It may be a wrench for men, but they're having to get used to more and more female plumbers. Fran Abrams finds out why - and how - women can train

Nicola Teeling is kneeling on a first-floor joist in a half-built house, welding central-heating pipes. One year into a two-year plumbing apprenticeship, the task is a routine one for her: "Though I'd be happier if I had a floor beneath me," she jokes.

She doesn't know it but she is, in fact, a 21st-century phenomenon. Although just one per cent of Britain's 120,000 plumbers are women, the numbers are growing. With good rates of pay and plentiful opportunities for flexible working, industry leaders are now promoting plumbing as the ideal family-friendly career.

Nicola is one of three women attending a City and Guilds course in plumbing at Colchester Institute's Clacton campus. The college has even considered setting up a separate, all-women course to encourage others to join them.

Nicola, who is 32, previously worked in a bank and for Essex social services, but she was bored, she confesses. So when her mother's plumber, Adrian Bates of East Anglian Plumbing and Heating, mentioned he was looking for an apprentice, she decided to have a go. Now she works for him four days a week and attends college one day a week.

"My friends and family were a bit shocked and very scared for me, because it was a big step," she says. "My brother's a quantity surveyor and he was quite worried because he knows how the guys can be on site. But I've always told people to forget I'm a woman. If they want to swear and curse, they shouldn't stop because I'm there. I think some of them have had their reservations about working with a woman, but they've given me the benefit of the doubt."

Although plumbing is often seen as a dirty and physically demanding job, Nicola says this is not the case. Health and safety regulations now bar all workers from lifting heavy weights, she says, and, although building sites tend to be muddy, much of the work is indoors.

She has no regrets about her career change: "There's a sense of achievement," she maintains. "At the end of the day you can look back and see there's something to show for the work you put in. When you work in an office you push paper around and sometimes there's no physical sign afterwards that you've actually been there."

The success of Nicola and the other women on the course has led the college to think seriously about helping others to follow in their footsteps. Although they are not the first women to take the course, there have never been three at once before. Colchester Institute has almost doubled the number of women on its construction-based courses this year to 52, though they still represent just four per cent of the total.

Duncan Barnes, the plumbing tutor, says the college would like to set up an all women-course in the discipline - though at the moment there is too much pressure on space. "I've come across nine women in seven years, but it's getting more and more popular. I think it might be easier to have an all-female group," he says. "When you have 18 guys tearing into it, sometimes it can be a bit intimidating. I'm sure if we advertised we would fill the course."

He has good reason to be confident. Since the building boom sent plumbers' earnings rocketing, it seems everyone wants to get into the trade. Colchester Institute already has a waiting list of 250 people for 18 places on its mixed-sex evening course in plumbing. "There's just an impossible demand," says Barnes. "I heard about one college where they had 42 places. They opened their doors at 9am. By 9.20am they'd filled all their places, and by 5pm they'd seen 2,000 people."

Although everyone agrees that newspaper headlines claiming plumbers can now earn up to £100,000 are exaggerated, there is certainly good money to be made. There have been ads in the newspapers offering £50,000 salaries for tradespeople to work on the new Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport, for example.

It isn't just women like Nicola who are changing their careers to become plumbers. One male city worker commutes every Friday from London to attend the course. Among other recent students are a computer engineer with a masters' degree and a £750,000 house in Ealing, and a jet pilot who has been made redundant.

To meet the increased demand and to try to cater better for the impoverished Tendring Peninsula, the institute has just opened a new £500,000 plumbing facility at Clacton-on-Sea, which is where Nicola studies. But, with such good wages available to working plumbers, Barnes confesses it is hard to recruit staff to teach the extra students. Nationally, he says, there is a 27 per cent shortfall in the numbers of plumbing lecturers. So it may be a while before the college can offer an all-women tutor group.

There is a handful of all-women courses elsewhere, though. For example, Moulton College in Northampton has just welcomed its first batch of 12 female students. The college is also thinking of adding an all-female carpentry and joinery course to its prospectus, too.

Mike Andrews, the deputy principal of the college, says the aim is to increase diversity. "There was a perception among females that if they applied to come on a course they would be a minority in a male-dominated group. It was putting some of them off," he explains.

The industry as a whole welcomes such initiatives, and is keen to encourage more women to take up plumbing as a career. Keith Marshall, the chief executive of SummitSkills, the organisation that oversees training in building services, says firms are now becoming more aware of the benefits of employing women.

"For too long, white, working-class boys have been the main source of new plumbers," he says. "Now we are doing anything we can to encourage entry from other groups - ethnic minorities, adults and women. We are finding there is an increased demand for women plumbers because women customers have begun to ask for them. When that happens, companies begin to sit up and take notice."

The Institute of Plumbing, the main industry body, is also keen to encourage more women into the trade. Jenni Cannavan, the assistant editor of the institute's magazine, says it makes an ideal career for those with families.

"I think a lot more people are realising they can fit it into their work-life balance," she says. "Quite a few of our female plumbers don't have to advertise at all. They get all their work from the other mums at the school gate, and they do their jobs while the kids are at school."

Among those who are doing just that is Linda Wild, who enrolled on the Colchester Institute course six years ago, after her plumber husband left her with two small children to support. Now she runs a successful business in Galleywood, near Chelmsford, and looks forward to the day when her two daughters will join her.

"Both of them want to become plumbers," she says. "And I hope they will, because we've got a good business built on solid foundations. For me, plumbing isn't a job or a career - it's a vocation."