Women in Construction: History of a Pipe Dream

May 28, 2012 by Darren Construction 0

susan miller

There are plenty of educational programs out there to get school girls more interested in math, science and engineering — and it’s now far more common to see women working in a company’s CAD department. Though that challenge is far from over.

The construction industry, however, remains a man’s world.

Wyoming native Susan Miller has worked the past 27 years as pipefitter in industrial construction. She’s a rare sight, but gets great career satisfaction out of her chosen profession. Susan has previously worked as a nurse’s aide, a florist and cocktail waitress, but pipefitting gives her more of a sense of daily accomplishment.

She shares her life story and encounters with workplace discrimination in a new memoir, “History of Pipe Dream.”  Winning With DraftSight recently caught up with her for a candid Q & A exchange…

DRAFTSIGHT: Why is it so unusual for a woman to be a pipefitter?  When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

SUSAN: There are very few women in the field of industrial construction probably because they have been told it is hard work and not a good place for women. I am a woman who always felt I could do anything I wanted to if I applied myself. Pipefitting is a demanding job, but the gratification I get from looking at a pipe system that I put in that will be there long after I am gone does not compare to anything else I have ever done.

I grew up on a farm and worked hard as a young child. I really did not know what I wanted to be. I knew in junior high that I did not want a career that kept me indoors in an office nor did I want to work with the same people for the rest of my life. I remember when I was in my home education class that I really wanted to be in the welding class with my brother, but women were not allowed to take that course. When I found construction, it just seemed to be a perfect fit.

DRAFTSIGHT: When and where was your first pipefitting job?  Did you experience any discrimination, prejudice, name-calling or resistance at that job or over the years?

SUSAN: My first job was in Seminole, Texas at a Co2 plant. I stood outside the gate for three weeks waiting for the guy that did the hiring to call my name. I was so naïve then, thinking that I was going to be hired because women’s liberation had made us equal to men. I experienced a lot of resentment on the job because I was a woman, but that only made me want to be the best I could be so I would be accepted as an equal.

DRAFTSIGHT: What do you specifically love about pipefitting?  How does it give you more job satisfaction than other jobs you’ve worked at?

SUSAN: I love the freedom that pipefitting gives me. I can pick a state that I have never been to and go to work there. I like to meet people from all over the United States and get to know their cultures. I enjoy building different plants like paper mills, refineries, power plants, solar fields, fertilizer plants and chemical plants. It is interesting to see how they all work. Building one of those plants is an awesome and gratifying event and it makes me proud that I can read all the prints and build them the way the client wants it built.

DRAFTSIGHT: What is your proudest achievement?

SUSAN: There is one moment that particularly stands out. I was waiting to be laid off from a shutdown at the Unocal refinery in Long Beach, California when one of the top men at Unocal came up to me and told me that I did a good job on the pipe, while he handed me a Unocal hat pin. He told me he just wanted me to have something that would remind me of the job. I still have that hat pin. It meant a lot to me.

DRAFTSIGHT: What has been your most challenging assignment?

SUSAN: Every job is challenging. That’s what I love about my career. I always have the challenge of reading the prints right and working with people who I do not know.

DRAFTSIGHT: Describe the hazards of your job — ever been injured?

SUSAN: There are many hazards that go with the job due to the preparation of the pipe. There are potential back injuries from lifting, eye injuries from grinding a bevel on the pipe, back injuries from lifting, skin burns and eye burns form welding, but if you do your job right and follow the safety rules, you will not be hurt. In the 27 years I have been pipefitting, I have never been hurt.

DRAFTSIGHT: What’s your ultimate career goal?

SUSAN: When I first started my career, I had dreams of being a superintendent or a project manager and I worked hard to learn the prints and everything I could know about pipefitting. I have had a wonderful time learning and working with men from all walks of life. I will turn 56 on June 5th and know that because I am a woman I will never move up any further than foreman. That is just the way it is. I have always worked in a male-dominated job and the men will always dominate even though I have more experience than the supervision above me.

DRAFTSIGHT: Any advice for girls who want to pursue construction careers when they are older?

SUSAN: There is not a job in construction that a woman cannot do. The work is hard and sometimes demanding but the gratification one gets from it is priceless. The pay is great, but you have to be willing to move around the country to different jobs. The construction industry is booming right now and there is a demand for new workers. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have the work force to meet the demands so the companies have to hire people with visas from other countries. I feel that now is a good time for women and men to pursue a career in the high-paying jobs that industrial construction has to offer!

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