Women-owned businesses are thriving. Currently, 9.4 million women-owned businesses are operating in the U.S. in 2015 — employing more than 7.9 million people and generating nearly $1.5 trillion in revenue, according to the 2015 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report from American Express.
Additionally, between 1997 and 2015, the number of women-owned businesses increased at a rate one and a half times the national average, the report said.
However, the construction industry lags behind, as only 7 percent of such firms are owned by women. And, even fewer women work as technicians in the HVAC field. Just 1.2 percent of the workforce was female in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Yet, despite the data, female professionals in the HVAC industry said they’re seeing more and more women entering the field.
Kelly Eustice, COO of Heating & Plumbing Engineers Inc. (HPE) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, represents the third generation of her family to lead HPE. She and her husband took over the company following her father’s retirement in 2004.
Originally serving as CEO and company president, she and her husband elected to switch titles, as she felt she was more of an asset to the business in an operations role.
“I really found a home in the field, so I took over field operations,” Eustace said. “I like being out in the field; it’s where I’m the most comfortable and confident.
“I love that tradesfolk have such pride in what they do,” she continued. “That’s what gets me going in the morning. It’s why I come to work. I want to see all of them succeed.”
Eustace, who was recently honored with the 2015 Women of Influence Award from theColorado Springs Business Journal, said she was proud to have one woman in HPE’s union apprenticeship program and another in its piping and plumbing apprenticeship program.
“I don’t think there are challenges in this industry as a woman,” Eustace said. “I look at everybody as individuals. And there are a lot more women in our industry than there have ever been. Everyone I’ve come across or worked with has been extremely respectful and supportive of my success. A lot of women don’t see the opportunities that exist, and they’re not around enough women who work in these roles to realize all the benefits a career in this industry can afford them.”
SUPPORTING FEMALE LEADERSHIP
Earlier this year, the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association’s (SMACNA’s) Board of Directors created a steering council for women in construction management leadership. The council is dedicated to mentoring women who aspire to leadership positions in member companies and chapters. Carol Duncan, owner and president of Clackamas, Oregon-based General Sheet Metal, is one of eight women on the council.
“It’s important to continue to pave the path for the next generation,” Duncan said. “I have a 24-year-old daughter who is currently one of our project managers. She’s my succession plan, and I want to make sure she’s surrounded with women she can draw leadership experiences and knowledge from.”
The council will provide guidance on leadership, labor, and technical issues through professional development, education, and networking. The eight council members met for the first time at SMACNA’s national convention in September and plan to build on the input collected for 2016.
Duncan said the trades run in her veins, as she purchased General Sheet Metal from her father and uncle. Of its 110 employees, two project managers and three technicians are women.
“Business is about relationships — taking a client out for a drink after work, playing golf, or even having lunch,” Duncan said. “The men in my firm build relationships while hunting, fishing, and taking their kids out together for a weekend football game. As women, it’s hard to make those types of connections. I attend events and forums involving groups, but making connections and maintaining them is a longer process. I think, as women, we have to work harder to prove ourselves.”
WOMEN IN MANUFACTURING
The HVACR industry affords many opportunities for women, and not all are on the contracting side. Georgia Berner, president and CEO, Berner Intl. Corp., said several women hold several key positions at her company.
Berner took over the company in 1984 after her husband passed away. “There wasn’t anyone else to do it, and I knew I could do a really good job, which I have,” she said.
In those 30-plus years, Berner said she’s faced many challenges, but she sees them as business challenges, regardless of what gender you are. “If you don’t own the company, then women may face some serious challenges. There’s a mindset and a culture that states a male has to do this. That’s not true. Females do the same things equally as well, sometimes even better. Sometimes they have to do it better to get the position.”
Jessie Meyers, a research and development engineer at Semco LLC, a Fläkt Woods company, first became interested in mechanical engineering by working with her dad in his home wood/metal shop. “Growing up, I did a lot of things with him in the shop, which included everything from woodworking to welding. My dad served in the military as a helicopter pilot, so I also had the opportunity to climb around in Huey and Chinook helicopters. The combination of tinkering in the shop and seeing the fleets of complicated helicopters jumpstarted my interest in engineering.
“Now, as a research and development engineer, I typically take a new product from the design stage through testing and listing requirements and then create all the information required for producing it at our manufacturing plant,” she continued. “I also spend time in the production facility to make sure our computer-aided design can actually be manufactured realistically and efficiently.”
Meyers said Semco’s corporate culture is very woman-friendly, but college was very different.
“Many times, I found myself being the only woman in some of the mechanical engineering classes, and there were only a few women in the major,” Meyers noted. “Luckily, I had roommates and professors who supported me if any peers were disrespectful toward my career choice. Many teenage girls have self-esteem and confidence issues. Entering into a male-dominated field after high school can exacerbate the problem. Some men see female mechanical engineers as intimidating and some women may treat you resentfully.”
Jennifer Gregory, a design drafter at Semco, agreed with Meyers about the atmosphere at work. “I haven’t noticed any challenges due to my gender so far in my career, but there are other women here at Semco who work in similar fields which makes it easier.”
Gregory grew up on job sites, as both her mother and stepfather worked for an HVAC company. Her father also had ties to the mechanical industry, working as an independent contractor. And, while she has not faced any challenges in her career at Semco, she believes her gender may have complicated her initial job search. “I’m not sure if being a woman made it tougher to get my first job after graduation, but it did take a while to get one.”
ENCOURAGING WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE
Employment of HVACR mechanics and installers is projected to grow 21 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS. Though, many in the industry are concerned that companies may be unable to attract enough skilled talent to fill the positions. One solution could be encouraging more women to pursue careers in the trades.
Recruiting women to the trades is a big initiative for Women in HVACR — a woman-centric organization formed to further further the growth of women in all areas of the HVACR industry.
“There’s a huge shortage of skilled workers, and women can certainly be part of the solution,” said Ruth Ann Davis, president, Women in HVACR. “We’re reaching out to technical schools, junior high schools, high schools, and beyond. We’re aiming to get young people thinking about the HVACR industry as a career opportunity.”
There’s an old saying: “You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Dina Dwyer-Owens, co-chair, The Dwyer Group, holding company of eleven service franchise brands, including Air Serv Heating & Air Conditioning. “If there is a lack of female representation in the HVAC industry, it starts with them not knowing what’s available to them. But, it’s an obstacle that we can overcome. The more we can communicate that these opportunities exist for women, the more women will pursue these careers.”
Approximately 7 percent of The Dwyer Group’s service-brand locations are owned by women. Dwyer-Owens said The Dwyer Group has no problem adding locations, but finding enough qualified service professionals is a hurdle.
In 2012, the Dwyer Group launched the Women in the Trades program, which awards scholarships every spring and fall semester. Since its creation, $27,000 has been awarded to 18 recipients across the U.S.
“The strongest encouragement for women is to see other women succeeding in the business,” she continued. “Those stories are the inspiration for what is possible. It makes success much more tangible. With the skilled trades shortage growing larger each day, it’s imperative to begin changing the perception of a woman’s ability to excel in the trade professions.”
Berner said the hard part is getting the word out to women that it’s a good field to be in. “HVAC is not particularly glamorous, but it’s very steady. HVAC has lots of opportunities for women in terms of service and distribution organizations.”
According to Duncan, getting women to pursue a career in the industry is all about exposure to the opportunities. “When we had shop classes in junior high and high school, there was a chance that young women would be exposed to some type of construction. In Oregon, we have Oregon Tradeswomen, which reaches down to girls in junior high and high school to give them exposure. There are other tradeswomen organizations across the country that have similar programs. The momentum is building — it will just take time.”