The responsibilities we give our children can help them discover talents and abilities they may not otherwise discover.
Ariel Ruff was the go-to child when anything broke in the house -- not because she was the likely culprit, but the most likely to fix it. Ruff's father was a doctor who died when she was 3. Her mother is a professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and legally blind. Ruff, now 26, would fix the dishwasher or washing machine when they malfunctioned.
"I grew up getting satisfaction from watching things work ... something that you've put together," she said. A bright and motivated student, she graduated high school early and started college, expecting to become a nurse. Into her second year, she decided she wanted to pursue her passion.
"I've always wanted to be a plumber since I was little," she said. When Ruff told her mother she wanted to leave nursing school, her mother encouraged her to make a plan and pursue the career she wanted.
Ruff has innate mechanical ability and loves water. She researched her options and enrolled in a trade school, which would count toward the required four-year apprenticeship required to become a journeyman.
"Plumbing is a puzzle," Ruff explained. You have to know codes and legalities. It takes intelligence and mechanical ability. "I have respect for that," she said. She graduated summa cum laude from Ranken Technical College and is a senior apprentice with Roto-Rooter.
Roto-Rooter recently named her one of its top national plumbers based on sales volume, number of jobs and performance ratings. She is one of 11 female plumbers in the company, which employs 2,000 plumbers nationwide.
"The fact that she's also young, petite and female means that she defies three stereotypes about the plumbing trade to exemplify what is possible," said Paul Abrams, Roto-Rooter corporate director of public relations. The company noted that there is a shortage of plumbers in the growing and lucrative field. They have been using Ruff in a recruiting video to reach women who may not consider it a viable career path.
Women face significant challenges, such as harassment and sexism, in the trade professions. They represent less than 1 percent of the country's 573,000 pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median salary is near $50,000 annually.
Ariel says she typically hears some kind of comment about her gender at every new job she goes to, but when customers say something, her male co-workers stand up for her.
"It makes me want to be a better plumber," she said. She gets a lot of repeat customers, which suggests she's changed a few minds.
"I've had to face adversity," she said. Some customers will say right away that they are skeptical she can do the work. "I appreciate every single person who gives me a chance to prove assumptions about women in the trades wrong," she said.
Do people ever notice that she works around water and shares a name with a Disney princess mermaid? "I get that all the time." � "Customers will call their daughters down to meet me," she said. Ruff introduces herself to her customers' young daughters and asks if they've seen her movies. "It's loosely based on the story of my life," she tells them.
She still has to finish her apprenticeship, and plans to take the test to get her journeyman's license later this year.
She's also a single mom of a 7-year-old daughter, who tells her friends that her mom can fix anything broken in their homes. A few months ago, her school invited students to dress as their future job. Her daughter wore her mom's Roto-Rooter uniform and safety goggles. She was still wearing them when Ruff picked her up.
"How was your day?" Ruff asked.
"I had a job in Granite City," her daughter replied, still in character. "Let me tell you about it."
Ruff's nontraditional profession may encourage other women to pursue such fields. It's already shown her daughter that anything is possible.