Cristina Barillas met Deputy Secretary of Labor Julie Su in October at an event for Latina Equal Pay Day – the day that marks how many months into the year it takes Latinas to earn the same amount as their non-Hispanic white male counterparts in the year before. We asked Cristina to share her experience as a woman who worked her way into a profession traditionally segregated by race and gender, and what that good job means to her and her family:
Tell us about yourself. How did you choose this field of work?
I always find this funny when asked. I believe plumbing choose me, not me it. It was at a point in my life when I needed a job that was more stable, and at that same time a friend suggested I try getting into the trades. In 1998 I applied to both the Electricians Local 134 IBEW and Plumbers Local 130 UA. In January of 2000, I had just reapplied for the electricians and was about to reapply to the plumbers, when I received my acceptance letter to Local 130.
What is your favorite part of the job?
This has changed over the years. I am thrilled to build something, fix something or even diagnose a problem, but it’s not just the work. What I love more is the sisterhood and brotherhood of helping my fellow plumbers succeed. That is what my motto is: “I am here to make your journey better than mine.”
What resources – job trainings, career development, etc. – did you use?
I wasn’t introduced to Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) until 2003 and since then I have always participated as much as I can. When people ask me for assistance in getting their daughter, sister or friend into plumbing, I always suggest going through CWIT Technical Opportunities Program (TOP). There is nothing like CWIT TOP. You can learn about every trade, and not only by reading or meeting a person in a trade, but hands on. A woman can determine what trade would best suit her, and then start creating her own sister group with the other ladies in the program. CWIT is a vital organization. Besides TOP, it is a safe space for women to continue learning their trade with other sisters and a space with no fear of judgement, rejection or harassment. I have heard many sisters call CWIT “home.”
We also formed Women of 130, a group specifically for Local 130 women (apprentices, journeymen or retirees). We saw a need to ensure that women could complete the program and remain in the local to finish out their career. We have seen many sisters fall victim to the ebbs and flows of our trade, so we created an environment where our sisters felt encouraged, supported and accepted.
What would you say to a woman who wants to join your industry but is hesitant?
I would tell her to get in touch with CWIT or any similar organization. If you want to start in a trade or you’re curious about the trade, this is where you start. CWIT will introduce you to the trades, they will help fill out the applications, they will help you study (for both the written and physical exam), and they will encourage you. Plus, it’s a great way to meet women that are in the trades, doing what one day you could possibly be doing. As far as plumbing, I would tell her, “I love my trade, my sisters, my brothers, there is nothing like the fulfillment of plumbing, ‘we protect the health of the nation.’”
Editor’s note: Chicago Women in Trades is also a WANTO grantee. Learn more about the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women in Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Occupations grant program.