Female Techs: Low Numbers, But Plenty of Opportunity
“That’s cool,” says Terri Jacobs, a service technician in Austin, TX. “I had no idea there were so many of us.”
Still, Jacobs is one of only six women Austin’s Capital City Trade and Technical School has certified in hvacr repair in the last 10 years, says instructor Donna Thompson. And, in Thompson’s eyes, that’s a shame.
“A lot of women are terrified of letting a male technician into their home,” says Thompson. “They may be elderly or have been battered or raped. There’s a huge demand for females in the residential end of the business.”
Thompson believes she knows. She was a service technician for 17 years.
“When I’d go out on a call, I’d see the apprehension in women’s faces when they saw the uniform,” she says. “Then I’d see that apprehension disappear when they’d see I was a woman.”
Thompson is not unusual in saying that she got into the profession “purely by accident.” She had been working for a fireplace manufacturer and was promoted to head a department.
“I was totally shocked that I had mechanical inclinations,” she says. “Originally, I thought about the auto industry, but on a tour of the school I’m teaching at now, I found my forte in the a/c lab.”
A Long, Winding Road To A CareerKelli Hollingsworth, of Carrier Corp. in the City of Industry, CA, is a former receptionist, fast-food manager, locksmith, and facility manager for a clothing chain. What she enjoyed most about facilities was monitoring temperatures at the stores.
“If the compressors were on but I couldn’t tell what was wrong online, I had to call an a/c service person,” she says.
When she found herself a divorced single mom, Hollings-worth took a friend’s advice and enrolled in the apprenticeship program at Local 250’s Joint Journey-man and Apprentice Training Center for Air Conditioning and Refrigeration in Los Angeles. After four years of construction work and another six months of a/c service at Cal-Air in Whittier, CA, Hollings-worth began to learn the programming aspects of automated hvacr systems and is currently working at a Southland amusement park.
“This is a specialty area,” she says, “but one that’s growing. In years to come, more and more businesses will need energy-efficient systems.
“I actually like the physical aspects of hvac work, but I’m 5 ft, 5 in. and 140 pounds. I’m strong enough to get by, but if I had to change compressors every day, it would take a toll on my body before I reached 40.
“I plan on staying in controls. I definitely can see myself here for the next 30 years.”
Like Hollingsworth, Deb Pinnell had many jobs before becoming a technician at Air-Flo in Sequim, WA. Before turning to hvacr, Pinnell was a Forest Service firefighter and surveyor, a bookkeeper at a drug store, a physical therapy technician, a landscaper, and a paper mill worker.
“The mill was closing, and I heard that Air-Flo had openings,” she explains.
So, she took a 2 1/2-month crash course to become certified. She’s been with Air-Flo now for 6 years.
Jacobs, on the other hand, took an even harder road to get to where she is today.
“I’d never worked a day in my life until February of ’98,” she says. “While I was incarcerated for four and a half years, I learned heating and air conditioning. The foreman, Tom Loeman, helped me find my niche. He changed my life.
“There were five other women on the crew, but they didn’t care about the work like I did. Every morning when I wake up, I say thank you for Tom Loeman. He gave me a chance to have a life.
“At the end of the day, sure, I’m dirty and tired, but I feel good that I’ve put in an honest, hard day’s work.”
Working Overtime to Win Coworkers’ RespectAt 5 ft, 3 in. and 105 pounds, Jacobs says her male coworkers “sometimes doubt if I can do the lifting, but I tell them to lift one side, I’ll get the other. They’re flabbergasted that I can actually lift my side of an a/c unit. That’s part of where I get my respect.”
“Sure, I lift compressors,” Pinnell says, then adds with a chuckle, “I have a better back than the guys!”
What keeps Jacobs’ interest is the challenge.
“I like the challenge of the work,” she says. “You’re always running up against a problem you need to figure out. If a woman likes to be mentally and physically challenged, this is for her. Go for it because you’ll enjoy it.”
Jacobs says she’s “never been one to sit still. All my life I’ve been a tomboy. I enjoyed fixing things, doing things with my hands. Now I get paid to do it.”
For Pinnell, the job means independence.
“I like the independence of it and that I’m not confined to an office,” she says. “I’m gone all day on my own. I’m not behind a desk. I’m moving around.”
The main reason for her entering the field, however, was “it’s a steady job, and that’s hard to come by in a rural area. I love where I’m living and I’d take any job — I did take any job — to be able to stay here. Now I’ve got a job I can count on. I don’t have to worry about the mill closing.”
Hollingsworth is just perplexed that more women do not enter the field.
“Honestly, I don’t know why women don’t enter the trade,” she says. “When I tell women about the pay, they’re real interested. But then they don’t want to break a nail or wear a hard hat or get their hair messed up.
“Sure, my hands get dirty, but dirt washes off. I own a house, I’ve got a vacation home, and in a couple of years I’m going to buy a nice, new Suburban. A little dirt is totally worth it.”
Sidebar 1: No Easy Task Promoting the Profession to WomenDonna Thompson just shakes her head.
“If someone would have told me back in high school that I could do this,” says the hvacr technician-turned-instructor, “I would have been doing this a long time ago. Someone needs to be telling girls, ‘Hey! There’s stuff you can do out here that you don’t even know about.’”
Ruth King, president of the American Contractors Exchange, maintains that women are not highly represented in the industry “because it’s never been promoted to women.
“High school guidance counselors think everyone should go to college, so that’s what they promote. But college isn’t for everyone. It’s going to take one huge educational process in high school to get the message out that this is a profession that welcomes women. Better yet, start the process in junior high.”
In contrast, hvac automation specialist Kelli Hollingsworth contends that “we need mature women, maybe even those who already have children.
“They know they have to support themselves and their kids,” she explains. “And they have to have a good job to do that. I was 25 when I got into the field. I think we’d be more successful if we targeted women who aren’t fresh out of high school, women who have a better idea of what they want.”
< p> THERE MUST BE 50 WAYS… Condensing ideas from these and other women working in the field, a list of recommendations emerges as to what you, your boss, your company, your coworkers, and your union can do to promote the profession to women:
Sidebar 2: Working With Male Coworkers: The Good and BadBeing a female technician in a male-dominated field is not all that intimidating. Well, kinda.
“Ninety percent of the men are very helpful, very supportive,” says Southern Californian Kelli Hollingsworth. “A very few don’t want to see me working too hard, putting that much stress on my body. And a very, very few — so few it’s almost not worth mentioning — will tell you a woman doesn’t belong in the field, that she should be home in the kitchen.”
Deb Pinnell, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, echoed Hollingsworth’s assessment.
“The guys I work with are great,” she says. “Most are my age or younger, so they don’t think twice about having a woman do the job.”
Texan Terri Jacobs did not necessarily agree.
“It’s hard out there in a man’s field,” she says. “Because you’re a woman, some men don’t think you can do the job — especially the ones who have been in the field 20 or 30 years. With them, you have to work 10 times as hard to prove you can do it.”
Jacobs says, however, that “a lot of the guys I’ve made friends with have been very supportive and accept me for my ability to do my job. They admire me for working hard right beside them. A woman who can lift a/c units just like they can, some men really like that in a woman.”
DIFFERENT REACTIONS But certainly not all men, as Jacobs can attest. Her experience with a former employer “turned out real bad,” she says. Having graduated from Austin’s Capital City Trade and Technical School in March of last year, Jacobs was eager to put into practice all she had learned.
“But they didn’t give me a chance. They didn’t want me in the field and made me warehouse manager instead. I’d been highly recommended by the school, so that’s why they hired me, but they wouldn’t let me do the work I was trained to do. I told my boss I went to school to be out in the field, servicing air conditioners and heating units. I didn’t want to keep track of units in the warehouse. I wanted to fix them.”
Sue Carlin, placement director at Capital City Trade and Technical School, says her best friend is a welder “and has been a welder for 10 years. You can’t tell her this is man’s work. She’s the type of woman who, if you tell her she can’t do that, she’ll say, ‘Stand back. Watch me.’ And that’s how Terri [Jacobs] is too.”
Donna Thompson, currently an instructor at Capital City Trade and Technical School, where she was once an hvacr student, says her experience as a service technician from the mid-80s on “was very positive. I never had any problems with the guys. Most were retired military workaholics who’d been in the business since I was in diapers. As long as I pulled my weight, I didn’t have any problems from my coworkers.”
But Thompson does have a story about a few pesky customers. Sent out to repair a compressor on a window unit, Thompson was met by “some young boys who said, ‘You’re gonna fix it, huh?’ When they saw me unloading the vacuum pump and other equipment, they shut up, figuring I knew what I was doing.
“Then I saw the old man, the owner, coming out to see what was going on. He was squinting, a bit nearsighted, with a sour expression on his face, like ‘What are you doing here?’ I got a little nervous, thinking, ‘Now what’s gonna happen?’ When he got a little closer, he looked me over real good and said, ‘Well, thank God it’s a woman! For a moment, I thought they’d sent a hippie!’”