Meet Joellen Nevins, the Mom Who Wears Heavy Boots
In early September, I received a brief email from a subscriber, Joellen Nevins. “I am a female Union Pipefitter, ” she introduced, then offered to speak to me about her work. Her note concluded: “It’s important to let women know that there are women who are iron workers, electricians, operating engineers, boiler makers, carpenters, millwrights, pipefitters, and laborers. College isn't the only choice.”
Here’s letting people know….
Joellen “Jo” Nevins, a 49-year-old pipefitter, likes working at nuclear power plants the best. The labor is intense: 12-to-13 hours a day, 6-to-7 days a week, and usually far from her home in western Pennsylvania. But the $52 hourly wages are higher than most of her other jobs. And, given an accident or mistake could result in a Three Mile Island meltdown, the plants take training, protocols, and work procedures very seriously. “There’s never any rushing like you’ll get on other sites. It’s slower-paced. There’s time to sit and think about what you’re doing,” Jo says. “Ironically, I feel the safest at nuclear plants.”
“We usually start at 7 am,” Jo opens on describing a day in her life at one such job. “That means at the work area and ready to go. So, in reality, we get there at about 6 am because nuclear plants usually have very long walks from the parking, and we have security to go through just like an airport. But even stricter. We walk through a metal detector, and we put our belongings like our lunch, extra clothes, and our phones through the x-ray machine. Then we go through a bomb detector, standing in this machine that blows puffs of air at us, sniffing out any particles that could be used for a bomb. Then we walk through a metal detector. From there, another turnstile with a hand geometry reader. Before working in a nuclear plant for the first time, one must also undergo additional training, classes, and psychological evaluations.
As a pipefitter, we work on all kinds of pipe: steel, PVC, copper, stainless steel, glass, and fiberglass. We use all kinds of tools, including grinders, reciprocating saws, drills, portable band saw, drills, oxyacetylene torches, plumb bobs, and just your regular squares and levels. We square and level every fitting to keep our lines where we need them to go—and look professional.
On any given day, we do a lot of measuring and dealing with blueprints. If the pipe we are working on is to be placed up high, we rig it up to be lifted with nylon straps, steel chockers, or shackles. We also drill into cement to install anchors. We solder and braze pipe. We also prep it to be welded. That means cutting it to size, beveling it, and cleaning the ends. I make sure the pipe is square and plumb. We run miles of pipe in some plants. That’s where the fitting gets fun. We cross over other pipes and beams; we penetrate walls, and we run vertical pipes from floor to floor. It’s important to put the pipe in a precise spot so others, like electricians or sheet metal workers, can also install their systems as well.
Sometimes we must take dives. That doesn’t mean diving in the nuclear pool, but they call it that. It’s working in a high-radiation area. Typically, a dive is a two-hour shift, and then another crew replaces us. So out of 12 hours, you work only six. You spend the other half in the break room. You’re not allowed to sleep. Usually, I bring an adult coloring book to pass the time before going diving again.”
Jo was born and raised outside Summerhill, PA, a small, blue-collar town. Her father was a pipefitter with the local union. Her mother worked as a nurse’s aide at a state-run facility for the mentally challenged. Her parent’s work hours frequently overlapped—or her father was out-of-town on a job site—so Jo and her three siblings were often on their own after school. They were decidedly middle-class, and although not spoiled, they didn’t want for anything.
Jo didn’t much care for school. Good grades were a low priority. She didn't drive for As and Bs. She was fine with Cs. At seventeen, she became pregnant. Initially, she considered terminating the pregnancy. Family friends basically told her, “Your life is going to be over. You’re not gonna be able to do anything.” Jo also considered giving her baby away for adoption. Finally, she decided to go ahead with the pregnancy and keep the baby. Through much of her senior year, she endured contractions during class or simply missed school altogether. Two months before Jo graduated, her son Tim was born.
From the beginning, his biological father was out of the picture. Before Tim had his first birthday, Jo started going out with a young carpenter named Mike. He was the one there to watch Tim first crawl and help him tie his shoes. In 1994, Jo and Mike married. Many years later, Tim would buy Mike a coffee cup for his birthday. It read: “I’m not the stepfather. I’m the father who stood up.” In 1998 the family was rounded off when Jo gave birth to her second son James.
Although Jo studied occupational therapy in college, she never graduated, nor did she ever have much of a passion for the career. “I got into it because my mother told me that if I wasn’t enrolled in college, she would make me to go the Academy of Cosmetology. Some kids amaze me. They come out of high school knowing exactly what they want to do. I don’t know why I didn’t…maybe because I had my kid.”
For the first ten years of their marriage together, Mike was the principal breadwinner. Jo mostly stayed at home with their sons but worked part-time jobs in a restaurant and nursing home. Then, in 2002, Mike was installing some tongue and groove flooring in a house with a sledgehammer that was too big for what he needed. “One time, he swung the sledgehammer, and it struck the floor wrong.” The reverberations ricocheted through his back, and as Jo describes, “baby pieces of his spinal column broke off.” One back surgery after the next followed, and he was incapable of going back to work as a carpenter.
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At 29 years old, Jo knew that she would have to secure full-time work to help support her family. While looking at Help Wanted ads on the computer, she came across a job listing posted by the local pipefitter union. Although her father was a retired pipefitter, and her brother and uncles had joined him in the trade, Jo had never really considered the occupation, nor knew much about what one did except what the name implied: putting pipes together. She called her Dad that same evening and said, “Hey, your union hall is hiring.”
“They do that once a year,” he said. “There’s interviews.”
“Do you think I could do that kind of work?” She wasn’t sure what his answer would be, or if it was the kind of work for a woman to do.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “They got chain falls and equipment for lifting heavy things.”
Jo didn’t know what a chain fall was, but it wasn’t a no.
“Yeah, you can do it,” her father said. “They teach you. You go through an apprenticeship. I didn’t know you’d really be interested in it.”
“Neither did I.”
With that, Jo called her brother and basically asked him the same questions. “I wouldn’t be upset if my wife did it,” he said.
Joe then asked her husband what he thought about following her family into the trade. “If that’s what you want to do, yes, go for it," Mike said.
“It’s mainly men,” Jo said. She didn’t know any female pipefitters, and only later learned that they comprise only 4% of the workforce nationwide. “Are you going to have a problem with that?”
“No, I trust you,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy though.”
Jo applied at the union and was accepted. Her brother was proud of her and even bought some of her first tools. He gave her one added piece of advice. Having known a woman who quit in her fourth year of apprenticeship, he told Jo, “If you don't like or can't do this kind of work, then you should quit now. It wouldn’t be great, but they’d fill the spot with someone else. But, if you’re in here for four years and you quit, I’ll kick your ass because once you get your book [union card], nobody can take it from you.”
In June 2002, she began her apprenticeship. Two nights a week, three hours a night, for five years, she attended classes run by the union. They first covered basic mathematics and the history of the industry. Then they moved on to lessons in blueprints, basic electricity, welding, plumbing, rigging, medical gas, and first aid.
During the days, she worked on pipefitting jobs. Her first was at a high school in her area. The job site was run by a foreman named Pat Hirsch. “I owe a lot to him,” Jo says. Whatever task Pat wanted her to do, say use a bandsaw, he first asked her if she had ever done it before. The answer was almost always no. “Okay,” Pat then said. “I’ll show you how to do it.” Cutting and grinding pipes—Pat taught her. Drilling a round hole through cement—Pat taught her. Using a jackhammer—Pat taught her. The more things she learned how to do, the more confident she became on the job.
By the end of her fifth year, Jo earned her book, became a journeyman pipefitter, and never looked back.
Power plants. Schools. Refineries. Apartment buildings. Laboratories. Chemical plants. Jo has helped build them all since receiving her journeyman status. If a structure needs to move a liquid or gas through its walls, then they need pipefitters like her to make that happen. Jo likes the work. She likes the camaraderie of her fellow union members. She likes the fact that she is constantly developing her skills. Each new site brings its own unique challenges. “I learned quickly that you’re always learning.” And most important, the job has allowed her to support her family for almost two decades.
That is not to say it’s perfect, nor has it been easy. Work can be unsteady. Like all her fellow union members, Jo has a business agent. She explains, “When my agent gets a call for workers, the hiring company will tell him what they need for manpower (for example, three pipefitters, two welders, whatever.) My agent will hire according to who is at the top of the list to be selected next. When the job is complete or they cut back on workers, they lay us off. I’ll tell my agent, and now I’m at the bottom of the list. We can be out of work for a day, a week, or a month. It just depends on your qualifications and how many calls come. We collect unemployment during that time.” Some years, Jo will work almost every week, often making overtime as well. Others, she’ll be fortunate to work nine months at most. Soon after receiving her union card, her brother said, “Base your budget off the wage of a third-year apprentice. Then when you’re unemployed, you can still pay your bills.”
There’s a lot of travel too and long stints away from her family. Worksites aren't always around her hometown, so once she gets a job away, she packs up her bags, says her goodbyes, and heads off. When her kids were still at home, her husband took care of them, while she lived out of motels for weeks, sometimes months, on end. Since she’s footing the bill out of her wages, five-star hotels are not in the budget, nor are there many opportunities for sightseeing. On her drive to her first out-of-town assignment, she called her brother in tears. “Tell me this gets easier,” she said. His response was not what she wanted to hear. “I’m not going to lie to you, Jo, It’s hard. It never gets easier. You’re leaving your family. You’re going to a job. You don’t know for sure what it is. Who you’re with.”
At best, the work is also hard on the body. At worst, it can be dangerous, even deadly. In her first year as a journeyman, Jo was crawling under some scaffolding and somehow twisted her knee. She ended up with a torn meniscus. A couple more tears (and years) later, she had osteoarthritis and required knee replacement surgery. Another time, while on a construction site, she was almost crushed by a heavy pipe that didn’t land in its rack as planned. Jo was tossed off the ladder and landed in a pile of rocks. She luckily escaped with only a few bruises. Degenerating joints, bone spurs in her feet, herniated discs—these are some of the costs of her work, not to mention long hours in often frigid weather or boiling heat.
Finally, Jo is in a trade that is overwhelmingly male. Sometimes there might be one or two other women on a job. Maybe a pipefitter or an electrician or welder. Often not. Jo has experienced more than her share of sexism over the years. “Most times on a new job, I notice while passing other crews, nobody will make eye contact with me. After a couple of weeks, after they see me prepare and install pipe, then they’ll realize, okay, she’s here to work. She is just like us. Here to make money and go home safely to her family. But still, even with guys who I’m friends with at work, I’m never invited to weddings, birthdays, or get-togethers.” Part of this, Jo explains, is because they may be married or have a girlfriend who may be uncomfortable with her being there. “Being friendly at work usually doesn’t lead to hanging out after work.”
The more insidious sexism comes from being overlooked to do certain jobs. At a coal plant, she had been working with another contractor for weeks sandblasting parts of the turbine being cleaned during a scheduled maintenance outage. On the last day, they packed up the sandblasting equipment. When they were getting ready to rig and lower it down to the ground, the foreman sent her on another task. “The next time you have a female working for you,” Jo told him. “Don’t assume all she knows how to do is push a broom.”
Jo highlights another problem with sexism on the job. “Men sometimes don’t listen to what I have to say.” On one site, she suggested how to handle a particular situation. The foreman disregarded it, but then a male coworker made the same recommendation, and this time he took it. Jo couldn’t let this pass. “That’s exactly what I just said, ass!”
Every job has its drawbacks, but Jo is glad she made the unlikely choice to become a pipefitter. She has a band of female trade workers who she often travels with on jobs—and they also share their joys and struggles in online forums. Jo is proud to point out the plants and other sites around the country that she has contributed to building. She hopes to continue the work until she is at least 62 years old.
As for the months away from family, she accepts this as a fact of life. As a kid, she experienced it with her father. “That was just my normal thing. It didn’t strike us as weird.” Her kids Tim and James experienced it with her. And now her granddaughter is experiencing it with Tim. He had first been deployed overseas as an Army crew chief on Medevac helicopters and now continues to work away from home as a civilian helicopter mechanic. Jo told her granddaughter, “It’s going to be your normal. It’s how we grew up too.”
Jo is a champion of making young women aware that they too can work in the trades—and should. “A lot of women really, really enjoy their work. There are electricians and carpenters who love what they do. Like me, they can do an apprenticeship, and they can earn while they learn. There are no student loans to pay back. They can make a good wage, and they can build up a good pension.”
Once when Tim and James were teenagers, some other kids made fun of them because Jo was often seen around school and the neighborhood wearing her heavy work boots. “You tell them,” Jo said. “My Mom makes really good money.”
We’ll talk again in a week. As always. Same time, same band, same place.
P.S. A shout-out to one of my favorite publications on the creator economy:Simon consistently delivers insightful posts. I’ve particularly enjoyed his recent looks at the Twitter upheaval.