If you want to stand out as a professional trying to enter the plumbing, heating and cooling trade, try getting a perfect score at your local apprentice contest! That’s exactly what happened to Patricia Levesque, who, in March, received perfect marks at PHCC of Maine’s Plumbing Apprentice Contest. And, if you’re an employer, these competitions are a great way to find quality workers.
“Right now, after winning the contest, the field is wide open for me,” Levesque says. “The fact that contractors need workers and there’s not a lot of people going into the trade, winning a contest makes me stand out even more.”
Alice Ames, the chapter’s executive director, says Levesque is the first apprentice to ever receive a perfect score in the contest’s 10-year history.
“I said ‘Of course, it’s a woman,’” Ames adds with a laugh. “[The judges] agreed and said it was the extra details that [Levesque] did that none of the other contestants bothered with, such as escutcheons and more.”
The chapter’s Plumbing Apprentice Contest offers plumbing apprentices a unique opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a practical, hands-on event “that is fun and exciting for everyone involved,” Ames says. The competition is held in conjunction with PHCC of Maine’s annual tradeshow.
“Maine doesn’t require a formal apprenticeship, so we turn to the community colleges that have a plumbing program, and they enter their best students,” Ames says. “This year, just a couple of days before the contest, we had an open booth, and the instructor, Aaron Ford of Southern Maine Community College, said he had another student that would like to participate, and that was Patricia.”
The purpose of the contest is to generate excitement about the plumbing trade and to provide outstanding students with an opportunity to demonstrate their skills before their peers and also potential employers, Ames adds.
“Every year I see several contractors handing their business cards to the winner of the contest and offering them a job,” she notes.
Every contestant receives a PEX toolkit that sells for more than $400, along with a UPC code book, a t-shirt and hat, tools and other items. In addition, the winner receives $500 in cash, a plaque, a jacket and hat, a cordless tool — and a chance to compete in the PHCC Educational Foundation’s National Plumbing Apprentice Contest.
Levesque says she’s ready for the national contest. She has completed a certificate in plumbing and, in two semesters, will complete a certificate in heating. While in school, she works part time as an assistant at Duke’s Plumbing & Heating, a residential plumbing firm in Monmouth, Maine.
A mid-life career switch
“I’m 50, and for many women my age growing up, these kinds of professions were not encouraged — ‘That’s man’s work, you don’t want to do that,’” Levesque says. “But I’ve always been attracted to nontraditional occupations, having done truck driving and firefighting. I have a varied background, all in safety-oriented and highly technical fields.”
She also has degrees in business and computer design, and before starting the community college plumbing program, Levesque was studying environmental science and policy.
“But I began to realize that I was more interested in being truly hands-on with tools, building and making things work,” she says. “I found that I get more satisfaction and fulfillment out of that.”
When Levesque was looking to make the change into the trades, she had been involved in road and bridge construction and “got a really good exposure to that.” While in school, Levesque was working for an agency that administered a Maine Department of Transportation contract, in which the agency helped women, minorities and disadvantaged workers gain access to road and bridge construction jobs.
“I was a certified instructor, teaching women how to use power tools, and I realized I needed to be along with them working hands-on with tools,” Levesque says. “Then I was involved in a rollover car accident on the way to school, and my injuries left me unable to do things for about 16 months.”
Her recovery was taking so long that she feared she wouldn’t be able accomplish the things she intended to achieve.
“Fortunately, though, I didn’t lose the ability to learn,” Levesque says. “To help pay my bills while recovering, I started helping a residential plumber, and it turned out to be great physical therapy. While I was working with him, I found myself not thinking about anything else than the work — it became part of my recovery.”
She discovered that it would be a faster path to get licensed as a plumber than it would have been for other trades, “and I really enjoy doing this.” Levesque selected a nearby plumbing program at Southern Maine Community College, where she found the instructors to be highly knowledgeable.
“They have dedicated all their real-world experience and are invested in the success of their students,” she says. “It’s a really good program to be in and, with their training, I feel like I can do anything.”
Career opportunities galore
After Levesque graduates from the community college program and works toward becoming a master plumber with her journeyman-in-training license for both plumbing and heating, she says there are great opportunities in her area.
“There’s a lot of construction work out there right now — a couple of big contractors just in my area alone have work for the next three to five years,” Levesque says. “I can go into commercial work, though I very much enjoy residential work.”
Once she becomes a master plumber, Levesque would like to work for herself, but until then, she is willing to “try anything,” especially commercial work because she has not done that yet. “That would give me the opportunity to round out my skills,” Levesque says. “Even if I might not end up in that line of work, those additional skills would only increase my ability to troubleshoot and solve problems later on.”
Message to employers
Levesque’s advice for contractors looking for workers? Don’t just look for young people.
“I’m a lifelong learner; I’ve always been of the belief that you can reinvent yourself anytime in your life,” she says. “Our generation was not raised that way — you picked a profession and you went to work, and you stayed in jobs for years. But it’s just not like that anymore.”
People who are not satisfied are looking for a change, she says.
“I think a great way for contractors to find quality people is to look for older folks, especially older women who were discouraged from going into this type of work and ended up in jobs that don’t satisfy them,” Levesque says. “These ladies are very motivated.”
She believes that when contractors hire men and women, “you get the best of both worlds — I’m all about co-ed teams.” Levesque adds: “If a company is especially looking to hire enthusiastic, detail-oriented people, looking at an older generation of women is a good way to go.”
Watch, evaluate, hire!
That attention to detail was on full display when Levesque competed in the PHCC of Maine Plumbing Apprentice contest. One of the judges at that competition — Percy L. Brown, Jr., chair of Maine’s Plumbers Examining Board — was particularly impressed with Levesque,.
“I watched her very carefully; she was very neat and she was not afraid to use the UPC code book if she needed help,” Brown says. “I always tell trainees in these programs that the most important tool in your toolbox is the code. Once you understand the code, everything else will fall in place.”
Brown adds that when judging the contest: “I don’t look so much at the skills they have but more of how they go about doing the work, cleanliness, using the proper tools, cutting the holes correctly. They need to have learned the basics before becoming a plumber, then they can develop their own skills with experience.”
Maine’s Plumbers Examining Board approves the plumbing curricula of community colleges within the state. After satisfactorily completing a program, individuals can test for a journeymen-in-training license. Those passing the test can then accumulate hours to test for a master plumber’s license.
“PHCC of Maine has always been supportive in promoting training for individuals for careers in the plumbing trade and has been supportive of the board’s efforts to properly license individuals,” Brown says.
The chapter’s apprentice contest allows plumbers and plumbing contractors to evaluate the individuals in these programs for possible employment, he says. Many of the students are from a family-owned business or have had some experience with a contractor.
“Plumbing is a good trade,” Brown says. “A good wage can be earned whether you work with a contractor or own you own company.” l
Reprinted with the permission of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Conference Issue of PHCC Solutions magazine.