Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
Women in the male-dominated field of commercial/industrial HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) are challenging the industry stereotype, proving their value and helping fill a labor gap created by the aging population. Many baby boomers have reached the ends of their careers, and many more will retire within the next 10 years. That is leading to a severe shortage of skilled trades workers, and other roles that support the industry, making it necessary to look outside of the usual job pool to fill empty positions.
“There are few female role models in this industry,” said Kara Boeckel, an HVAC technician at HB McClure Company, one of the oldest and largest HVAC commercial service companies in the U.S. “That’s something that needs to change, and soon,” she adds. By sharing the stories of women thriving in the commercial/industrial HVAC service industries, HB McClure believes they can play a leading role in encouraging new female talent to consider a career in an industry that is experiencing a global trades shortage.
“Working in the HVAC industry is not limited to being a technician,” said HB McClure’s Director of Business Development Shelly Matter. “The industry offers careers in engineering, project management, sales and more. The opportunities are endless! It is a strong, growing industry and being part of it is professionally and personally rewarding. This is a win-win for women who are looking for rock-solid career opportunities and commercial contractors in dire need of talent.”
Women held 50 percent of American jobs in 2019, and yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2 percent of the HVAC labor force are women. That is still a boost: eight years ago, only 0.6 percent of the HVAC workforce was female.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, HVAC employment is expected to increase 15 percent through 2026. The growth rate, coupled with the current labor shortage, means technicians are needed to fill the estimated 115,000 new positions the industry expects to be available by 2022.
So, how well do women do in this male-dominated industry? Four HB McClure female employees share their stories, all full of optimism, enthusiasm and engagement.
Woman’s Work: “Yes, I’m an HVAC Technician.”
Kara Boeckel literally had a light bulb moment when she realized she wanted a career as an HVAC technician.
She was in her first term at trade school and the only woman in the class. The students had been given a tool bag and taught to read electrical schematics; now they were practicing on an electrical board. Kara wasn’t doing so well, blowing fuse after fuse. Then finally, the light bulb on the board went on: no fuses blown. Although it didn’t get any easier after that — people assumed a lack of capability compared to her male counterparts, and there were few female role models — she stayed committed to her journey.
Kara is one of many women who found their professional pathway in the commercial services industry. Predominantly considered “men’s work” because of the physical field work of the job (lugging heavy equipment and climbing onto roofs in snow, rain, sleet and heat), more women are finding rewarding work in the HVAC world. Starting with the company as an HVAC technician, and now working as a preventive maintenance coordinator at HB McClure, Kara’s peers help give her the support she needs, helping her get past the fear of being a minority in a male-dominated field. “Now, I don’t see being a female as a weakness,” she said. “I see it as a strength.”
This is What Job Security Looks Like. “HVAC Is Something Every Business Needs.”
Shelly Matter is another who did not allow gender disparity to become a barrier, but it definitely makes her navigate business differently. Instead of focusing on what others perceived as a limitation — no formal mechanical training — she emphasizes the expertise she brings to the table so she can maintain a high level of focus on customer service, follow-up and follow through. As HB McClure’s director of business development, she has been in the commercial/industrial HVAC industry for over 20 years. Formerly working with a large national company, she earned the distinguished Mark of Excellence award for sales performance; at the time the only female on the national team. Entering the industry as a single mom with three daughters, she saw commercial HVAC as a business that would always be needed — “a necessary service no matter what.”
Shelly is passionate about sharing the opportunities in HVAC with the next generation. “Students are not as exposed to the prospects in this industry. There is a global shortage of skilled tradespeople, male and female. After completing the required field training and certifications, you can grow your career from there — anything from foreman to project manager, engineering or sales, for example. We’re three generations deep at HB McClure. Even our CEO’s son has to complete his field work experience,” she said.
When Shelly makes her many presentations at expos, conferences and local school career fairs, the question she’s asked most often is “How much does it pay?” She lets the students know that it’s possible to make a generous living after establishing one’s capability and reliability. “I started from scratch, worked hard, spent time in the field, built relationships and was open to relocating to other areas of the country to grow my career,” she said. “I love what I do and can’t imagine not doing it.”
From Hair Salon to HVAC. “It’s All About How You Define Success. To Me, It’s Always About Bringing Value to Customers.”
Kelly Overlander has been in the service industry for years. Formerly the owner of a successful hair salon for more than 15 years, she sold her business and joined the mechanical trades industry. “I went from human beauty to helping beautify buildings," she said.
As a new business development representative at HB McClure, Overlander loves what she does. “My job delivers a variety of challenges and many opportunities for professional growth,” she said. “The best part is meeting wonderful customers and helping solve their commercial HVAC problems.”
The collection of shoes Overlander carries in her car, from heavy boots to pumps, attests to the different environments she finds herself in on the job: attending networking events, meeting with clients in their offices or on job sites. “I evaluate whether a potential client needs our resources, share the company’s offerings, trouble-shoot concerns and make sure the customer service is impeccable. I visit job sites and gather equipment information, but I don’t need to be an expert on the technical side. That is where I have the support of our team of skilled mechanics and engineers. As an employee owner I get to be the entrepreneur I am; bringing value to customers,” she said.
Encouraging More Women to Join the Industry “We Have to Change the Choices We Give Our Daughters When They Are Toddlers.”
So, what should be done to increase opportunities for women in the commercial/industrial HVAC industry?
Start by making a bigger impact at home, said Angela Klingler, a new business developer at HB McClure. “With children, from an early age, don’t stigmatize chores like dish washing or laundry or fixing cars as ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ chores. Why is it that only boys are supposed to do the ‘dirty’ work?”
Angela knows first-hand that this approach works. She worked beside her mechanic father at age 5, helping him by handing over whatever tool he asked for when repairing cars. She’s now walking the walk with her 9-year-old daughter who wants to start her own business designing t-shirts. “I’ll seed her plan, but she’ll have to do the leg work," she said.
Attracting and training more women into trade jobs like HVAC (only 2 percent of technicians were female in 2018) will require more than great support at home. What will it take to make the change? “More female trade school instructors,” said Kara. “Surrounding yourself with people that have the expertise that you do not and learning from their strengths,” said Kelly. “Mentoring, sharing industry opportunities,” added Shelly, “and partnering with organizations like the PCD (Partnership for Career Development where she serves as a board member) to help bridge the gap between industry and education.”
It all comes down to identifying what you are passionate about then marrying that with a career that aligns with those passions. If you do that you will never feel like you’re working a day in your life.
As Kara put it, “When you go to a nursing home and the heater isn’t working… you not only fix it but you’ve taken care of bringing warmth to someone’s grandmother… and she’s thanking you. Working in HVAC is very rewarding.”