I retrained as a plumber after being laid off from my media job and becoming a mom. I love the flexibility.

Over the past 18 years, I've built a career in publishing and media. I started in audio publishing, working at Amazon's Audible and later becoming head of development at a TV production company. Then, the pandemic hit, and my life trajectory changed. In August 2020, I was laid off from my job, and a couple of days later, my husband left me. To add to the shock, I found out weeks later that I was pregnant. We'd been trying for children for a few years and had unfortunately suffered two miscarriages in our fertility journey, so finding out I was pregnant was a piece of joy amid a very trying time. 

 My pregnancy was surprisingly calm. I tried applying for a few jobs but soon gave up, as sleep deprivation left my energy levels on the floor. I gave in to the idea of leaning on some of my savings and taking statutory maternity pay during the pregnancy and the first year of my daughter's life while continuing to do some volunteer mentoring. The main struggle came after my daughter was born, as I tried to navigate being a single parent with only a small amount of family support.

 I registered with the job center in mid-2022 when my daughter turned 18 months old. I needed to return to a career for financial reasons and to boost my self-esteem. The job center introduced me to the Connecting Communities scheme, where I could receive £500 ($640) toward a chosen training course. That's when I decided to do something completely different: retrain as a plumber. Within weeks of applying, I found myself in a drafty workshop in the South East of England, undertaking a weeklong plumbing accreditation course. 

R.J. Fenton a single mom and media consultant who added a plumbing qualification to her career portfolio
She was the only woman on the 10-person plumbing course. R. J. Fenton

A trial-by-fire

I was the only woman on the ten-person course, and it's safe to say I felt out of my comfort zone. I'd barely done any DIY before, and the tutor had us soldering and bending metal pipes from day one.

I felt embarrassed that I couldn't distinguish a hacksaw from all the other saws laid out before me.

It was definitely a trial-by-fire, but by the end of the week, I felt a real sense of accomplishment.

As a new mom and a single parent, you can feel that your capability is in doubt. Sleep-deprived and mentally exhausted, I felt disconnected from myself. Despite the intensity of the course, learning a new practical skill allowed me to engage a new side of my brain, and I couldn't get enough.

Six months later, I took another course to obtain a Level 2 plumbing diploma. I was lucky enough to receive a full bursary from the City & Guilds Foundation, a charity that offers vocational training.

This course upped the ante: it was six weeks long, and I'd be in the workshop most days from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It was a mixture of classroom and manual learning followed by nine academic exams. Once again, I was the only woman on the twelve-person course.

It was a lot to manage: I was getting three to five hours of broken sleep each night with my daughter, then having super intensive days where I'd be heavy lifting and using a threading machine on heavy-duty iron pipes.

Outside my comfort zone

Most people were surprised when I opted to reskill in plumbing maintenance instead of returning full-time to my previous career.

It might sound crazy to have chosen to dedicate my time to a new pursuit so far removed from my previous career. But I was at a point where I had to prove to myself that I could do something that was out of my comfort zone.

As a new parent, sometimes you feel your sense of self falter. I didn't have a partner or a full-time job to give myself a sense of continuity, so achieving something I'd never even imagined doing gave me a lot of pride.

R.J. Fenton is a single mom and media consultant who added a plumbing qualification to her career portfolio
People were surprised she chose to add plumbing to her portfolio career. R. J. Fenton

While I was completing my plumbing training, I continued to maintain my freelance work as a media consultant, leveraging the network and skills I had built up over 18 years. I was working a contract job for a literacy nonprofit, and they kindly allowed me to take six weeks off to finish the plumbing course.

After the course, I started practicing my new plumbing skills close to home. I live in a new development with around 150 flats, and the residents have a WhatsApp group where they ask for tradespeople recommendations. I shared that I had just qualified as a plumber, and immediately received around four job requests.

This pushed me to become self-employed in plumbing, working alongside my media consulting work, which is the main source of my income. I'm a bit surprised that I can charge the same rate for plumbing as I do for my 18 years of media experience. The advantage of the trades is that clients understand they need to pay a fair price for an in-demand service, so I don't face as many requests for free extra work.

Earlier this year, I began combining my two careers by becoming a spokesperson for TaskHer, a platform that matches female tradespeople with clients. Some clients, both male and female, prefer working with a woman tradesperson. I now dedicate one day per week to plumbing work, focusing on smaller maintenance jobs, which allows me to complete 4-to 6 jobs in a day.

Being self-employed gives me the work-life balance I need while my child is young. The plumbing work provides good flexibility, and it also serves as a way to future-proof my career in case AI impacts my media work. I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and I enjoy the variety of having these two very different careers. In the future, I plan to expand my skills further by taking a carpentry and joinery course, to continue diversifying my portfolio career and serve as an example for my daughter and other women in the trades. 

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