Meet America’s First Black Female Master Plumber
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In honor of Black History Month, ServiceTitan’s Evan Young and Mandy Howard sat down with Adrienne Bennett—the first black female to become a master plumber in North America—to learn more about her start in the trades and how she achieved her success in a male-dominated industry.
Born in Chicago, Adrienne grew up middle-class in 1960s Detroit. She went on to study metallurgical engineering at Lawrence Tech, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that Adrienne’s journey in the trades got its start...
Evan: When did you first become interested in the trades?
Adrienne: 1976. I remember attending a Jimmy Carter “get out to vote” rally. There, I met a man by the name of Gus Dowels who was a recruiter for the Mechanical Contractors Association of Detroit.
He asked me, “How would you like to make $50,000 a year?”
I replied, “Is it legal?”
Dowels was recruiting minority women to work for a federally-sponsored apprenticeship program for skilled trades. But not just any woman—he was looking for one that would complete the program, unlike the five previous female candidates who quit.
At the time, I was studying metallurgical engineering, so I thought the apprenticeship program would be a great fit for me because of my love for science and math. Plus, I figured my engineering skills would carry over well to plumbing.
Evan: Tell us about your first job in the trades.
Adrienne: Joseph Cavanaugh gave me my first opportunity as a green apprentice. I was sent out to a job site that was two hours away from Detroit out in a farming area. Everyone I worked with was European-American males. It was a commercial job with two buildings—an administration building and a factory building. There was no electricity, no running water, no windows, no doors... just a poured concrete two-story building.
I was left alone on the second floor in the freezing cold and asked to layout a bathroom. At the time, I had no clue what to do. I wasn’t dressed appropriately and was freezing cold. At lunchtime, the guy who originally brought me to the building came back and was like, “Oh, you’re still here?”
I replied, “Yes, but I don’t know how to do this.” I knew they were trying to scare me off by leaving me alone for hours in the freezing cold.
That was my first day on the job.
Evan: At what point did you decide you wanted to stick it out and make plumbing a career?
Adrienne: From that very first job. I was challenged every day.
I remember this one time I was asked to make sure some piping was properly pitched. Raised up 30 feet in the air in a cherry picker basket by another apprentice, I was adjusting the hanger to get the proper pitch on the pipe. When I was done with my work, I stepped back to get in the basket, but it wasn’t there anymore. The other apprentice moved it and as a result, I took a hard fall.
I was in a back brace for a year after that. When I returned to work after taking some time off for my injury, one of the tradesmen in the program said, “You back for more?”
And from that moment on, I decided that I was going to stick around just to piss him off. I wasn’t going to let anyone chase me from anything. I’m not a quitter. I dealt with people literally putting their hands on me, attacking me, calling me names, but I knew how to protect myself. I worked out to gain weight and build muscle, so I could protect my body and do the job as good—if not better—than the men.
Mandy: Can you tell us about one of your favorite jobs or projects—one that stands out as memorable or successful?
Adrienne: I worked on the West Annex addition to the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit—built for WWI and WWII veterans.
I was already the plumbing inspector for Henry Ford Health System and when they wanted to expand, they needed a master plumber for the job. I was asked to be the master plumber and senior project manager for this 285,000 sq.ft., $80M project.
I worked 17-hour days, six days a week for three years to complete that project. Next to being a business owner, that was my pride and joy.
Mandy: That’s amazing! What has it been like running your own business?
Adrienne: This has been the final plateau. I had climbed the ladder. I was an apprentice, journeyperson, estimator, construction manager, project manager, senior project manager, inspector, master plumber... the only thing left to do was to become a business owner.
I still have to prove myself after 40 years. The challenges are still there as a woman, a black woman, as a contractor—being the first in North America in a white male-dominated industry. The plumbing industry is one of the most lucrative industries out there, and they still try and cap me on each project we are on. We were on a billion-dollar project in downtown Detroit and they capped us at $550K. It’s a challenge every day.
Evan: What positive industry trends have you seen throughout your time in the trades?
Adrienne: More women in the trades.
When I first got into the trades, there were no women. I was always the only woman on every job I went to. Now, things have gotten better—from access to bathrooms to clothing, even equipment made for women.
Mandy: What do you think has contributed to the rise in women working in the trades today?
Adrienne: Many of the women who found their way into the profession had fathers, uncles, or brothers in the industry. The exposure of having a male role model in the industry was one of the things that encouraged them.
Women started out as bookkeepers and answering phones, but they wanted to grow within the trades because they recognized that it’s a lucrative industry. So many went back to school and got advanced degrees like engineering or architecture.
Evan: How do you feel technology can play a role in your success within the trades?
Adrienne: It helps you save time and become more efficient. As a business owner, software can reduce costs and potential HR issues.
Plus, technology has come a long way. For example—BIM (building information modeling) is taking over for CAD (computer-aided design)--that’s the evolution of 3D. Even QuickBooks® is eliminating bookkeepers or the need for a full-time accountant.
Mandy: In our previous conversations, you mentioned that water treatment and conservation is important to you. Can you tell us about any projects you’re working on?
Adrienne: We’re working with residential customers in the Detroit area to replace their outdated plumbing hardware for water-conserving fixtures that are designed to reduce water consumption and their water bill. On the commercial side, we were able to reduce the water bill of a downtown high-rise by 50%.
I’m also working with an organization called Detroit 2030 District. It’s a private-public community that’s helping building owners and managers reduce energy, water, and operating expenses in commercial buildings.
Evan: What is something you think people learn too late? Be it in the trades or as a business owner.
Adrienne: You have to know your business. When you own something, you have to know every part of it. You have to hire people that are smarter than you in some aspects. I surround myself with people who are smarter than me. I still go to school to learn and stay up-to-date with all of the latest trends and technology.
Evan: What would do to encourage and empower the young people to consider a career in the trades?
Adrienne: It has to come from within. It can’t be about the money. Something has to help you get out of bed each day. Something has to help you be committed to what you’re doing. You need to be good at what you’re doing, so you can own it. When a challenge confronts you, you can't walk away from it.
I have no intention of ever retiring. The evolution of this industry is moving so fast, I don’t have time to retire.
Evan: If you could get advice from any historical figure, who would it be and why?
Adrienne: I would love to have a conversation with President Barack Obama. I’d like to understand what it was like for him as the first black President of the United States and if there were any parallels to me being the first in my field. I’d also like to ask President Abraham Lincoln why he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. What did he get out of it? How did it make him feel to do what he did?
Evan: If you had a theme song, what would it be?
Adrienne: “To Dream the Impossible Dream” by Luther Vandross. I feel like this song fits my story and legacy.
Thank you to the legendary Adrienne Bennett for sharing her story and trailblazing the path for many women to come. Her groundbreaking career path and fierce dedication to adapting in a rapidly changing industry are sure to inspire newcomers looking to make their mark in the trades.
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