Women Shattering HVAC's Glass Ceiling
Recruiting women can help solve the current labor shortage problem
The Social Security Administration estimates 22 percent of the U.S. workforce will retire over the next eight years. For the HVAC industry, which is chock full of retiring baby boomers, that percentage is probably much larger.
While HVAC’s experienced veterans continue to disappear into retirement, the industry has struggled to replenish its crop of skilled workers. Recent studies from the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) quantify the need, estimating that 115,000 new HVACR workers must be trained by 2022 to meet an anticipated demand that is set to increase 14 percent, which exceeds the average growth rate for all other occupations.
While this technician shortage affects all corners of the country, perhaps one solution lies in closing the gender gap.
In 2015, women comprised 57 percent of the national labor force, according to the DOL; however, only 1.7 percent of the total employed heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration installers and technicians were women.
Women represent an untapped resource for the HVACR industry.
FALLING INTO HVAC
Julie Decker, national sales manager, Atco Rubber Products, and incoming president of Women in HVACR, said many of the tradeswomen she’s spoken with say they sort of just fell into the HVAC industry.
“Many of us fall into that category, which is part of our dilemma with the labor shortage,” Decker said. “For me, I had been working in downtown Dallas, commuting back and forth, and spending more time on the road away from my then 2-year-old child. So, I took a job at a filter company not far from my house. That’s how I got into the industry.”
Decker first handled administration work in the engineering department before being promoted to an administrative role for the company president. From there, she started handling international and private-label customers.
“After I started taking care of them, I realized I liked that aspect of sales, and that’s where I got my start in the late 90s. I took a job just to be closer to home, which migrated into the career I have today. It’s been sort of a strange pathway. But it’s the same for many in the industry – even the men. It’s always that they knew someone or answered a job ad, and that’s how they got into the industry. In the past, we’ve kind of relied on word of mouth to attract people. That has to change. We have to be more direct and make our industry more well known as a great career path.”
Susan Kirkland, president, Packard Inc., falls into the answering-an-ad category.
“My background was in accounting, and I answered an ad for an accountant in a newspaper, because back then, that’s how you did it,” she said. “What I found was an industry that was very family-oriented that really gave me, as a woman, a chance to advance pretty quickly. I didn’t really plan on making this a career when I first started. I was only going to work another year and then raise my children. But God had another plan for my life, so I ended up staying 31 years. I started out in accounting, and now I’m president of the company. But it was because the industry was so accommodating, gave me lots of chances, and I just love what I do.
“Most of the businesses within HARDI [Heating, Air-conditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International] are ESOPs [employee stock ownership plan] or family-owned,” Kirkland continued. “They started out small and are growing. The industry, at large, is getting bigger, but it’s still pretty closely held. The same people I was dealing with 30 years ago are still in the industry. I like that. I love the people in the industry and the fact it continues to grow, change, and challenge me in new ways. When we started our business, we had six employees in the whole company. Now, we have 72 throughout the U.S.”
Kirkland said she doesn’t think many people, especially women, plan on a career in HVAC. “There aren’t very many people who say, ‘I’m going to grow up and go into HVAC,’ unless they have a parent in the industry. I didn’t even know it was an option. And there are a lot of women who don’t recognize this industry is a really great place to work.”
Angie Snow, owner and vice president of Western Heating & Air Conditioning in Orem, Utah, was an elementary teacher before she and her husband purchased their business in 2007.
“HVAC was never my first intention,” she said. “My husband has been in the industry for more than 20 years and worked his way up. I studied elementary education and have a master’s degree in math education. When we had the opportunity to buy the business nine years ago, my husband said he’d like me to come run the books. I went into it as a way to help him and support his dream of owning his own HVAC company. Once I got into it and started working on it with him, I realized I really enjoyed the business side of it.”
Snow said she has enjoyed the challenge of growing Western Heating and Air Conditioning into the business it is today. “It’s become a passion of mine where I had never envisioned it being a path I would take. Now I love it,” said Snow, who was named Woman of the Year at the inaugural Service World Expo in October in Las Vegas.
Not all women fall into the industry accidentally. Pam Duffy, senior product manager, variable refrigerant flow (VRF) and mini splits, Lennox Intl. Inc., and one of The NEWS’ Top 40 Under 40 this year, was a mechanical engineering student when a local ASHRAE chapter made a project design proposal to her student design class for the ASHRAE state design competition.
“It sounded really interesting to me,” Duffy said. “Throughout the whole project, I got a lot of interaction with local professionals with a lot of mentorship opportunities, and, ultimately, I was so interested in the work, the people I was meeting, and the different careers they had, that I ended up pursuing a career in that same industry.”
Angie Simon, president of Western Allied Mechanical Inc. in Menlo Park, California, was always interested in math and science. Her father, an electrical engineer working for the U.S. Navy, encouraged her to study mechanical engineering.
“CAL POLY [California Polytechnic State University] had a HVAC solar option within mechanical engineering, and I thought that sounded super interesting,” she said. “I went through that program and really enjoyed it, not exactly knowing what I was getting myself into until I graduated and got my first job. I got into the industry purely because I was interested in that type of work. I love the constant challenges that come with the changes in the industry. Each project you work on is different, and every team you work with is different. I also love being able to say, ‘Hey, I worked on that building.’”
Simon received the Contractor of the Year Award at the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association’s (SMACNA) 73rd Annual Convention. She is the first woman to receive the honor.
Snow said one of the biggest changes to her business is focusing on recruiting female technicians.
“We hired our first female tech five years ago, and we’ve loved having her here just because women relate to women,” Snow said. “The majority of my customers are women, and I know that’s not always the case, but usually the men are gone and the moms are at home. We hired another female tech about a year and a half ago, and, funny enough, a lot of our competitors are continuously trying to recruit them from us.”
Snow said one thing she is doing to attract more women is using women instead of men in the company’s videos.
“We’ve just started putting women in our branding materials. You always see the male techs on the side of the vans, etc., but we’re putting women in those settings, and I believe it’s making a difference.”
WOMEN IN HVACR
The Women in HVACR organization is dedicated to attracting more women to the industry and discusses the issue all the time, Decker noted. One way the organization helps is by providing scholarships to women pursuing careers in HVACR. This past year, the group offered two $2,000 scholarships, one to a woman enrolled in a trade or tech school and one pursuing a four year degree.
“We’ve had five times more applicants than we expected,” Decker noted. “Offering the scholarship opportunity helps to build awareness, and we’re committed to bring more people into the industry. I believe we can help solve the labor problem by bringing more awareness of the career path in our industry and the opportunities that are out there.”
Lennox is also putting an emphasis on recruiting not just women, but diverse candidates, Duffy explained. “We know how important it is to have a diverse workforce and what that can bring. For example, we know that women are the primary decision makers more often than men, especially in our residential business. So, having a female perspective at the corporate level is extremely important. We’re very involved with the Society of Women Engineers, and we are heading to that group’s career fair with the intent of recruiting more women to work for the company. Many groups are doing great things to recruit more people, but I think we, as an industry, can probably be doing a better job promoting HVAC as a career choice.”
Simon said she is excited to see science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) taking a larger role in middle schools and high schools.
“There’s so much focus on science and technology in our schools right now, that if you fast forward 10 years from now, I think you’ll find a distinctly higher percentage of women going into engineering-type professions,” Simon said. “Our trades need to realize that as our industry has evolved, more of our work is becoming less physical and more geared toward technology and BIM-type work. We need to tap women for the trades and let them know this is a great career. And women are stronger than men think. We don’t get the credit for that. Women bear children and are mentally strong, as well. Women, like myself, who have been in the industry, need to not be afraid to get out in front of people to make them understand that it can be done.”
Simon noted that Western Allied has an unusually high number of women in technical positions compared to other companies, including four female engineers in its design department, five female project managers, and Simon herself as a principal of the company and president. Additionally, three of the company’s six summer interns were women, as well.
“I don’t know if that’s because they see the opportunity a little more clearly because the company president is a woman,” Simon said. “But, really, my partners and I have discussed the need to hire the best people available, male or female. Out of our last four hires, three have been women and one was a man. It really depends on who is coming through the industry. We don’t specifically say we’re going to hire a woman, but instead focus on hiring the best. If it happens to be a woman, that’s a great thing.”
Many HVACR instructors participating in a recent HVACR instructor survey even bemoaned the lack of women in their training programs.
The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) is in the beginning stages of putting together an ad hoc committee of women to implement a mentoring program that will recruit and mentor women coming into the trade.
“We’ve set some goals for ourselves, and we’re in the process of reviewing and distributing the program,” said Marc Norberg, assistant to the general president, SMART. “Beyond that, we’re developing guidelines on how each one of our 160 locals across North America might start a women’s committee that has a platform with leadership of the local union to discuss challenges women face on the job site, retention, and recruitment. We’re just getting started.”
Norberg said he decided to bring the issue to the union president after teaching a class at the Women Build Nations event this year. “They had an incredible turnout of around 1,500 tradeswomen from across North America. I was struck by the intense feeling of trade unionism among the women and also learned a lot more about the challenges they face in starting in the trade and maintaining their positions. I talked to our general president about this, and we decided we really needed to improve how we handle and take care of these situations. We kind of view it as a last social challenge we have to face. Many years ago, it was bringing minorities in to the trade. We addressed that very handily and overcame that, and we realize we have to address this in much the same way. The challenges women face on the job site and how they learn to overcome them can teach all of us something.”
SMACNA Western Washington Inc. is also implementing a mentorship program.
“We just kicked off our big event where we’ve paired local journeywomen with apprentices,” said Julie Muller-Neff, executive vice president of the chapter. “We did some team-building exercises, and we learned the Rosie the Riveter story, who was actually a sheet metal worker working in a Boeing plant here in Seattle, which is really neat. The whole theme of our mentorship event is women have been in the trades; we’ve been doing the job. Now, we need to show these women coming into the trade that we will continue doing it. And sometimes, if an issue comes up, having another woman to talk with is sometimes all you need to keep someone interested and involved.”
Muller-Neff said, through the program, there are approximately 50 apprentices paired with about 12 mentors, so each mentor has about four apprentices.
“I don’t think this is a path where people thought, ‘Oh my daughter can do this,’ or ‘My daughter should do this.’ It was never a path that was promoted to women in the past. Although it should be. I think we’ve proven we can do it.”
AN UNTAPPED RESOURCE
Many industry experts believe recruiting women can help address the current labor shortage problem facing the industry today.
“If women just realized the opportunities available here, they can absolutely help solve the problem,” Kirkland said. “Right now, we have an aging industry. We need to do more to recruit young talent, and I think women, especially today, are looking for strong career opportunities.
“Once you’re in, you never leave because it is such a welcoming industry,” she said. “The opportunities are just endless here.”
Norberg said overcoming the technician shortage relies on a greater deal of outreach. “Usually, our people come into the trade in their younger years out of high school and college. We need to let them know what great opportunities they have working in any trade and hopefully demonstrate that it’s a good opportunity for learning and supporting a family. It can be challenging, both physically and mentally, but it’s an interesting field.”
Snow agreed the industry had always offered many opportunities, but admits she was never aware of them when she was younger. So it’s something she and her husband have been working to rectify.
“We’ve been going into local high schools and speaking to students,” Snow explained. “We go in and teach them how to write good resumes, how to conduct good interviews, and, in doing that, we talk a lot about the opportunities available in the HVAC industry. And it’s not just technical positions — we need managers and salespeople — we just need people. And women are strong, powerful candidates.”
“We need to make HVAC a more obvious choice for women,” Simon added. “It’s going to be easier for women to be involved with the industry because it’s changing so rapidly. I think the next 10 years will make huge jumps in that. Ten years from now, this won’t be a subject we will be talking about.”
Publication date: 12/19/2016