A woman working in the trades offers insight and advice: "Don't use pink tools."
Simone Hewitt’s grandfather was a handyman, and her stepfather was an electrician. Today, Hewitt honours the family tradition of working with one’s hands as a steamfitter in Scarborough.
Since graduating from Central Technical High School—”an amazing school, with a variety of trades”—in 2011, Hewitt has helped build projects like transfer stations and the Pan Am athlete’s village, installing the pipes and boilers that deliver anything from water to chocolate around Toronto’s buildings. Hewitt, 21, began her apprenticeship with Local 46 right out of high school, and for the past four years, she’s interspersed on-the-job training with classroom learning. “I’ve also worked at the union hall as a welders helper for the pipeline training course that the union offers to its qualified members. That was an experience that I loved and a part of the trade that I might look into further down the road.”
Our conversation with Simone—about pink tools, the changing shape of Toronto, and the importance of technical high schools—is below.
Torontoist: What exactly does a steamfitter do?
Simone Hewitt: It’s kind of like an industrial plumber. When you say steamfitter, most people have no idea what you’re talking about. We look at heating, cooling, chemical lines, and food processing. I’ve worked with people who have worked with chocolate factories, with the chocolate coming down the pipelines. Right now, I’m testing glycol lines and hot water lines, but I also install pumps and boilers. Steam lines too, but you don’t see that as much anymore. I’ve worked in condos, in hospitals—I did a job that was a transfer station, right next a plant that turns compost into fuel.
What made you decide to pursue a trade, especially right out of high school?
I always knew I wanted to do something that was hands-on. I went to a technical high school, and I took pretty much every course until I landed on plumbing. Since steamfitters were more in demand at the time, I ended up going with that instead. I thought about college and university—I was going to be a lawyer at one point, and a writer—but it didn’t really fit me, I guess. My biggest inspiration for getting into the trade when and how I did is because of my son. I was pregnant with him while I was in my last year of high school and into the beginning of my apprenticeship. I knew that a job in the trades meant that I would not have the debt that comes with going to university, and I would be able to provide for my son in the best way I knew how.
You have a family history of working in the trades. How did that helped you find your professional footing?
I was more like a tomboy growing up. I think this is something that I would have gotten into anyways. My twin sister is also an electrician, so we talk about it. Originally, we were going to go to different high schools, but when I started talking about all the different programs mine had, she decided to join me at Central Tech.
What is it like being a woman in working as a steamfitter—any special challenges or opportunities you’ve seen arise?
There aren’t too many girls that I know that do what I do. For the most part, it’s been okay. There’s a lot of heavy lifting, but there are different tools to help. One one of the the biggest challenges is working with guys all day. A lot of the guys are good, but there are a lot of guys in the trades who don’t think women should be in the trades. For the most part, it’s not usually that of a big of an issue that I would have to go to the shop steward.
What would you say to a woman who is thinking of pursuing a career in the trades?
I would say go for it. The only way guys are going to get more comfortable with it is if more girls start doing it. I would tell girls not to bring pink tools onto the job site. No tight clothes…all my clothes are baggy. I’ve seen skinny jeans on the work site and you just look silly. For any woman thinking of joining a trade, I would say you have to have a thick skin. There are a lot of people in the construction industry, but at the same time it’s a very small world and your reputation counts for a lot. You need to be able to hold your own and not get emotional in order to earn the respect you deserve. You have to get them to respect you for what you can do and how you work.
What’s the best part of your job?
Building stuff! One of the best parts of my job is the sense of satisfaction and at the end of a long day, knowing I worked hard for my family. I love that you’re always meeting new people, learning new things, working in different places and solving problems. No piping installation is ever the same: there are always different paths it must take, and obstacles you have to overcome. I like driving by buildings I’ve worked in and knowing that I helped build that. I’m a part of the change in shape of this city.