Bellwood resident Tisa Carter, 29, is approaching the tail end of an apprenticeship with Chicago Journeyman Plumbers Local 130. With 6,100 members, the union is one of the largest straight-line plumbing locals in the country.
During a phone interview last month, Carter — a 2007 graduate of Proviso East High School and the sister of Proviso East basketball stars Jevon Carter (now in the NBA) and Keith Carter (who played college ball for Valparaiso) — shared how she got involved in the plumbing trade and her hopes for getting other young women involved, as well.
How did you get to where you are now?
I found an ad on Facebook four or five years ago and I basically signed up for this program with the Chicago Women in Trades. That organization gave me an opportunity to try different trades like plumbing, electrical, etc. I liked plumbing the most.
Chicago Women in Trades helped me prep for my [entry exam], got me training and let me know what I had to do to enter the workforce, which is predominantly male. I’m now in my fourth year with Local 130. I had to take a test that included practical math, reading and mechanical reasoning. Those tests focus on things like fractions, ratios, measurements, square roots, etc.
What were you doing before stumbling on that Facebook ad?
I had graduated East in 2007. From there, I went off to Calumet College in Indiana and got a business degree. I was working at Horseshoe Casino waitressing for a while. I wasn’t using my business degree.
Do you have any college debt?
I got my college debt down to $2,000.
How’s the pay as an apprenticeship plumber?
My apprenticeship is paid and it started off at $16 an hour the first six months and increased to $18 an hour. After the first year is completed, we get a raise of $3, bumping the pay up to $21 an hour. The second year of the apprenticeship program I was making $25. The third year, I was at, like, $30-something. We get increases in our pay every two years. The benefits are great.
What’s the work like?
The most exciting job I had was working at Wrigley Field. That was cool. I was able to see underground and overhead piping. I installed the toilets and sinks. I was also able to watch the first six home games. At the time, I was the only female on the job.
I’m in a support group with about 30 women and it’s within the Chicago Women in Trades. We make sure we check up on each other and everything, because sometimes it’s hard. You want to quit.
How has the experience been of being a woman in a field dominated by men?
I’ve heard [other trades people] say certain things, but I think I’ve proven myself. They’ll treat you like you don’t know anything in the beginning, but when I proved myself they backed off. I think many of the challenges had to do with being the new person on the job. Of course, me being a woman, I have to prove myself every day, but I really like what I’m doing. I can see what I build.
What’s the work schedule like?
Projects can vary. They can last from a month to two or three years. It depends on the building and the contracting. The Wrigley project, for instance, has been going on for the last five years. I was there for two of them.
What’s next after the apprenticeship?
My apprenticeship program is five years. It will be four-and-a-half years for me in June, when I’ll be eligible to take the test. Once your apprenticeship is over, you become a journeyman and you can basically go out on your own (as opposed to the apprenticeship program finding a job for you). The top pay is $51 an hour right now, plus all the benefits and everything. After journeyman, you be a foreman, a superintendent — there are so many other positions in this local.
What advice would you give women who may want to go into the trades?
I’d tell them to come to this program seriously and make sure you have a purpose. Don’t let whatever is going on in your life affect your work area. Give 100 percent. Never give up. This is a great job, especially once you’re in it. Once you’re in, you’re in.
Have you applied your skills at home yet?
I’ve been able to work on my grandmother’s house. I was able to reroute her sink, because it was clogged up. That was my test to see if I really wanted to be a plumber. I spent maybe a whole week working on her sink. I had times when I wanted to give up, but once I finished the job, I was so satisfied that I could put what I learned to use. I’m even trying to get my little brothers into this, but they’re more into basketball.