Plumbing prowess

Melanie Lichtfeld fights for plumbers and small businesses alike.

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?
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?
I’m advertising and looking everywhere for a licensed plumber, but so is every other plumbing shop in Madison.

IB: What’s your solution?
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?
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?
In my opinion sewers should be mechanically cleaned every year when people change their smoke detector batteries.

IB: Why?
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.



IB: What are your career ambitions?
I’d like to get more politically involved in terms of protecting the rights and importance of the trades so that legislators would have an ad hoc committee to go to before passing laws that affect us. There’s a wealth of knowledge in retired plumbers who could offer advice.

IB: You should be a lobbyist.
I’ve been trying to rally the industry. I blog about it online and talk to high school counselors. I’ve hooked into a nonpartisan business group, the Small Business Majority, and won a national award for working to better small businesses. So I was sent to a summit in Washington, D.C. and got to meet with members of President Obama’s cabinet.

IB: What was that like?
I learned how out of touch legislators are! They were talking about mandating 12-weeks of paid leave. I stood up and said, ‘Excuse me, I have four employees. If I could afford to give them 12 weeks off, I would! But who’s going to take their place?’

IB: Do you think you left an impact?
Well, my advice to them when I left was, ‘Don’t push the two-year colleges, push the trades because while half the people in this room might turn on their computer tonight, I guarantee you that everyone will flush their toilets!’

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