In an industry dominated by men for over a century, one New York City woman is making history by becoming the first female business agent of a local steamfitting union.
Janet Powers was recently named the lead union representative for Steamfitters Local 638, becoming the first woman to lead the union since the Union’s inception in 1884.
Based in Long Island City, the union has 13 business agents, one of whom is Powers, who oversees members in Eastern Suffolk County.
“I’m very honored to represent my union,” she told Real Estate Weekly.
It isn’t the first time Powers has made history — she was also the first woman nominated and elected to the union’s finance committee, serving two terms between 1995 and 2000. In addition, she won a position on the union’s executive board, where she served from 2007 to 2012.
Steamfitters are crucial to the functioning of a building — they design, install and maintain fire sprinklers, heating and cooling systems, and steam and water piping in tens of thousands of commercial, retail, residential, and industrial buildings in New York City.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters is projected to grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2024, faster than any other occupation. As of 2014, only 1.6 percent of those employed as steamfitters, pipefitters, pipelayers and plumbers, were women.
Growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island, Powers became familiar with steamfitting at a young age — her father was one.
“I remember my dad bringing steamfitters around the house and at parties and parades, I’ve been around them my whole life,” she said. “I have a lot of uncles that are considered my uncles because they’re close friends.”
Despite the heavy influence of the industry, Powers decided to study fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) after high school. Since she was a young child, she enjoyed being creative and wanted to become an artist.
She did consider steamfitting, but realized there were very few women in the profession, and chose to pursue the creative field.
As fate would have it, while at FIT, Powers was given the opportunity to get into a five-year apprenticeship program for steamfitting.
“I enjoyed creating things, but I was attracted to steamfitting because I liked fashion and art and you can work with your hands,” said Powers, who also studied welding, and became very skilled at the art.
“I figured I’d give it a shot and I loved it, and it became my life,” she said.
Powers has worked in buildings in all five boroughs of New York City as well as all over Long Island. Some of her biggest projects were the 14th Street Con Ed power station, where she served as the deputy foreman, Stony Brook University in Long Island, John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, the Bloomberg Tower on Lexington Avenue, and power generation stations along the Astoria waterfront in Queens.
She even found love in the industry – her husband is a steamfitter, too.
For Powers, being a second-generation steamfitter is about more than keeping building systems functioning properly — it’s about saving lives.
“We heat, we cool, and we protect all the buildings and people in New York and Long Island,” she said.
Powers was inspired to run for the union position after being approached by some of her fellow steamfitters while on the job. At the time, very few women had ever held office in the union, or even been nominated.
She decided to go for it, and was soon elected as the first woman to serve on the union’s finance committee.
“I had a lot of passion in mentoring female and male steamfitters, and I continued to move up the ladder,” she said. “I felt a strong calling and had a lot of people backing me.”
Powers soon followed that with two terms on the executive board, as well as serving as a delegate representing the union three consecutive times at the United Association National Convention, held every five years.
Despite the tiny number of women in her profession, Powers said she felt accepted by her male peers, earned equal pay, and has been treated equally and fairly the majority of the time during her career, which has spanned three decades.
At a recent convention, Powers noticed that more women were present, and it was encouraging to see more women getting involved in the traditionally male-dominated field.
“I tell them keep trying and don’t quit,” she said. “We definitely have a low percentage and would like to see more come in.”
At her current post, Powers no longer works in the field, but instead works to protect the men and women in the union on the job, making sure they get the wages they’re supposed to get as well as their benefits. She attends political meetings, functions and conventions representing her union.
“In the future, I would love to continue to be a business agent and represent Local 638 and continue mentoring steamfitters, helping them to keep going strong and learn the trade,” she said.