In a former life Helen Spedding, 46, was a PE teacher, at both primary and secondary level, and was Head of Department at Park High, Stanmore, for several years. Then she moved to Sport England as a Senior Development Manager, was involved with the establishing of School Sport Co-ordinators (“until the Coalition axed them”, she observes, bitterly), and developed school and community sports programmes linked to the 2012 Games for Tower Hamlets.
As a cv, it’s both interesting and logical. You can see where she’s going. None of it points you to her next career move: plumbing. Voluntary redundancy, in March 2011, presented “an enormous opportunity to be proactive and do something different.” There was the luxury of some time off, some time to reinvent herself. It was, she agrees, a big step to turn her back on all that experience in a specialised field, but her partner (a former history teacher turned police officer; clearly huge career changes run in the family), was supportive, “and not surprised.” With future hindsight in mind, Helen concluded that if she didn’t make the leap now, in ten years time she’d look back and think that she hadn’t actually been too old after all.
She’s always been practical, with an interest in general DIY, and was lucky enough to have attended a primary school that offered courses in woodwork, for example, to pupils of both genders, developing hands-on skills at an early age. She bakes and cooks too. Is there no end to her talents? “My needlework’s not up to much,” she says, darkly.
She enrolled with OLCI, a training provider that has several centres across the country, including London, specialising in a variety of construction courses. The arrangement suited her perfectly – lots of modular components, each with practical assessments and written exams, so that she could be working on more than one simultaneously. She particularly appreciated that the tutors all had long experience in their individual trades, so that although they taught to a syllabus, they were passing on lots of tried and tested tips as well.
It took her around four months overall, at the start of 2012, to complete four plumbing courses and one in tiling. She crossed paths with around a hundred other students – and they were almost all men. She glimpsed a female trainee electrician, and another female would-be plumber was starting her course just as Helen was completing hers. That’s it.
Plumbing – construction in general – is, undoubtedly, still a man’s world. There were, for example, at one of her training centres, four toilet stalls side by side. They all had the figure of a man on the door. In due course (perhaps as a result of Helen’s presence), the staff toilet acquired a female symbol – but it was out of sight down another corridor, and no-one thought to mention it to her for weeks. Helen was unfazed: “They were individual cubicles, after all, so it wasn’t a problem”, but she acknowledges that other women might have less sang-froid about it. “If you were daunted by the whole thing you might think, ‘there isn’t even a toilet for me…’.”
In the real world she’s encountered only one other female plumber, a youngster who is currently training at a conventional college. Helen’s hopeful that they might have the occasional opportunity to work together in the future, that perhaps in the medium term she might be able to form a company, or at the very least a loose network, of female tradespeople: all purpose, all trades, all women.
She’s entered the market at an ideal time, she thinks. Either people are making simple improvements out a stringent need for budget control – “and you don’t have to spend a fortune” – or they’re indulging in a total upgrade because they’re staying put. “It’s amazing what a little investment in new grouting can achieve.”
She’s embracing all the openings – “You have to take whatever you’re thrown in order to build up the client base” – and, so far, hasn’t found her gender a problem. Indeed, on occasion it has worked in her favour, both with female and male clients. “I called two men,” one chap told her when asking her to quote, “and neither of them rang back, and I saw your name and thought, that’s a woman, I expect she will.” It’s hard for clients to find people willing to do small jobs, and she’s happy to take on this sort of work, but keen not to be pigeonholed for it.
Her first job once she’d qualified was changing a kitchen tap, and she remembers with relief the feeling of “I’ve achieved that, and I didn’t flood the house…”. As she observes, “water is very unforgiving.”
From then she moved rapidly to the replacement of an entire bathroom suite, in which she had to break the old bath in two in order to get it down the stairs. “You need organisational skills as much as practical ones”. We’re talking project management, planning, that sort of thing… all skills that she possesses in abundance as a result of her previous career, I suspect. And any plumber needs to be unbtrusive, she feels, so considering in advance how you’re going to deal with the job is critical whatever gender you are.
After our meeting she was off to retile a couple of floors – a cloakroom, a bathroom – in one house, with replacing an entire bathroom in another scheduled for a couple of weeks later. Around two thirds of her work is unplanned/emergency, but the proportion that is booked ahead of the day is increasing.
As for the physicality… “I certainly don’t need to go to the gym,” she laughs, adding that she can see what stage of any major job she’s at by the state of her hands, from lacerations to grazed knuckles. “I’ve swopped paper cuts for tile cuts.”
She’s aware that she needs to wrench hard to ensure that something is watertight, whereas a burly chap might need to put in less effort – but the upside is that her small hands can get into little areas where a man might struggle. Changing bath taps, for example. “It must be so tricky for them…”.
She loves the autonomy and the flexibility and the challenges. Even elastic bands have their uses, she explains, and tells me about a recent job in which that proved to a perfect solution, instead of replacing a much larger part. “Technically it wasn’t a plumbing solution at all – but it fixed the toilet.” And, of course, she explained it honestly to the client. “Let’s stick the rubber band on and see how long it lasts.”
There are daunting moments, she admits: “When you’ve taken a room back to a shell – rough walls, no floor, pipes sticking out everywhere – that’s when you’re at the point of no return” but she wouldn’t swap these for the old commute from her Northwood Hills home to her desk in Tower Hamlets. Her suits have been relegated to the back of the wardrobe; she wears jeans, now, or trousers with lots of pockets and however often she puts on a new, smart t-shirt, it’s covered in grout before she can say ‘Turn that tap off.’
She’s not anti-university or anti-education (she is, she reflects, probably one of very few plumbers with a Masters degree in Gender & Education, and a Radio Four habit) but is increasingly aware that young people need to think more about investing in reality rather than in educational debt. She plans to make sure her own daughter develops her own practical skills, so that she has plenty of choices in life. “By the time you leave home,” she told her, “you’ll be able to change taps and tile walls etc”. “Mmm,” said Tate, 7, “or I could call you, because you wouldn’t make me pay.” Clearly a child who’s inherited her mother’s business acumen as well as her practical turn of mind…
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