Cindy Johansson, a small, athletic-looking woman, spent one day last week carrying copper pipe and other heavy metal objects in finger-numbing cold. The 115-pound Silver Spring woman, who stands just over 5 feet tall, staggered under the weight of 50-pound cast iron fittings.
It was a typical day for Johansson, a 27-year-old graduate of George Washington University who abandoned her ambition to become a psychologist or scientist, turning in frustration to the lure of more opportunity and higher pay in construction.
She is a pioneer in the field of construction plumbing -- one of six women recruited as first-year apprentices in a Landover program run by the Washington D.C. Joint Plumbing Apprentice Committee.
The six women vary in physique and background. Among them are former clerical workers, a college-educated would-be teacher and a 30-year-old woman who gave up a job as a truck driver in Pennsylvania when she married a Fairfax man.
Johansson left a $3.25-an-hour job growing plants in a nursery to make $4.31 an hour as a beginning apprentice plumber. Union wage for a journeyman after four years apprenticeship is now $12.22, and Johannson expects to see that figure top $15 by the time she finishes the program.
Raised in a neat suburban home -- the daughter of a housewife and an engineer on Long Island, N.Y. -- Johansson said, "I accepted the myth that, if you went to college, you have a better job. You were guaranteed success.
"It's hard for me to accept that here I am, a blue-collar worker. A plumber. It's not something people brag about but it's what I'm doing. I enjoy the work and I'm making money."
Each morning Johansson rises at 5 to be at work by 7. Apprenticeship classes cap off her work day two nights a week.
"It really cuts into your social life," she said.
The classes meet in a Landover building where the walls and doors are plastered with posters touting the supposed success of efforts to bring women into the construction trades.
"Over 2,400 Women Helped Build the Alaska Pipeline," proclaims one poster. "Apprenticeship for Women is Working."
But it's not working at that school -- at least not by this year's government guidelines, which say 20 percent of the apprentices should be women. g
Just under 17 percent of the 36 in Johannson's first-year class are women. There are no females among the 69 members of the second, third, and fourth-year classes.
In a steamfitters apprenticeship program run at the same school, at 8509 Ardwick-Ardmore Rd., there are only five women in the first-year apprentice class of 72.
Whether the program meets the federal goal could be critical for union plumbing and steamfitting contractors who rely on it for their annual crop of new apprentice employes. Contractors can be barred from bidding on government jobs unless they meet the May 1980 quota of having 5.6 percent of their weekly payroll hours worked by women, said James Spencer, coordinator of the plumbers apprenticeship program.
Spencer said the federal goals are unrealistic and Eva Pooling, executive director of the Mechanical Contractors Association Inc., agreed.
"I don't think there's any way the guidelines can be met," Poling said. "The women who supposedly are out there are not out there -- in this area anyway."
Similar apprenticeship programs elsewhere in the United States are meeting the goals and some are exceeding them, said Don Lott, an information specialist for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The apprentice committee is accepting applications through the end of this week for new, first-year apprentices who will begin work this spring and classes next fall. So far, Poling said, recruitment efforts are drawing fewer women than they did last year.
"I don't think we'll ever reach the number the federal government may want us to reach," said Bernie Thornberg, coordinator of the steamfitters program.
Meanwhile, women who are willing to try the construction trades are in demand. For Johansson, that came as a welcome relief.
All 12 of the women who applied last year for the steamfitters program were accepted, although only six finally agreed to enroll in the program. One of the six later dropped out.
The plumbing program accepted eight of nine women applicants and wound up with six.
Women shy away from the field, Poling said, adding "I really feel not all women want to do this, the same as not all men do."
"It takes somebody who likes the outdoors, who likes hard work," Spencer said. "Somebody who likes to stand back at the end of the day and say, 'Gee, I constructed this.'"
"The ones who will try do very well," said Jack Morgal, a teacher in the apprentice program. "Sometimes they do better than the . . . well, I'd better not say that."
Reaction from male coworkers is mixed.
"You always get a few that have a smart remark," said Alma Long, 30, of Fairfax. A stout woman in jeans, a ragged windbreaker and a red cap, she said, "It's mostly good, I guess I fit in with the guys."
"I don't mind it as long as they carry their own load," said Ron Griffin, 20, of Alexandria, a first-year apprentice who is following his father into the plumbing trade.
Griffin's tone was resentful. "Most of the girls in the apprentice class now are smaller, and if there's any heavy pipe, the fellows will carry it. I just think they ought to work as hard. The small men don't get privileges."
"Once you settle in and show that you're going to give it all you can, they don't hassle you," said apprentice Shirley Woodall, 27, of Adelphi.
"I could lift as much as any guy my size," Johansson said. "I'm working at it. Put it this way: I'm getting stronger since I started."
"I like having the women around," Morgal said with a grin. "I get tired of looking at all those hairy legs."