At the 2023 AHR Expo, three ladies from The ACHR NEWS editorial staff learned how to braze aluminum at the Harris Products Group booth — and learned it’s commonly said that women make the best brazers. Why? Because brazing takes precision while working with smaller flames and smaller pieces, so brazers need to have good hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and be extremely detailed orientated.
Brazing and beyond, women in this industry bring skills that have nothing to do with ability, but everything to do with perseverance, confidence, and humbleness. With just over 2% of the HVAC workforce made up of women, both women and men alike have a job to do when it comes to recruiting female talent. This means making women aware of the opportunities this industry has for them, encouraging them on this path, and mentoring them to become successful tradespeople once they’re in.
wholesale account manager
Harris Products Group
Strong Female Lead
It’s important to point out that the women in the HVACR industry aren’t usually timid. They can’t be. Not in a field like HVACR, where each day they have to prove that they deserve a career in this field — just like anyone else.
LEARN THE TRADE: A woman stops by the Harris Products Booth to brush up on her brazing skills at the 2022 AHR Expo. (Courtesy of Harris Products Group)
Nancy Jo Loebker knows this is true because she has seen the industry evolve firsthand. Loebker is a wholesale account manager for Harris. She joined the industry back in 1985 with an inside sales position at Harris, and she can remember a time when the only other women at a trade event besides her were models hired to help sell products. Ira Bennett Copeland, director of marketing at Harris, recalls that when she began working there (in 1987), women didn’t even hold executive positions at the company.
But times have changed. When Christen Foltz graduated college in 2016 and needed a job fast, she deliberately sought out a manufacturing job because she knew the industry was looking to hire more women. Foltz is now a technical sales representative for Harris.
“The women that work in our industry are very strong female teams,” Foltz said. “They’re ready to step up to anybody that challenges them. I think that's important. When I’ve done trainings there have been several times where people have said to me, ‘I'm a technician and I work in the field every day — what do you know?’ And those are the times where you step up, you show your expertise, and you prove to them that you know the information.”
Girls Training Boys
While the industry has definitely made advancements in gender diversity since the ‘80s, HVAC still often looks like men in the field, women in the office. When Loebker and Foltz are in the building, though, those roles get reversed.
Technical sales reps at Harris have the option to get NATE-certified in brazing and soldering, as well as teach training courses and give continuing education hours. So Loebker and Foltz learned everything from alloy composition to the best techniques for brazing the new generation of a/c units that use aluminum tubing instead of copper.
The makeup of the workforce means the two women are training mostly men. Loebker has some advice for fellow female instructors.
“To be able to train [mostly men] successfully, is to know what your products are and everything they can do,” she said. “Be as technical as you possibly can to understand what you’re doing before you do it. If you can understand why you’re supposed to do something, then it makes it easier for us to correct the technique and avoid bad habits.”
The training course offers information on the building blocks of brazing like clearance, cleaning, flux, proper heating, flux removal, and alloy selection, and touches on some of the scientific principles of brazing like capillary action and the plastic range and fluidity of alloys. When the class is made up of more practiced technicians, Loebker and Foltz go into more detail and ask participants to share their own experiences.
In addition to training, Harris does recruiting at career fairs and high schools and trade schools. They’ve also sponsored the SkillsUSA high school brazing competition for HVAC for years. As Foltz has learned and become more ingrained is the industry, she’s realized what a great living it can provide, for women and men alike.
“We like to go into technical trade schools, at the high school level, and push people to continue in this course so that they keep in the trades,” Foltz said.
Words of Advice
For women who are interested in taking the plunge into a career in the trades, or need to be encouraged to stay in them, Copeland, Loebker, and Foltz shared some advice.
“Don’t be afraid to take that step. Maybe it looks like you're surrounded by men. But don't think that there's anything that a woman in this industry can’t do,” Loebker said.
Foltz’s advice is to stick it out through the hard times, especially in the beginning.
“It really is a great industry. There are a lot of people willing to help you. And we need more women,” she said. “So really sticking it out through the tough times and making sure you see it through is important — because it does get more fun, and you make great relationships in this industry.”
For starters, find a good mentor, Copeland said. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman, but it does have to be someone who will lift up their mentee and encourage them to try new things. Related, she said, don’t think of other women in the field as competitors. By supporting each other and their efforts, women in the industry will advance together.
Copeland also encouraged women to try to be the smartest, hardest-working person in the room — which means they’ll need to know the subject matter as thoroughly as possible.
“There are times when you may have to step outside of your comfort zone,” said Copeland. “You can get a great deal of personal satisfaction from learning new things, and also earn recognition for the results of your efforts.”
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