Sarah Panton Aguilar is a plumbing professional at Local 393 and was the first female plumber at the local. With extensive knowledge in the field stemming from a 40-year career in the trades, she is currently a MedGas teacher at the Pipe Trades Training Center.
Q: What would you say makes PTTC so special, considering both your time as an apprentice and now being a teacher?
A: Well, the Training Center here is a world-class training center. I absolutely love it. I've seen it go from basically a warehouse to the first-class teaching facility it is now. The hands-on training is state-of-the-art, and the online academic program we have because of COVID has been developed into an absolutely wonderful training tool that we can give the students.
Q: Why did you originally decide to pursue a career in the trades?
A: I never set out to be a plumber. I was married, and my then-husband was out of work. I said if you don't get a job, I am going to have to go to work. So I talked to a counselor and she said, “What are you going to do when you leave here, after talking to me?” I told her that I had a project going on at home - I was rewiring some electrical outlets. She said, “Would you like to be an electrician?” She made a few phone calls and the electricians weren't open, but the plumbers were. So I went and signed up. They asked me if I wanted to be a plumber or fitter. I didn't know what a fitter was, so I picked plumber. They told me what to study and where to go to school at night to refresh my academic skills and math. I did that, and I did well on the test. About six months later, I got the call and I started my apprenticeship.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about your apprenticeship experience and what that was like?
A: I came in knowing what a screwdriver, a hammer, and pliers were and that's it. So I was very green, but I was willing to learn, and I had a good background of making things. I grew up in an artistic family so I'm very artistic. I sewed a lot so I could visualize things. What I was lacking was the knowledge of the tools of what the trade was about. I thought I was going to be cleaning and unclogging toilets. That was a big eye-opener, finding out that there was electronic piping and there were hydronic pipes. All of a sudden my eyes were opened. Wherever I went I’d point out, “That's our work.” The biggest obstacle was the language, it was like learning a new language. Someone would tell me something, and I would have to translate it. That was difficult for me. I had to work extra hard and there were challenges along the way. I had two small children, but I did manage to get through. I found out at an award ceremony that I was the first woman plumber to come through the program at Local 393 which I wasn’t aware of until that night.
Q: Can you give me an overview of your post-apprenticeship experience? What did that career journey look like for you?
A: After I finished, I felt like I knew nothing about the trades. I didn't feel qualified so I immediately sought out more education. I come from an academic background. I do have a Bachelor of Arts degree - I went to San Jose State University. I graduated eight years previous to my coming into the trades. I didn't do anything with it. I got married and had children and it didn't really prepare me to get a job. So I got into the trades, went through the apprenticeship, and I still felt like I was not qualified. So I sought out higher education in the form of journey-level classes here at the Training Center. I took private classes on blueprint reading and went back to San Jose State and got a certificate in estimating and project management. Those certificates opened the doors. After being in the field for 10 years, I started working in the office at Therma. They saw my resume and they felt like I would be a good fit to learn the new estimating programs that they were developing at Therma. Elaine Erikson, a fitter in our local, taught me everything there was to know about that program. So I went into the office and started my estimating career. I went on to work for a couple of other companies and then worked at Southland Industries until I retired in 2014. I stayed working here at the Training Center teaching Med Gas.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what your experience has been like being a woman in the trades?
A: It's been good and bad. A lot of good things happened. A lot of people took me under their wing, looked out for me, and encouraged me. There were bad things too. People playing jokes on you, putting you down, sabotaging your work. I loved what I did and I kept persevering. It was a very rewarding job and they paid well too - that always helps. I am the type of person that loves learning new things every day, and that's why I still teach here. I'm constantly learning, moving, and that keeps me going. I love that part of it. I never did the same thing for more than a week at a time. It was always new, different experiences.
Q: What would you tell a woman who might be considering a career in the trades?
A: Try it. You don't have to stay in it but definitely try it. Like I said, the money is good, and you're constantly learning. The atmosphere for women is so much more amiable than it was when I started. They have numerous safety precautions that they didn't have when I first started. You don't have to worry about safety as much anymore like you used to worry about it. You want to stay safe and keep your body healthy so you can retire. It's such a rewarding career, and it's like nothing you can ever imagine. Nobody from the outside actually knows what it's like being a plumber or fitter until you get exposed to the myriad of directions that we have, and it's constantly changing. If you're worried about working in the field for the next 30 years, you can always aim to get into the office, do lead work, and things like that.
Q: What inspired you to come back to PTTC to be an instructor?
A: I felt like I had knowledge that I could pass on to other people. That's what got me in the door. I taught the estimating program for a while and then there really wasn't a need for that, so I just filled in wherever I was needed. Then I landed in Med Gas and I've been doing Med Gas ever since.
Q: What are some of your hopes and aspirations for women in the trades?
A: I hope that we can get more people to sign up, especially in plumbing. The fitters have a much larger number of women applying, and if we can somehow rebrand being a plumber, and its negative connotations maybe more women would apply. Something I didn't touch upon is the plumbing codes. I'm very passionate about the plumbing codes, and I work on the technical committees that develop the plumbing and mechanical codes. I would like to see more women get involved with that. Plumbers are passionate about what they do. They believe in protecting the health of the nation.