Rosie the Riveter was once a familiar face -- the independent woman who, of necessity, became a shipyard worker to support the American military effort in World War II. In the second decade of the 21st century, as women turn to non-traditional careers for a variety of reasons, American shipyards are seeing a resurgence of women in technical careers as mechanical fitters, working as pipe fitters and steamfitters, the jobs their great grandmothers might once have held.
You're a Good Fit, If...
Mechanical fitting isn’t just a physical job. It requires watching steam or flow gauges to ensure the piping you just installed is working as it should; but it also involves managing your time or, if you’re a supervisory worker, other people’s time. Your reasoning skills help you identify alternatives and choose the best, both in terms of cost and suitability. Your people skills nudge you so that you adjust your activities and work well with others, and your innate desire for excellence and harmony gives you a reality check, so you look for opportunities to improve yourself and the work. You’re a communicator, but you know when to stop talking and when to let others have the floor.
Your Daily Grind
As ships’ primary power systems shifted from steam to diesel, the boundary between pipefitters and steamfitters blurred. A new term -- mechanical fitters -- arose, as the differences between the specialties grew fuzzy. Formerly, steamfitters worked with the steam piping that transferred steam from the boilers to the turbines that drove propellers and the ship’s pneumatic control systems, while pipefitters dealt with piping for water systems. Today, both pipe fitters and steamfitters assemble pipes, tubes, valves and other fittings according to a naval architect’s specifications. You’ll join steel or brass pipe segments by welding or brazing or by mechanical connections, such as cement or by cutting threads into the pipe ends, to screw them together. You’ll also hang the pipes, attaching them to bulkheads using brackets and use welding, grinding and cutting equipment, including cutting torches, and pipe threaders and pipe benders in your work.
Your Wardrobe and Other Issues
Your choice of eyewear is limited to goggles or safety glasses -- or perhaps a welding mask. The required heavy, leather gloves, steel-toe boots and the other safety gear won’t make you a candidate for the Fashion Week runway, but your get-up will keep you safe as you measure and cut or thread pipe. You’ll find and repair the leaks. You’ll run a variety of tests on the systems you install using pressure gauges or just by watching for the telltale drip that means the piping needs more work. If you’re making repairs to existing, worn systems, you’ll tear out old pipe or worn valves and install replacement parts and replace them, just as if you were completing the installation on a new, unlaunched vessel.
More Than Technical Skill
The Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the work of mechanical fitters a realistic, conventional occupation -- one that involves physical work and practical solutions. It’s physical; it isn’t a desk job with paperwork or office neighbors in the next cubicle. You know who your boss is and you follow instructions. Your job requires attention to detail and completing specific tasks in a competent, thorough manner. Honesty and dependability are key issues -- you have to be on time, remain poised in the face of criticism, and play straight with your fellow workers and superiors. You have to take on daily challenges and remember your work may have consequences for others. Your paycheck comes regularly but depends on larger economic forces that influence the need for shipyard employees.
Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.