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Why everyone loves a female plumber

There's a shortage of plumbers in the UK - and plenty of opportunities for women, writes Tim Walker

Some myths about plumbing: you can earn £100k a year; the Poles are swamping the profession; women can't be plumbers.

First, don't believe the hype. The plumbing profession has seen a rise in the number of career changers attracted by the thought of being their own boss, and possibly by inaccurate press reports of the big bucks available. Plumbers still earn between £16,000 and £30,000 a year on average.

And, despite the large influx of Central and Eastern European plumbers, carpenters and electricians, there remains a shortage of around 30,000 plumbers in the UK, according to New Career Skills, who train mature career changers to the three professions.

As for women plumbers, look no further than Lorraine Dotchin, who until two years ago was an IT manager for a large law practice. Dotchin, 49, now runs her own plumbing business.

"I saw a point coming when I could have a career change," she explains, "and I had some experience with installing the network infrastructure at the law firm's building, which meant working with plumbers, electricians and plasterers. I always had an interest in plumbing. I'm not blazing a trail or anything. I knew there weren't many women in plumbing, but that didn't put me off because I knew I wanted to do it."

Dotchin looked into studying plumbing at her local college in Burnage, Greater Manchester, but found herself at the bottom of a waiting list. "They wanted me to wait six months and take a ladies' plumbing course for amateurs," she says. "They didn't really get why I was there. Once you're over a certain age, the chances of getting onto a college course are basically nil. Part-time courses in plumbing have three-year waiting lists in Manchester."

The Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (IPHE), the UK's professional and technical body for all plumbing and heating professionals, blames long waiting lists for a proliferation of under-skilled plumbers trained, for instance, by franchises offering six-week plumbing crash courses to career changers or others eager to get out to work just a little too quickly. As a result, many properly qualified plumbers find the majority of their jobs involve rectifying the poor work of the inexperienced. The correct training, says the IPHE, can take anything up to three years.

In Lorraine Dotchin's case, it was just over a year with New Career Skills in Southampton. "New Career Skills did all my theoretical tutoring," she explains, "and a company called Apprenticeship Training Ltd did all the practical residential training. Both are based in Southampton, and properly accredited. They're flexible courses; some people do it in six months, some take more than two years."

After completing the course, Dotchin didn't fancy her chances at finding an apprenticeship at her age, so she bought a van and started her own business, Burnage Plumbing. A year later, she says, "it's thriving - we're booked up until after Christmas now, and I'm having to turn work away. My average working week is something like 50 hours."

In the meantime, Dotchin has been assessed by the Corgi Competent Persons Scheme, and accepted as a water industry approved plumber, improving her professional standing and proving her competence to potential clients. She remains one of a rare breed. Her Corgi assessor knew of no other female plumbers in the North-west. Dotchin only knows one other female plumber and one female student plumber. On her college course, only five of 200 students were women.

"My fellow plumbers always say 'we don't know why there aren't more female plumbers - we bet old ladies love you...' And they do! I get a lot of work from my local plumbing suppliers, and often it's the elderly; they feel very comfortable with a female plumber."

And, perhaps surprisingly, men are comfortable too: "They're happier if it's a woman who's at home with their wife!"

Training tips

There are very long waiting lists for NVQ level 2 and 3 courses in plumbing, but the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineers strongly dissuades people from settling for a six-week crash course of the kind offered by many plumbing franchises. Lorraine Dotchin trained with New Career Skills ( www.newcareerskills.co.uk), who specialise in teaching mature career changers.

LearnDirect suggests that newly qualified plumbers can expect a salary of between £16,500 and £20,500. Experienced plumbers can earn from £21,000 to £30,000.

There is still a shortage of properly qualified plumbers. However, some in the Southeast have been struggling to find work, according to the IPHE. The organisation blames this on new, under-qualified workers undercutting experienced plumbers.