As of 2017, women made up nearly 47 percent of the U.S. labor force. In HVACR, however, that number is significantly lower. Of the 448,000 Americans employed in 2017 as heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers, just 2 percent of those were women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Divide those numbers by 50 states, and that equals fewer than 200 female technicians out of 9,000 total per state. To put it lightly, the odds of one running into another in a typical day’s work are relatively slim.
For contractors looking to grow their workforce, numbers like these represent huge potential.
And for women seeking a career in the skilled trades, it’s a win-win situation: reliable work and a job market that’s starved for talent.
What does it take to match the needs? Often, it’s sharing the stories of women thriving in these careers: from women who started out as students eager to learn the trade to technicians who made the jump mid-career and never looked back to small business managers and even CEOs — all forging the way for new talent in an industry where it’s critically needed.
STUDENT OF THE TRADE AWARD
Samantha Lott, a student in the mechanical/electrical technology program at Sacramento Community College, is the Rosie the Riveter of the California heating and air conditioning scene in more ways than one.
“I love that ’40s, ’50s pinup look; it’s like a lifestyle for me,” she said. “Especially in this field, I’m leaning more toward that — the curls, Rosie bandanas — because the rest of my outfit is probably coveralls.”
Lott got into the field through her stepdad, who works as a stationary engineer. The two of them often work on cars together; at one point, Lott considered becoming a mechanic, although she wasn’t thrilled about the salary prospects. When she found out the details of what a job in HVACR entailed, she was hooked.
“I started working at the company he was working at about three, four years ago,” she said. “I’ve always liked working with my hands, and I’ve always wanted a job like this … but I didn’t know this skill was really a job, and it was a job that can make a livable wage on your own. I would go back there [in the shop] and hang out with him, and one day he said ‘Hey, you should go to the program at Sac City and get the knowledge to go into the field.’”
Lott signed up for a two-year certificate program, with the goal of getting her associate’s degree in the process. She’s on her second year.
“It touches on every aspect: a/c, heating, the formulas and mathematics, and figuring out Manual J’s … There’s a controls class next semester on how to use tools that are a little more modern, like Bluetooth-capable devices,” she related. “The professors are teaching how they learned it, how the industry started off doing it, and how we do it now.”
Do women outnumber the men in her classes? “Nope!” she joked. Most semesters, she’s had just one or two other women in class with her.
“So there’s three girls and probably at least 300 men,” she said. “I think there’s only been two women who’ve graduated here.”
For Lott, it’s not an issue.
“I’ve always been tomboyish — into BMX — so hanging out with the boys is natural to me,” she said. “I let it roll off my back; I ignore them, but I can see how it would be intimidating because it can be super scary to see a whole bunch of white guys: You’re coming into class like ‘Oh God, it’s just dudes around here, I don’t belong,’ which is probably why there are not more women in the field.”
There weren’t any female role models for her to look up to, either. That’s something she’s working to change.
“I think the biggest thing is having a support system: to have people who understand what you’re going through,” she said. “I’m a mother of two kids I raise by myself, whereas a lot of them have wives or no kids — they don’t understand that I’m doing 800 other things at once. The professors are super kind and understanding, but it’s nice to talk to someone who says ‘Hey, I get it.’ I think having a woman mentor, or a group, would have definitely made me and anyone interested feel a lot more comfortable and understood, knowing that, yes, they’re out there, and they are moms, too.”
Telese Williams chose HVAC as a second career because of its reliable job prospects. Her switch to HVAC came after a tip from her cousin, who heard about a program called “New Choices for Women” that taught jobs that have historically been considered nontraditional.
“Before that, I was a brick mason, construction worker … I got out of that because of the layoffs,” she said. “She [my cousin] wanted me to have something more stable.”
That was back in 1995, and Google wasn’t what it is now; her cousin got the information from the radio.
“She was always in the shower when it came on, but finally she was able to catch the number to call, and she wrote it down and gave it to me,” Williams recalled.
At the program, which was run through Goodwill in Atlanta, Williams and her classmates built a house from the ground up. Today, she’s employed with Georgia State University as a skilled trades worker in the operations department.
“I do anything, basically, that has to do with going on top of the roof and taking care of things: repair cooling towers, put fuses in,” she said.
It’s sometimes dangerous work, especially for someone who started out with a fear of heights. That’s where being one of very few women in the field gave her a bit of extra motivation.
“Two years ago, I was still kind of shaky about the heights,” she said. “So I started working with a guy every day. I told myself, if he can do it, I can do it.
“When I first started, not that I had to prove myself per se, but a lot of the guys were not really taking me seriously until I got out and started doing it,” she added.
She had the technical skills, though, and her supervisors backed her up.
“At first, it’s kind of rough,” she said. “It was the same in the construction industry. Now it’s no problem.”
For her part, Williams said she’d love to teach at a program like the one that introduced her to HVACR.
“I would love to be a mentor, if I can show what I know to someone,” she said. “For one thing, the pay is excellent. Once you get it down, you can go into business for yourself and be independent. And it’s just fun; I have a lot of fun doing what I do.”
Karen Lamy DeSousa is the second-generation owner of Advance Air and Heat in East Freetown, Massachusetts. Despite growing up in a family business, joining the company was a midcareer switch.
“When I was younger, I used to laugh and say that I’d never work in my family’s HVACR contracting business,” she said.
But as fate would have it, she was looking for a career change at the same time her family business discovered that a long-term employee had been embezzling funds.
So DeSousa decided to join the commercial HVAC, refrigeration, and building automation company that her dad started in 1986.
For DeSousa, a day on the job means managing finances, installation and maintenance contracts, and HR; monitoring customers’ building automation systems; and doing some small-scale estimating. With her background in nonprofits, she had the skills to be an effective business owner, but she doesn’t have field experience.
“I always felt ‘less than’ in a crowd of burly HVAC men,” she said.
It was a classic case of imposter syndrome: feeling that you’re inadequate or incompetent, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. To help cope, she started a blog called “Confessions of an HVACR Chick.” Her first post, dated February 24, 2014, read:
Here’s what you need to know about me. I am a woman. I own an HVAC company. I cannot fix your air conditioner. Or your heater. And I cannot ventilate anything. Unless you count cracking a window. For years, I’ve felt that this is something that I need to apologize for. Something to be embarrassed about. But, here’s the real deal. Twelve years ago, when my father offered me half of the HVAC business that he had started when I was just a kid, I had a choice to make. I could either spend the next 12 years learning how to fix air conditioners, or I could learn how to run an HVAC business… The fact of the matter is that running an HVAC business actually has very little to do with fixing HVAC units.
“I expected criticism,” she said, “but what I got was overwhelming support. It was the first step to believing in myself.”
Around that same time, she came across the Women in HVACR (WHVACR) organization via social media and started sharing her blog posts there. Joining the group was a turning point.
“I had attended several HVACR conferences and classes in the early years of my joining Advance Air and felt very alone and isolated,” she said. “I had difficulty making connections with my peers who were all men, most of whom knew each other and were not looking to grow their networks. Through that organization, I’ve developed invaluable networks with both women and men in the HVACR field.”
Now, she’s a board member with WHVACR and helps mentor and support other women who are starting out. DeSousa said she’s seen the number of women in HVACR take a steady upward climb.
“Looking around the room at a conference, it may not feel that way, but we’re here,” she said. “I think that the industry is seeing women and minorities as an untapped resource to recruit from. Because the industry provides a living wage and a challenging work environment, I think it’s a win-win for the HVACR industry and women and minorities to find each other and grow together.”
How can companies recruit women as technicians, engineers, salespeople, distributors, or whatever job they’re looking to fill?
“It’s simple: When you advertise a job, add language welcoming women to apply,” DeSousa said. “Many women feel that they are not wanted. If you let female applicants know that your company would welcome them, they will be more likely to apply.”
But it’s important to make sure other employees actually will welcome them.
“Many employees worry about sexual harassment misunderstandings and are afraid to be alone with a female technician as a result,” DeSousa said. “Education is key. Talk about what behaviors are and are not appropriate. Get the concerns aired and address them.”
THIS IS WHAT HVACR LOOKS LIKE
Domenikos had a personal connection: She grew up in a family business founded by her father and worked there through college doing billing, accounting, vetting of proposals, and generally learning the operational side of the business. She worked in corporate sales for Fortune 500 companies until the Great Recession hit and came to work for AirLogix in 2009 as project manager, where she focused on improving best practices. Since then, the company has tripled in size.
Much like Lott, Domenikos feels that many potential HVACR recruits — men and women both, but women in particular — just don’t know enough about the field. It’s going to take a marketing effort to recruit them, she said, and the HVACR field could do well to take a cue from the engineering, architecture, and construction fields — along the lines of the #thisiswhatascientistlookslike Instagram campaign to recruit more women to the STEM careers.
“There’s a lot of stigma about HVAC as a boys’ club,” she said. “It’s about changing the perception of the industry, because if you’re not in it, you don’t see it.”
Connecting potential female job candidates with another woman in the industry is something Domenikos believes in strongly. She got introduced to her own mentor, Jane Sidebottom, through WHVACR, and flew across the country to her home in Florida for a mentoring session.
“We basically did a two-day plane storm: revamping the strategic plan … a lot of it is stuff we’re still being able to roll out, to date,” she said. “She’s been really instrumental in helping me uplevel, think outside the box.”
When AirLogix interviews a woman for a job at the company, Domenikos always sits in.
“It’s seeing someone who is female in leaderships, and we can talk about opportunities,” she explained. “It’s helping paint the picture that you’re not just being hired for here: There are options in the industry.”
That’s another point that’s commonly overlooked, she said: the importance of transferable skills.
“If you’re skilled in this business, even if you don’t stay in HVAC — move to electrical, plumbing — other things can open up to you,” she said. “That, to me, is one of the biggest selling points. There’s a big, big talent crisis in the field, so for young women who maybe don’t want to take the academic path and grow into a business-type career, it’s a great potential. Not only is it a challenging and dynamic opportunity with a lot of potential for growth as long as you’re willing to work for it, it’s also untapped in many markets, even rural markets. If you know this industry, know this business, you really can work anywhere in the world.”
Going forward, Domenikos hopes to see a heavier presence of women in HVACR, not only on the front lines as techs but in the executive and leadership ranks as well.
“If you’re courageous enough to be in this business, someone who has talent and courage can really succeed,” she said. “Women have a lot to bring to the table. It can bring balance to a heavily male-dominated industry — and I do think we’re headed there.”
Publication date: 9/3/2018