Many apprentices knew that they wanted to work in the trades from an early age. Some come from a long line of plumbers and have been around the industry their entire lives. Others enjoyed tinkering and working with tools as children and naturally gravitated to the profession. For Rebecca Herrick, however, it was serendipity that led her to Local 12.
While in middle school, she learned that some of her friends were interested in attending Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School in Wakefield and were planning to attend a presentation.
“I had no idea what it was, but I tagged along,” Herrick says. She heard about the programs the school offered and was inspired by the success of past graduates. The idea of having a career appealed to her. “It was an accident,” she says with a laugh. “I decided to go there on a whim.”
At first, Herrick wanted to be a cosmetologist. She was also interested in the culinary program. But her goal changed when she took a plumbing class during her freshman year.
“I just absolutely fell in love with it,” says Herrick about the trade. Although she had never worked with her hands before or shown any interest in doing so, she enjoyed it so much that she started doing other students’ soldering projects. “Being able to physically hold something that I created blew my mind,” she adds. “It was powerful to realize I could do it.”
While attitudes and perceptions are changing, it can be difficult sometimes for females aspiring to work in professions that have long been male dominated. Herrick was shy in high school and says that she was too nervous to go out and work in the field–partly because she feared that people would think a girl shouldn’t be doing plumbing work. Outnumbered by boys in her class, she also says that she felt like an outcast, and second-guessed whether she should continue. Things came to a head when a substitute teacher confronted her and asked her why she wanted to be a plumber.
“He told me, ‘You’re a woman. You can’t do what we do.’ Then he said I’d never make it,” Herrick remembers.
It crushed her. But it also lit a fire in her. She said that she vowed to prove him wrong. It would take a few years to make good on her promise to herself, however.
After graduating, Herrick tried college, but found it wasn’t for her. Her boyfriend, an electrician with Local 103, told her about unions and working in the trades, which renewed her interest. While working at a 7-11, she saw a plumbing truck pull into the lot and worked up the nerve to ask the customer, who turned out to be the owner of a shop, whether he was hiring. Herrick got the job.
The small, Saugus-based shop did mostly residential service work. The once-shy woman discovered that she enjoyed dealing with customers. She also liked dissecting plumbing problems and solving them.
“I could figure out what was wrong and fix it,” Herrick says. “It felt great when everyone’s day was made.”
With some experience under her belt, she was accepted into Local 12’s apprentice program and began working for GBPCA contractor T.G. Gallagher. Among the projects she worked on was Pier 4 in the Seaport and the Sam Adams Boston Brewery. Later, Herrick worked with GBPCA contractor E.M. Duggan and worked on a project for Google as well as 100 Binney in Cambridge, a lab and office building. The fourth-year apprentice is currently on the job at Winthrop Center, a 53-story mixed-use high-rise that is being built in downtown Boston at the site of a former garage.
Herrick has found her calling, both as a plumber and as a Local 12 member.
“From the day I got here, I’ve felt like a professional,” she says. “I feel like someone with a career in which I can take pride.” Herrick says that her father, a retired union laborer, is thrilled that she is following in his footsteps and is a member of the union building trades. Unlike her experiences in high school, her gender has not been an issue. “I’ve been treated with nothing but acceptance and respect at Local 12,” she says.
Coming from the non-union world, Herrick was struck by the fast pace and by the emphasis on safety she encountered. For example, she says she had never worn a hardhat until she joined Local 12. Herrick says that she really enjoys working with cast iron. Although it‘s heavy and awkward, she likes installing it and creating working systems.
“It’s something that will last a long time and help people in their everyday lives,” says Herrick. “I feel like I am protecting people’s health and contributing to society.”
The instructors at Local 12’s training center have made a lasting impression on her. Herrick says that they have been patient and have been able to explain processes and concepts in ways that she can fully understand and grasp. She is especially appreciative of the center’s Joe Kyne, adding that he has really made a difference in her training and her outlook on work.
“The passion that he has about plumbing really rubbed off on me,” Herrick says. The influence of Kyne and the other instructors has been so strong, in fact, the apprentice says that she is considering paying it back by teaching plumbing, perhaps in the latter part of her career. “I’d love to be able to give support someday to young adults coming through the apprenticeship program like I’ve been supported.”