Heating, and Refrigeration News
"Female Techs: Low Numbers, But Plenty of Opportunity"
In a Male-Dominiated Field, Women Make Their Mark.
January 24th, 2001, by Heidi Nye
|According to the
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2,000 women worked as
hvacr technicians in 1999. Though it represents less than
1% of the total 310,000, the number still surprises most
people, who figure that females who lift compressors for
a living are about as rare as chillers in Alaska.
“That’s cool,” says Terri Jacobs, a
service technician in Austin, TX. “I had no idea
there were so many of us.”
Still, Jacobs is one of only six women Austin’s
Capital City Trade and Technical School has certified
in hvacr repair in the last 10 years, says instructor
Donna Thompson. And, in Thompson’s eyes, that’s
“A lot of women are terrified of letting a male
technician into their home,” says Thompson. “They
may be elderly or have been battered or raped. There’s
a huge demand for females in the residential end of the
Thompson believes she knows. She was a service technician
for 17 years.
“When I’d go out on a call, I’d see
the apprehension in women’s faces when they saw
the uniform,” she says. “Then I’d see
that apprehension disappear when they’d see I was
Thompson is not unusual in saying that she got into the
profession “purely by accident.” She had been
working for a fireplace manufacturer and was promoted
to head a department.
“I was totally shocked that I had mechanical inclinations,”
she says. “Originally, I thought about the auto
industry, but on a tour of the school I’m teaching
at now, I found my forte in the a/c lab."
|A LONG, WINDING
ROAD TO A CAREER
Kelli Hollingsworth, of Carrier Corp. in the City of Industry,
CA, is a former receptionist, fast-food manager, locksmith,
and facility manager for a clothing chain. What she enjoyed
most about facilities was monitoring temperatures at the
“If the compressors were on but I couldn’t
tell what was wrong online, I had to call an a/c service
person,” she says.
When she found herself a divorced single mom, Hollings-worth
took a friend’s advice and enrolled in the apprenticeship
program at Local 250’s Joint Journey-man and Apprentice
Training Center for Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
in Los Angeles. After four years of construction work
and another six months of a/c service at Cal-Air in Whittier,
CA, Hollings-worth began to learn the programming aspects
of automated hvacr systems and is currently working at
a Southland amusement park.
likes the independence of being an hvacr technician.
a specialty area,” she says, “but one that’s
growing. In years to come, more and more businesses will
need energy-efficient systems.
“I actually like the physical aspects of hvac work,
but I’m 5 ft, 5 in. and 140 pounds. I’m strong
enough to get by, but if I had to change compressors every
day, it would take a toll on my body before I reached
“I plan on staying in controls. I definitely can
see myself here for the next 30 years.”
Like Hollingsworth, Deb Pinnell had many jobs before becoming
a technician at Air-Flo in Sequim, WA. Before turning
to hvacr, Pinnell was a Forest Service firefighter and
surveyor, a bookkeeper at a drug store, a physical therapy
technician, a landscaper, and a paper mill worker.
“The mill was closing, and I heard that Air-Flo
had openings,” she explains.
So, she took a 2 1/2-month crash course to become certified.
She’s been with Air-Flo now for 6 years.
Jacobs, on the other hand, took an even harder road to
get to where she is today.
“I’d never worked a day in my life until February
of ’98,” she says. “While I was incarcerated
for four and a half years, I learned heating and air conditioning.
The foreman, Tom Loeman, helped me find my niche. He changed
“There were five other women on the crew, but they
didn’t care about the work like I did. Every morning
when I wake up, I say thank you for Tom Loeman. He gave
me a chance to have a life."
“At the end of the day, sure, I’m dirty and
tired, but I feel good that I’ve put in an honest,
hard day’s work.”
"A lot of women are terrified of letting a male
technician into their home. They may be elderly or have
been battered or raped. There’s a huge demand for
females in the residential end of the business."
TO WIN COWORKER"S RESPECT
At 5 ft, 3 in. and 105 pounds, Jacobs says her male coworkers
“sometimes doubt if I can do the lifting, but I
tell them to lift one side, I’ll get the other.
They’re flabbergasted that I can actually lift my
side of an a/c unit. That’s part of where I get
"Sure, I lift compressors,"
Pinnell says, then adds with a chuckle, "I have a better
back than the guys!" What keeps Jacobs’ interest
is the challenge.
Deb Pinnell held
a variety of jobs before establishing a careeer in hvac.
“I like the challenge of the work,” she says.
“You’re always running up against a problem
you need to figure out. If a woman likes to be mentally
and physically challenged, this is for her. Go for it
because you’ll enjoy it.”
Jacobs says she’s “never been one to sit still.
All my life I’ve been a tomboy. I enjoyed fixing
things, doing things with my hands. Now I get paid to
For Pinnell, the job means independence.
“I like the independence of it and that I’m
not confined to an office,” she says. “I’m
gone all day on my own. I’m not behind a desk. I’m
The main reason for her entering the field, however, was
“it’s a steady job, and that’s hard
to come by in a rural area. I love where I’m living
and I’d take any job — I did take any job
— to be able to stay here. Now I’ve got a
job I can count on. I don’t have to worry about
the mill closing.”
Hollingsworth is just perplexed that more women do not
enter the field.
“Honestly, I don’t know why women don’t
enter the trade,” she says. “When I tell women
about the pay, they’re real interested. But then
they don’t want to break a nail or wear a hard hat
or get their hair messed up.
“Sure, my hands get dirty, but dirt washes off.
I own a house, I’ve got a vacation home, and in
a couple of years I’m going to buy a nice, new Suburban.
A little dirt is totally worth it.”
SIDEBAR 1: No Easy Task Promoting the Profession to
Donna Thompson just shakes her head.
“If someone would have told me back in high school
that I could do this,” says the hvacr technician-turned-instructor,
“I would have been doing this a long time ago. Someone
needs to be telling girls, ‘Hey! There’s stuff
you can do out here that you don’t even know about.’”
Ruth King, president of the American Contractors Exchange,
maintains that women are not highly represented in the
industry “because it’s never been promoted
“High school guidance counselors think everyone
should go to college, so that’s what they promote.
But college isn’t for everyone. It’s going
to take one huge educational process in high school to
get the message out that this is a profession that welcomes
women. Better yet, start the process in junior high.”
In contrast, hvac automation specialist Kelli Hollingsworth
contends that “we need mature women, maybe even
those who already have children.
“They know they have to support themselves and their
kids,” she explains. “And they have to have
a good job to do that. I was 25 when I got into the field.
I think we’d be more successful if we targeted women
who aren’t fresh out of high school, women who have
a better idea of what they want.”
THERE MUST BE 50 WAYS... Condensing ideas from these
and other women working in the field, a list of recommendations
emerges as to what you, your boss, your company, your
coworkers, and your union can do to promote the profession
high school counselors know that becoming an hvacr
technician is an option for women, too.
- Participate in junior high and high school career days and
mentoring or job-shadowing programs.
to your daughters, wives, girlfriends, sisters, and
mothers about what you do for a living. If they show
an interest in the profession, encourage them.
with women at your place of business who are currently
in administrative or other office positions but who
show mechanical aptitude or have expressed an interest
in “doing something different.” If there’s
sufficient interest, sponsor a lunch-hour seminar
on what the work of an hvacr technician entails.
- Display common courtesy and respect to those women already
in the field. Don’t assume they can’t
do the job.
Working With Male Coworkers: The Good and Bad
Being a female technician in a male-dominated field is
not all that intimidating. Well, kinda.
“Ninety percent of the men are very helpful, very
supportive,” says Southern Californian Kelli Hollingsworth.
“A very few don’t want to see me working too
hard, putting that much stress on my body. And a very,
very few — so few it’s almost not worth mentioning
— will tell you a woman doesn’t belong in
the field, that she should be home in the kitchen.”
Deb Pinnell, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, echoed
“The guys I work with are great,” she says.
“Most are my age or younger, so they don’t
think twice about having a woman do the job.”
Texan Terri Jacobs did not necessarily agree.
“It’s hard out there in a man’s field,”
she says. “Because you’re a woman, some men
don’t think you can do the job — especially
the ones who have been in the field 20 or 30 years. With
them, you have to work 10 times as hard to prove you can
Jacobs says, however, that “a lot of the guys I’ve
made friends with have been very supportive and accept
me for my ability to do my job. They admire me for working
hard right beside them. A woman who can lift a/c units
just like they can, some men really like that in a woman.”
DIFFERENT REACTIONS But certainly not all men,
as Jacobs can attest. Her experience with a former employer
“turned out real bad,” she says. Having graduated
from Austin’s Capital City Trade and Technical School
in March of last year, Jacobs was eager to put into practice
all she had learned.
“But they didn’t give me a chance. They didn’t
want me in the field and made me warehouse manager instead.
I’d been highly recommended by the school, so that’s
why they hired me, but they wouldn’t let me do the
work I was trained to do. I told my boss I went to school
to be out in the field, servicing air conditioners and
heating units. I didn’t want to keep track of units
in the warehouse. I wanted to fix them.”
Sue Carlin, placement director at Capital City Trade and
Technical School, says her best friend is a welder “and
has been a welder for 10 years. You can’t tell her
this is man’s work. She’s the type of woman
who, if you tell her she can’t do that, she’ll
say, ‘Stand back. Watch me.’ And that’s
how Terri [Jacobs] is too.”
Donna Thompson, currently an instructor at Capital City
Trade and Technical School, where she was once an hvacr
student, says her experience as a service technician from
the mid-80s on “was very positive. I never had any
problems with the guys. Most were retired military workaholics
who’d been in the business since I was in diapers.
As long as I pulled my weight, I didn’t have any
problems from my coworkers.”
But Thompson does have a story about a few pesky customers.
Sent out to repair a compressor on a window unit, Thompson
was met by “some young boys who said, ‘You’re
gonna fix it, huh?’ When they saw me unloading the
vacuum pump and other equipment, they shut up, figuring
I knew what I was doing.
"Then I saw the old man, the owner, coming out to see
what was going on. He was squinting, a bit nearsighted,
with a sour expression on his face, like ‘What are
you doing here?’ I got a little nervous, thinking,
‘Now what’s gonna happen?’ When he got
a little closer, he looked me over real good and said,
‘Well, thank God it’s a woman! For a moment,
I thought they’d sent a hippie!"
Heidi Nye is a writer/editor who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Reprinted with permission from achrnews.com