Tech shortage solution: women

May 1, 2000
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The hvacr industry is largely dominated by men and has been since its inception. Maybe it needs to have a paradigm shift — a new way of thinking — to solve the current labor shortage.

Contractors have been searching for a solution to this shortage by increasing wages, adding new benefits, partnering with trade schools, making their current employees feel appreciated, and many other methods.

These things may be a quick fix, but industry experts are saying this shortage will increase and continue well into this century. It looks like it is going to take more than the use of a company truck to gain new employees and their loyalty.

Women offer a huge resource of talent and skill to the hvacr industry, yet relatively few are working in the field. Perhaps the role of the service technician is too difficult, or perhaps the opportunity and possibility hasn’t been made available or known to these women.

The work is not too difficult for the following women, who are great examples of what this relatively untapped source can offer.

Women are strong, too

On any given day, you’ll find her on extension ladders, rooftops, and in crawl spaces, often lugging 65 lb of equipment.

For Jean Krohn, CM — 5 ft tall and weighing not much more than 100 lb — this is all in a day’s work. She is co-owner of Krohn Refrigeration, Manalapan, NJ, and works as a mechanic.

Krohn has been working in the industry for more than 17 years now, getting her start in commercial refrigeration through her husband and his family.

“I thought it was neat that you could build something from nothing and I like being outside,” says Krohn. “Figuring out how things work intrigues me.”

She admits that the work is very physical and says, “I don’t know of any other women who work in refrigeration. I’m sure there would be a lot of women out there who would be capable of doing this type of work.”

So why aren’t more women joining the field? There are probably several reasons. Especially when first starting in the industry, Krohn met with obstacles due to her gender.

“Customers would often call the office after seeing me to check if I was qualified,” she says. “Now that the customers know me, it isn’t so much of a problem.”

Also, when attending trade shows, Krohn has learned to go to the booths by herself so that she can get the answers she wants. “A lot of times if I’m with men at shows, the booth personnel talk to them, not me. If I walk by myself, people address me directly.

“As a woman, you have to prove yourself more than a man,” says Krohn. “When a woman makes a mistake, people will say it is because she is a woman. Women really have to be better than men to do well.”

Keeping things in order

Sharon Stalzer is owner, president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer at Lion Machinery, Pacific, MO.

In her “spare” time, Stalzer makes follow-up calls to customers, vendors, suppliers, and others to confirm that everything that was supposed to be done is done and done to satisfaction.

She has been in the industry for 10 years now and like Krohn, she got involved through her family.

“At this point, I feel accepted. Originally for me, and now I see with other women, that you really have to make a name for yourself,” says Stalzer; “maybe more so than men do.”

Generally, she thinks others in the industry are more accepting of women. There are still the occasional calls where she answers and is asked to put someone who knows about sales or the products on the phone.

“We don’t mind so much with the older generations, but these younger guys should know better.”

Stalzer recently had a female machinery dealer ask her about women and the possibility of a career in the industry. She told the dealer that there definitely were opportunities and gave her the following advice: “Stick to your guns. If you have the knowledge and information and know that it’s correct, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.”

Success by association

Jana DuFosse also got started in the industry through family — both of her parents are in the business. She received a SMACNA College of Fellows scholarship and used it to obtain a four-year degree in construction management from Cal Poly at San Louis Obispo, CA.

DuFosse graduated in 1998 and now works for Marelich Mechanical, Hayward, CA, as a project manager and project engineer. She works with the foremen daily to make sure that things are running smoothly and there are no questions.

“I have to look ahead and know where we’re going to go next so I have answers to questions as they arise, instead of having to spend time putting out fires,” she says.

She also works with submittals and the detailers on projects, and tracks costs. Watching the budget is essential to making sure her projects stay in line.

Speaking about the industry, DuFosse feels that women are more accepted than people think. “I don’t really find that I’m treated any differently. I think you mold your personality to fit with the people you work with during the day.

“Also, I don’t worry too much about what others think about me, and maybe that helps.”

All in the family?

Each of these three women got started in the industry because of family. Shouldn’t the hvacr industry be recruiting women who don’t have family members already in the industry? This is a great source of talent that can be capitalized upon, if somebody sits up and takes notice.

Perhaps the problem is that, except for some local programs like the “Avenidas” (Avenues) program in Colorado, there are not strong programs in place to show women what the industry has to offer them. And perhaps women are hesitant to enter a field that is male-dominated.

The hvacr industry could learn many lessons from the information that follows. It is a good model for promoting the industry to women.

The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) developed an Education Foundation (NEF) with the mission to advance women in the construction industry through education by:

  • Developing understanding and enthusiasm by young women, thereby preparing them for the industry;
  • Increasing industry acceptance of women and their value; and
  • Continuously improving the quality and contribution of women, thereby improving the workforce and directly contributing to the competitiveness of the construction industry.

    How does the NEF promote its mission and the construction industry? Through various programs and competitions, including:

  • The Block Kids Building Program, a national competition open to all elementary school children in grades 1-6. It involves the construction of various structures with interlocking blocks and three of the following additional items — a small rock, string, foil, and poster board. Local winners advance to regional competition, with one semi-finalist advancing from each region to the national competition. National prizes are awarded for the top three projects.
  • The Building Design Program is a team building project for grades 6-9. It will be offered during the school year and will involve construction of a structure from architectural drawings.
  • The CAD/Design/Drafting Competition is designed for high school students in grades 9-12. It provides recognition to students for creative design, successful problem solving and craftsmanship in preparing architectural drawings.

    With all its programs, NEF seeks platforms to introduce construction in a positive and fun manner, while presenting challenges in math, science and design.



Model for success?

This is a good example of something the hvacr industry could be doing. Getting interest in the industry and the message that there are opportunities for women started while they are still in elementary school may seem a little far-fetched.

However, the shortage appears to be a long-term condition.

“I think worker shortage is still going to become a bigger problem in the future,” says Krohn.

She adds that one of the other problems that contributes to this is the lack of direction toward the trades from high schools. “The attitude seems to be that everyone should go to college. College is good, but it isn’t for everyone,” Krohn says.

High school counselors seem to think that brains are not needed for the trade, which is very far from the truth, explains Krohn. Equipment is becoming more and more complicated and there is a lot to learn.

Many in the industry are scrambling to address the current lack of employees. So far, it appears no good solution has been found. If you increase the pay you offer, you may get a service tech to work for you. That doesn’t mean that they have the skills that they should or that they will remain loyal to you when your competitor down the street raises his or her pay rate above yours.

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