Nancy Ferguson is a plumbing professional who started her PTTC apprenticeship in 1984. She continues to be involved in the PTTC community and recently served as the 393 Member Advocate.
Q: What would you say makes PTTC so special?
A: I would say not only the apprenticeship but the continuing education. That's the huge thing because when you turn out even though you've had four or five years of education, you're still green and you're competing against people that have 20 or 30 years of experience. So what makes the Pipe Trades Training Center special is you go back to school and you get your certifications and additional education. Then you get out there and compete.
Q: And why did you originally decide to pursue a career in the trades?
A: Oh I was a pretty feisty, obnoxious teenager who had just gotten married. I was working for a doctor's office at minimum wage. I had no benefits. The Pipe Trades had hired a woman named Monica and she was recruiting women to become plumbers, fitters, and HVAC. I thought, “What the heck! They pay for your education. I don't have to pay for college. It has benefits. I'll try it.”
Q: Why did you decide to continue that career? You tried it, and then what stuck?
A: It was interesting. It was really hard work. You had to get up before the crack of dawn, get your work clothes, and get ready to go. Then you're out there in freezing temperatures, burning temperatures, the heat, you name it. It's a challenge, but the pay is really good and you make friendships for life. It's such a constant challenge and it changes. You're never on the same job for very long. You might be there for a couple of weeks, to a couple of years, and then it moves on to something completely different. It's never the same.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your post apprenticeship journey? Once you turned out, what did that look like for you?
A: It was only four years at the time, but I felt like the minute I turned out, I was competing against people with 20 to 30 years of experience. So I did not feel like I really knew enough. I went back and took every single class I could. I got every certificate I could. I got my Med Gas certificates. I maintained them for my entire career. I just tried to learn as much as possible because I never felt I was one of those natural mechanics. I never felt like I was comfortable with the tools after years of using them. I got much more comfortable, but I always felt like I could do better.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what your apprenticeship looked like as well? Maybe some of your favorite courses that you took or a memorable experience on the job site during your apprenticeship?
A: The apprenticeship was tough. It's hard. You're working all day long and it's hard, heavy, physical work, and then you go to school 3 hours a night. I found that the people that were easiest to get along with in the apprenticeship were the older folks - the folks that were more like they would be my father.
For the apprentices that were my age, I should have been more like a little sister or a girlfriend. They had a hard time getting used to me being in competition with them. So that was a little bit more difficult, but I loved being an apprentice. I remember on one job, they used to go out on Fridays and send the apprentice out for beer. But I was too young! I wasn't 21 yet. I couldn't buy the beer. So “Chainsaw Bob” sent me out for root beers and we would have root beer floats on Fridays.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience being a woman in the trades?
A: Now I've been doing this for 38 years. I started when I was 20. From the very beginning to even now, women are a curiosity on the job. We're still so rare or unusual. Anywhere you're working, if I look up, I'll see people looking at me and look away. Unfortunately, we're still so new. We're a curiosity, and I hope to change that. I sure would like to have more women enter this trade.
Q: Can you talk a little bit more about your career journey? How did you work your way up throughout your journey? What are the potential opportunities for women in the trades?
A: Oh, limitless, absolutely limitless! Whether you're a man or a woman, as long as you continue your education. Once you learn the trade and get comfortable with the trade, then you come back to the school and you get an education on being a foreman and running the work. The next challenge is not only getting the job done, but now getting the tools for the men and women, getting the material for the men and women, and getting the answers for the men and women. After that there's project management, there's estimating, there's the AutoCAD and the Revit - all that kind of stuff. That's the kind of thing that will extend your career because for most of us in construction, it's such a brutal career that within 20 years, our bodies are pretty bad.
So if we leave the trades, our incomes plummet. In order to win the game, you got to stay in the game. And that means you got to continue your education and move out of the field, the physical part, and into the office.
Q: I want to ask you a little bit about being a 393 Member Advocate and what that was like. What drove you to be involved first of all, can you tell me a little bit about what that is, and then what inspired you to be involved in that manner?
A: These last eight years I've been working as the Member Advocate, and part of that reason is in my forties, I blew out my shoulder. It’s very common in our trade - knees or backs or shoulders. Then I got breast cancer so thank goodness I had 393 healthcare or it would have bankrupted my family. The Member Advocate for 393, what we do in this role is help members understand their retirement and healthcare benefits - this includes dental, mental health, addiction recovery, vision care, unemployment benefits, and disability benefits. All of these benefits are paid for through our fringe benefit package and we want people to use and understand these benefits. Then if they don't understand something or if they're having trouble getting through to our administration or something like that, I step up and intervene on their behalf. I learned so much and now being a Member Advocate allows me to give back to our families.