By Chris McKinnon

BOSTON (CBS) – If you told Olivia Levangie a few years ago that she would be working as a plumber, she never would have believed it. “I never picked up a tool in my life. I didn’t even know the names of any tools,” she said. But now this single mother is just a few months away from getting her plumber’s license.

It started nearly five years ago when a regular customer came into the coffee shop where she was working and encouraged her to apply to an apprenticeship program run by the Local 12 Plumber’s Union. “I said I’ll apply and see what happens,” she recalled.

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She got in to what is a very a competitive program according to Barry Keady of the Local 12 Union. Each January the union takes on about 40 new apprentices out of hundreds of applicants. “It’s statistically easier to get into Harvard,” Keady laughed.

Olivia Levangie (WBZ-TV)

Why the high demand?  Part of it, according to both Keady and Olivia, is that it’s basically free. “We supply them with their education, all of their books, the tools; there is no out-of-pocket expense for them,” Keady said.

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Every six weeks, the apprentices spend time in the classroom learning the basics.  The rest of the time is spent working on actual job sites with large contractors and those jobs come with an hourly wage and benefits.

When Olivia started, there were only a few women in the program, but that’s changing. “There’s probably like 15 girls this week in school between all the classes to see more and more every time,” Olivia said.  According to Keady this year’s class is about 20% women.

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Olivia is still paying off debt for a short stint at community college and feels blessed to be given this opportunity without taking on any more loans. “I’m so grateful for what it has given me and the life it’s going to give me,” she said.