re not worried anymore. At first I was exhausted. Sometimes I would come home and cry. What made it tolerable was that the people I worked with were so great and competent. Going in, I’d heard things like, “All you’re going to do is drill holes and they don’t want women around,” but generally speaking they really wanted to teach me.

I sensed a real pride from the men who wanted to show me how they do their work — they were proud.

I have never been the kind of woman who gets approached by men, and I get to the stadium and it’s a floodgate of flirting … I was like, what is this? There was one guy from Texas, tiny, short little dude who was in love. Each day he’d be like, “Let me take you out dancing!” His head came up to my shoulder. “We’ll have so much fun, just give me a chance, give me a chance,” and finally I was like “I have a wife,” and he was like, “It doesn’t matter!” It calms down after a while because they see you working. I’m not there to flirt! I’m in a disgusting vest, I’m sweaty, my ass is sweaty, how do you find this attractive?

Apparently once, when I started, the guys were all at the bar talking about how much I sweated. One of them goes, “You know why she fucking sweats? Because she works her motherfucking ass off!”

There’s a lot of anti-gay talk among them, they tease each other. It’s that thing where straight men think gay men are disgusting but lesbians are hot. They don’t see the irony. I have to pick my battles or I would walk around angry. It’s banter and they are very open with it. The journeyman I work with came to my wedding — it was small one … but the rest of them were pissed because they wanted to come too. I thought that was really sweet.

I started out installing toilets and now I help build hospitals and stadiums, so these days I deal with fewer actual turds than one might think. But oh gosh do I have stories from my days of domestic plumbing …

People are disgusting. I clean before I would have somebody over to do work, but many people don’t. A lot of the plumbers I know will just turn those jobs down. Tony told me a story about how someone called him to unclog a tub. When he got there it was full of piss and shit because the toilet wasn’t working. He was just like, “This is not my job,” and left.

Don’t ever flush your tampons, or those adult baby wipes … you shouldn’t even flush toilet paper. Hair is pure protein — it doesn’t break down. Put your hair in the compost or the garbage. Your soap products will congeal, especially natural products like coconut oil. Don’t use Drano, ever.

Don’t get me started on garbage disposals … People think, oh, I’ve got this garbage disposal, it chops everything up so I’m gonna shove chicken carcasses in it, it’ll be fine. What the fuck? These pipes are for water, they were not made for chicken.

The Plumber Who Thinks More Women Should Learn a Trade