Wonderful story from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School



Chapter 74 vocational technical & agricultural education is playing a significant role in the constantly increasing number of women entering the trades. Wonderful opportunities exist in the programs offered in our vocational technical school system. For the 2019-20 school year, 19.7% of all students enrolled in construction-related programs are female whereas nationally it is only 3%!

In Massachusetts voc-tech schools, more female students are choosing construction-related programs every year. Female participation soars above the 20% female mark in programs like Sheet Metalworking (50%) and Painting and Design Tech (87.6%). In these so-called “non-traditional” trade programs, women are no longer the minority. In fact, 46% of the students in voc-tech schools are female!

Equity….for women in voc tech education…equal opportunity in nontraditional trades. We appreciate the efforts of “MA Girls in Trades and others.

We are truly excited to share the story of Becca Walunas, who graduated from Smith Vocational & Agricultural in 2019, earned her master plumber’s license from the state in December.

Congratulations Becca!!

A fitting accomplishment: BeccaWalunas 1st Smith Voc woman to become master plumber

By EMILY THURLOW Staff Writer Published: 2/3/2023

SOUTHAMPTON — A Southampton woman has shattered the glass ceiling at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, becoming the first woman from the school to receive her master plumber’s license.

Becca Walunas, who graduated from Smith Voc in 2019, earned her master plumber’s license from the state in December.

The first woman in the U.S. to ever acquire a master plumber’s license was Lillian Ann Baumbach of Arlington, Virginia. Much like Walunas, she was 21 years old when she received her license in 1951.

Although Smith’s plumbing department has graduated many young women into the trade, and a number who have earned licensure, Walunas is the first to reach the master plumber level, said Scott Paterson, who teaches plumbing at the school.

“Every teacher enjoys when willing students are eager to learn — this was and is Becca Walunas,” Paterson said. “I can think of no better female spokesman and mentor to blaze this trail for others to follow.”

Plumbing like a girl

In 2020, there were roughly 537,000 licensed plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, only 2.3% of them are women.

And just as in the industry, classrooms tend to be dominated by men.

Massachusetts is one of the top paying states for the industry, with an estimated hourly wage of $40.43 per hour.

As Walunas pointed out, Massachusetts has some of the strictest regulations. Before applying for a master plumber’s license, applicants must complete at least one year with a minimum of 1,700 hours of practical experience as a state-licensed journeyman plumber and complete the five tiers of the plumber education program established by the state. Each tier is 110 classroom hours, three tiers of which Walunas completed at Smith. “The journeyman test in the state has like an 80% fail rate,” she said.

During Walunas’ four years at Smith, there were only two other young women in the plumbing program, both of whom left the program within six months. And that situation, she said, wasn’t without its challenges.

“Oh, boys are sexist,” she said. “I got a lot of snide remarks.”

Walunas said her small stature, at 5 foot, 3 inches; smaller arm span; and capacity to carry heavy items also proved to be a challenge on occasion.

Despite that, Walunas shrugged it off.

“There’s obviously a huge difference between boys and girls, but you don’t have to always look at it like that,” she said. “I might not be able to carry it by myself or pick up a sheet of plywood off the ground, but I can carry it. I also might not reach the ceiling — but I also don’t bang my head on the ceiling like others might. … There were challenging parts, but once you figure out how to overcome it, you just do it again.”

Following in her father’s footsteps

When Walunas first proposed attending the school, her parents were a bit apprehensive at first. Her father, Jim Walunas, who graduated from Smith’s plumbing program in 1985, said the school went through what he called a “downturn period” and he was concerned about what that might mean for his daughter.

But that view changed after the family toured the school grounds. “When we went there, we realized that they were on top of their game and I told her she should go there,” her father said. After an exploratory period to check out the then 15 different vocational shops, Walunas made a list of her top five departments: plumbing, electrical, carpentry, automotive collision repair and machine manufacturing.

Although the demand for plumbing shop slots was especially high, Walunas says she was fortunate enough to be admitted into her top pick.

“I’ve always liked hands-on work. As a kid, I’d be playing in the dirt, or I’d be building Legos. And this is just kind of like a weird version of Legos,” she said. “And then there’s always a demand for it — you’re never not going to need a plumber.”

Walunas’ decision was a bit surprising to her father at first, but he said that growing up, she was always out in the yard with him working on a tractor or a piece of equipment.

“She’s a natural-born mechanic,” Jim Walunas said.

Andrew Linkenhoker, superintendent of Smith Voc, called the school’s plumbing program the “gold standard.” The school also historically wins district and state SkillsUSA Plumbing Competitions and has won the SkillsUSA National Championships several times, he said.

“Many of the area plumbing contractors seek our students out for co-op placements and employment,” Linkenhoker said.

Walunas spoke highly of her time at Smith and the level of support she received from her teachers. She was commended for her dedication and attendance record with the Vice Principal’s Award for never missing a single day at Smith throughout her four years.

Paterson described Walunas as a “driven” student and a top-grade earner the majority of the time. During her scholastic career, she helped plumb multiple Habitat for Humanity homes.

“She came in every day with a smile and a bit of sarcastic humor that was on par with a warm welcome in the morning,” Paterson said.

Walunas’ success at the school inspired her brother Tobey Walunas, who graduated last year, to also become a plumber. These days, she and her brother work alongside their father in the family business, Walunas Plumbing & Heating. Her mother, Tammy Walunas, takes care of the business’s accounting.

Though there is a bit of sibling rivalry, Walunas said she likes working with family and looks forward to taking over the business with her brother as her father, now 55, starts to look toward retirement.

Family dinner conversations, however, are not for the faint of heart, Tammy Walunas said.

“You cannot have a weak stomach or tense up when they start talking about clogged drains and septics,” she said.

Master plumber Becca Walunas works on a house in Easthampton with her brother Tobey and father, Jim Walunas, who owns the business.

Still, both her parents expressed great pride for their daughter and this milestone.

For Walunas, the bigger accomplishment is that she’s 21 years old and in the process of buying her first house in Easthampton. The year she graduated from Smith, she bought a brand new truck and paid it off within a year.

“I am very, very, very proud of her and what she has accomplished in her life so far,” said Tammy Walunas. “Now that she has this license, I’m very curious as to what she is thinking next … whatever it is, she is going to be great at it.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow.

David J. Ferreira

MAVA Communications Coordinator