Sarah Palermo is a Local 393 piping foreman who attended the Pipe Trades Training Center as a plumbing apprentice 22 years ago. Today, Sarah is a Piping Foreman at Therma where she oversees high purity plastics, specialty, and validated projects.
Q: What would you say makes PTTC so special, considering both your time as an apprentice and as a member?
A: Our training center is beautiful. It’s state-of-the-art now and it was when I started 22 years ago. I know that they've made immense improvements to it in the time since I’ve joined the union. I feel like our union contributes a good amount of money to make sure that the training center is nice, functional, and that we have hands-on lab work. It's pretty awesome.
Q: Why did you originally decide to pursue a career in the trades?
A: I decided to pursue a career in the trades because while I graduated from high school with honors, I felt I had no direction. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, I was getting into trouble, and I ended up pregnant at 17. After I had my son, I was looking for work and I realized that going to college would be very difficult if I could even afford it. I had to find a job where I could learn while I was at work. My mom actually saw an ad, which said plumbers can make $23 an hour, and women are encouraged to apply. My stepdad was an ironworker, and he had a friend that was a pipe fitter. He said I could make a lot of money, and that I should do it. I knew that being able to earn and learn at the same time was going to be the only way to get by with my son.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about your apprenticeship experience? What are some of the things that you experienced during your apprenticeship including managing motherhood?
A: It was hard, working full-time and going to school two nights a week. There was often overtime so at times I didn't see my house or my son a lot. I was fortunate because for a while I lived with my parents and my mom helped me with my son. Then, I had a serious relationship and my then-boyfriend, who is now my husband, and he started helping with my son on the nights that I had school. There were even occasions when I didn't have anywhere for my son to go, and I would have a classroom session. My teacher would allow me to sit in the back of the class with my son so that I wouldn't miss school. There were a lot of people that helped me get through, but as far as my apprenticeship experience, it was really fun. It was a group of us that stayed together the entire time even when we switched teachers. I really liked that as opposed to when I was in school and had all different classes. I've known that group of people my entire career. We came up through apprenticeship school together. A lot of us work together now and have branched out to do different things. Those are my brothers. That was a nice part of the experience. After the five-year training, it feels like you have so much free time when you no longer go to school two nights a week so it's worth it and it's free. I have no student debt, and that's an amazing thing. There are a lot of people who pay off their student debts for years.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your journey post turning out?
A: When I was in the middle of my apprenticeship, I got married and my husband wanted to have more children and I told him we had to wait until I turned out. Once I turned out, I worked for a bit, and then took two years off because I had my second son. I came back to work and it's been really fun. A lot of my apprenticeship was semi-conductors and clean rooms, and when I came back to work after being off, it was a lot of data centers and cooling towers. I got a lot of experience doing the larger carbon steel mechanical rooms and mechanical pads. I feel like I got well-rounded in that way. I got to work as a journeyman for a few years at different jobs. Eventually, I got to be a small job foreman. I'd have labs and other things to do. There was one point when I was working a ton of overtime, and I had about 11 jobs at the same time because not all of them could be worked on at the same time. I did that for about seven or eight years, and then for the last couple of years, I've been in the shop. Our fabrication has been expanding, and we have started doing prefabrication of large piping racks that have multiple pipeline services. Being in charge of those special projects and high purity plastics is one of my specialties. I am also in charge of a lot of the validation work that comes out of our cleanroom.
Q: Did you feel there was potential for you to continue growing in your career?
A: I did and always have felt like I have the ability to move up. There were times where I was as high as I want to get in terms of responsibility level. I’ve gotten offered to come up into the front office to do estimating, but my heart is out in the field building stuff. I know there are some people that do Two of the guys in my apprenticeship classes decided to take that route, one becoming our main detailer, and the other is the Superintendent for 393 at Therma. So there is potential for that route too. Some people get out and they think that they're going to go become a project manager right away, and that's not true. It is once the experiences come along, but that's not something that I'm interested in because I'd like to stay in fabrication. I do feel that anything I showed the willingness to learn, they've helped me out and given me a chance to try it.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience being a woman in the trades?
A: It's been all over the place, there are times when people wonder if I know what I'm doing, but once we have our initial conversation, they understand that I'm knowledgeable about what I do. I’m friendly, I love to joke around, and I love grouchy old men. That's something that's gotten me through the trades and it's true, my stepdad was a grouchy old man, and he was probably one of my favorite people to be around. I enjoy trying to figure out how I can get along with people, and we have a really good time. I feel like most of the guys treat me like I'm their niece or their sister. There's some people that, I'll probably never get along with, and that's okay. As long as we do our jobs. I've never been harassed. I've had people say things are a little out of line, and after I told them they had crossed that line, it never happened again. I think it's about being friendly, but also being firm, no-nonsense, we're here to work. We can have a good time, but we don't need to be out of line with anything. Everybody's been pretty cool for the most part.
Q: Why do you think more women should consider joining the trades?
A: It's really fun building stuff. I'm a huge crafter. I've got all the scrapbooking stuff. It's all the same, but different. You take all these things and you make something with them. I think that women have a natural creativity, it's part of what we do. We keep a home, cook, and not to put women in a box, but we create things. This is totally our wheelhouse and I feel I'm an example of you don't have to be big or strong. I'm pretty small. Now we work smarter, not harder. We have machines to do the work and it's really fun. I was able to remodel my own kitchen and not have anybody help me. I got to make the kitchen what I wanted with the skills I learned here. I now have a lot of confidence in strange situations, because for a while this was a strange situation. I think starting young helps a lot because I grew up in the trade. I got here when I was 20 so I’ve been in the trades for 22 years now. I mean there's so much potential - there's no reason to not join. I think people don't realize how fun it can be. I love my job!
Q: What has a career in the trades enabled you to do?
My life is amazing. My husband was also in the trades so we're really comfortable. In the most modest way possible, these are gifts given to me because I am able to do the job that I do. We've got a beautiful house in Hollister with a bit of acreage. My mother-in-law lives with us. We're going to build her a house on our property. I was able to send my sons to private school. My oldest son is now a third-year apprentice in our trade. My husband's father was in the trades, so my son is now the third generation, and that's awesome. I was able to have an amazing life, and I thought that I was going nowhere when I got here. The future looked so bleak and now my future looks great. I'm going to be able to retire young enough to play and enjoy myself. It's been an amazing life and I have a retirement plan. There's a lot of people that work really hard, that don't have a retirement plan. It was nice to go to a financial advisor and show them all the stuff that we've done, and have them tell us we’re doing great. I have health insurance. I've got, you know, kids in braces. I have all these things that I don't know if I would've had, had I gone another route and I feel very fortunate that I have it.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to apprentices currently going through their training?
Try and do what you're told, whether you agree with it or not. Someday, you'll get to be in charge and you'll get to do it the way you want to do it. Nobody likes being argued with, so whoever you're working with, try and figure out how they like it done and do it that way. When you do it yourself, you'll get to do it how you want to do it. It's all about creative problem solving and if it was easy, then anybody could do it. Not everybody can do it. When we take tests, we come in here and use our brains and everything is a challenge. Some of them are frustrating, but they're also really satisfying when we can get through them. Having a positive mindset is really helpful. Finally, be on time and reliable. That's the other part of it. We had some great people that came through that weren't reliable so we weren't able to keep them. That was unfortunate, but reliability is huge. You can have really good skills, but if I can't count on you, it’s not going to work. That reliability shows with punctuality, going to school and following through on your commitments. I think that's the key to success.