Melanie Lichtfeld fights for plumbers and small businesses alike.
Plumbing royalty: “In the Roman days, the plumbers sat next to the king because without clean water or a sanitation system you didn’t have a society. So the health of the nation depends on the plumber,” says Melanie Lichtfeld of Lichtfeld Plumbing, the self-described “Latrine Queen.”
Photograph by Shawn Harper
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Melanie Lichtfeld wears her self-described nickname, “Latrine Queen,” with aplomb. The 54-year-old vice president and office manager at Lichtfeld Plumbing represents the Monona business’s fourth generation and is an integral part of its succession plan. While she’s not actually a licensed plumber, her lifelong experience in the family business is evident. “I can repair a toilet, rod out a sewer, and repair a faucet,” she notes, among other things.
Lichtfeld was recently honored with a Torchbearer Award at the 2016 Governor’s Trailblazer Awards for Women in Business, and she candidly discussed the trades in a recent interview.
IB: In your opinion, why are the trades struggling to find workers?
Lichtfeld: High schools and colleges don’t push the trades, and there is no financial aid for those in the trades. It costs me about $80,000 every two years for schooling and wages to get someone through the five-year plumbing apprenticeship. Last year I got about $250 back to pay for books. It used to be nothing so I appreciated that at least.
IB: Are you finding workers?
Lichtfeld: I’m advertising and looking everywhere for a licensed plumber, but so is every other plumbing shop in Madison.
IB: What’s your solution?
Lichtfeld: Besides financial aid, wouldn’t it be nice if your child came out of high school already in the fourth year of a 5-year plumbing apprenticeship? Right now that can’t happen because to be a plumbing apprentice you need a high school diploma. Let’s take that requirement out. Like DECA for business, let’s have a trades association.
College is not for everyone. Our society pushes white-collar jobs over working with your hands. I’d like to see younger people entering the trades, and if they want to go into chemistry they should go into wastewater treatment because there’s got to be a way to keep drugs being passed from urine and stool from infiltrating our water. It’s a huge problem.
IB: Is plumbing a good career for women?
Lichtfeld: Yes! I’m one of only four women in plumbing in Wisconsin. Plumbing doesn’t require the brute strength it once did. It’s more service-oriented now. You can even get a restricted license to install water softeners and water heaters. The field is wide open in the trades and you will always have a job. The glass ceiling is gone.
IB: What plumbing advice can you offer homeowners?
Lichtfeld: In my opinion sewers should be mechanically cleaned every year when people change their smoke detector batteries.
Lichtfeld: We’re using half the water we did 20 years ago, which is great, but our sewers were designed to be flushed with water. The average length of a sewer line from a typical house to a Madison street is 54 feet, but an average 1.2-gallon toilet will only push waste 26 feet. Water will flow through but paper and solids may not.