TEXAS PLUMBING INSTRUCTOR DEBBIE VUKOVICH IS HELPING WOMEN AND MEN CREATE CAREERS THROUGH EDUCATION AND MENTORSHIP
Debbie Vukovich’s career in the trades may span more than four decades, but it wasn’t until she was 20 years in that she discovered her love for teaching.
After beginning her apprenticeship for UA Local 146 in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1980, Vukovich was named Apprentice of the Year in 1983 and earned her journeyman plumbing license the following year. In 1992, she became a master plumber and transferred to Local 68 in Houston.
While in Houston, she served as superintendent on such projects as a remodel of the historic Cotton Exchange Building before moving into the office, overseeing estimating, bidding and other aspects of the business. In 2005, she transferred to Local 100 in Mesquite, Texas, near Dallas.
“I started teaching when I was in Houston, back in 2000, and I think that’s where I found my passion is in training,” she said. “So, I started teaching there in 2000 and when I transferred to Local 100, I continued teaching. And then I was offered the position of assistant training director — that was in 2010 — and became the training director in 2012. And that’s where I am now.”
Vukovich also represents the UA on the International Pipe Trades Joint Training Committee.
“I think my passion has always been in training; just mentoring apprentices through the program, helping them find success in the program,” she said. “I found success through — I owe it to the UA — just helping improve the lives of others through training.”
Vukovich comes from a union family; her father, a machinist, was a business agent for his local union and her uncle was a plumber.
“I was one of three daughters and the closest to being the son he didn’t have,” she said. “I was his shadow growing up, from pushing a toy lawn mower around the yard behind him to working on the car in the driveway. He is who I credit my work ethic, pride, and stubbornness with.”
However, she counts her best friend, Deanna West — a fellow apprentice at Local 146 as a pipefitter — as being responsible for encouraging her to get in the trade.
“She went through the program two years ahead of me,” Vukovich said. “My mother actually introduced me to her, letting her know that that sounds like something my daughter would like to do. I like to do things with my hands and get out, that ort of thing. So, that’s how I heard about the program and I kind of followed her path.”
Vukovich said the pandemic hit just as the students were getting out for spring break, and classes were held online for the rest of the year.
“We delayed the return of the semester a month and that gave us time to get our instructors set up with laptops, computers, Zoom accounts, give them a little training on online classes and Blackboard,” she said. “And then we finished the semester a month late but online, and the graduates of 2020, we just celebrated their graduation banquet in January.”
Vukovich said that while many classes have gone back to being held in person, some have continued online as UA Local 100 prepares to move into a 38,000-square-foot facility that is more than twice the size of its current building.
“We’re excited about that,” she said. “We’ll transition into that new building and hopefully things will start getting back to normal. We have about 375 apprentices typically enrolled in our program and 33 instructors. We’re kind of cramped in this little building right now, which made it hard to return to in-person classes because our building doesn’t have windows we can open or proper circulation.”
Vukovich said UA Local 68 Director of Training Robert Cross encouraged all instructors to join ASSE, so she became a member when she started teaching in 2000. Her involvement was at the chapter level until she became the training director, and then she joined committees, including the Cross-Connection Control School/Instructor Committee and the Professional Qualifications Standards Committee. Additionally, she served as the Region 3 director on ASSE’s board from 2014 until she termed out in 2021.
“ASSE is something I’ll always try to stay involved with,” she said. “I like the professionalism and the shared ideas when we all come together in these committees, and being able to take that information back to Local 100. The committees are made up of people who dedicate their time to stay informed about the industry. We’re all passionate about the industry and keep helping it move forward.”
Vukovich joined IAPMO in 2010 and is the vice president of the Texas (Dallas — Fort Worth) Chapter, of which she has also served as president.
“We’re a small chapter, and I try to support it and help it grow,” she said. “It’s a great platform to bring vendors in and keep apprentices and instructors educated on our ever-changing industry.”
Vukovich said there were few, if any, women on job sites when she started in the trade, but that number has steadily increased over the years. She said as more women become successful in the trades, others will take notice and want to pursue a career as well.
“It’s hard to picture yourself in a non- traditional role until you see someone else who looks like you ahead of you who’s been successful in it,” she said. “I lead a Sisters of Local 100 group where we get our female journeymen and apprentices together quarterly and support each other and help mentor the apprentices who are coming into the program. I think that’s helped.”
One such graduate, Alyssa Tamayo, is UA Local 100’s construction technologies instructor. She entered the trade in 2016 through the UA’s Veterans in Piping Program, turned out of the apprentice program in 2020 and began teaching a year later.
“Proud as I can be,” Vukovich said of her former student.
Vukovich recently worked with Laura Ceja, the UA’s special representative for Training and Outreach, on a video highlighting the UA’s new selection process.
“The video is designed to show applicants coming into the program just what they’re getting into, because we lose a lot of applicants that we bring in,” she said. “We put this film together using our apprentices; it’s the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Vukovich counts Ceja among her mentors, and points to her as an example to apprentices of someone who started as an apprentice and worked her way up to a high level in the UA. Vukovich said Ceja has been supportive both personally and professionally.
“She’s very nurturing and encouraging,” Vukovich said of Ceja. “Dedicated.”
In addition to Ceja, Vukovich said she has been encouraged by several women in the plumbing and pipefitting trade throughout her career.
“Seeing other women find success in the trade has always encouraged me to do the same,” she said. “Doreen Cannon out of the Cleveland Ohio local is another. She is currently serving on ASSE’s Board of Directors. Doreen taught me to take advantage of every opportunity to be seen or heard in the industry, whether on a radio interview or a magazine article, so women will start to be recognized as industry leaders in the trade.”
Vukovich said UA Local 100 sees tremendous potential for the pool of women entering its program.
“There’s definitely a place in the trades for women,” she said.
Name: Debbie Vukovich
Occupation: Training Director
City of residence: Dallas
IAPMO member since: 2010
Chapter: Dallas — Fort Worth
Office(s) held, now and in the past: IAPMO chapter president, ASSE Texas chapter president, ASSE Region Three director, several ASSE committees, UA International Pipe Trades Joint Training Committee
Why did you join IAPMO? To be involved in the industry
Hobbies: Golf when I have the time
UA Local: 100
What would you be doing if you weren’t in the trades? I can’t imagine. This is all I’ve done.
Mike Flenniken is a staff writer, Marketing and Communications, for t IAPMO. Prior to joining IAPMO in 2010, Flenniken worked in public relations for a group of Southern California hospitals and as a journalist in writing and editing capacities for various Southern California daily newspapers.
Last modified: August 12, 2022