Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
Earlier this year, TMB Publishing launched a newsletter geared specifically for women in the PHCP community. Each month, we have featured a woman who has showcased perseverance in the face of obstacles. These women set their goals and accomplished them, one by one. They shared their stories, as well as advice for the new generation.
Sue Jacobs: Plumbing is a woman’s job
Barriers are only obstacles if you don’t find a way around them. Master Plumber Sue Jacobs shares her story of how she does that every day.
A one-woman company, S. Jacobs Plumbing serves the needs of residential, commercial and industrial customers in Norwood, Massachusetts.
Owner Sue Jacobs worked for her father’s plumbing business while attending high school, and at the same time earning both her Journeyman and Master License in night school. Now, with more than 30 years of experience, she is the only woman in a fifth-generation family of Master Plumbers since 1895.
“I have experience with plumbing, heating, gasfitting, accounts receivable and payable, and marketing. I opened my own business in 2015 and enjoy every day of work,” Jacobs says.
Her journey into the world of plumbing wasn’t without challenges. “My father did not think that women could do plumbing,” Jacobs recalls. “I do have limitations as far as lifting heavy objects, but I always figure a way to get the job done.”
Jacobs didn’t let naysayers stand in her way. “I really didn’t even think about it,” she says. “I went back into plumbing in my 20s, and it was just a natural, instinctive decision. I love plumbing. Period.”
Jacobs is a member of both PHCC of Massachusetts and PHCC National. When she’s not taking on 5-10 daily scheduled plumbing and heating service jobs, she fundraises for Norwood Food Pantry, Norwood Football and Norwood NPA-TV.
She, and two other women plumbers from the Boston area, recently took on a new endeavor called “Ms. Fix It” Workshops. With the backing of PHCC National and PHCC of Massachusetts, the goal of the workshops is to educate young girls and boys about the industry and hopefully fill in the skilled worker gap.
“There is a seat for everyone,” Jacobs says. “Men, women, people of each nationality, sexual orientation, religion, etc. — if you are a little mechanically inclined, have the ability to follow directions and are hungry to learn, a trade may be a great opportunity.”
Jacobs approached the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts a little over a year ago and found that they were very receptive to her workshop ideas. “They don’t offer a Plumbing Badge, but do have a Woodworker Badge, so that is what we have been teaching girls, 8-18 years old. We are working on getting plumbing as an offered badge with Girls Scouts nationally.” Jacobs and the other two women plumbers also are planning on offering workshops to recreation departments, real estate brokers and other organizations.
“There has been a tremendous interest from various organizations, but we are in the start-up process and plan to start offering a Plumbing 101 Workshop by summer this year,” Jacobs says.
The three women are working with PHCC of Massachusetts to help open the trades to women. “We offer to each Girl Scout a ‘Take Home Gift Bag,’ which includes: Woodworking and Plumbing Helpful Hints Handouts, PHCC Coloring Books, Plumbing Word Search, carpenters pencils, notepads, erasers, etc. We would like to partner up with national companies that could supply us with these items (with their logo, of course),” Jacobs says.
We are now seeing a shortage of tradespeople across the country. The average age of licensed plumbers nationally is between 55-57. Twenty-five percent of licensed plumbers retired in 2016 with less than that amount signed up to become an apprentice.
“I feel it is my obligation to introduce girls and boys to the opportunity to learn a trade, assist customers, work honest and hard and perform quality workmanship for a reasonable price, which equals to a reasonable wage and a good living,” Jacobs says.
When asked what advice she would give to other women who want to pursue a career in plumbing, Jacobs proudly says, “Don’t underestimate your capability. Stick to it! You can do it, even if you think you can’t. You might not have the muscle strength, but your brain is your strongest muscle and everything is possible. There is ALWAYS a way of doing the job at hand.
We couldn’t agree more.
Renee Joseph: From wanderer to leader
This woman’s journey in the HVAC industry wasn’t defined by limitations. She paved her own path and came out on top.
On a dare. That’s how Renee Joseph, vice president of Global Customer and Sales Enablement for Johnson Controls (JCI) began her journey into the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration industry more than 30 years ago. “I’m an artist. I’m a classical pianist," Joseph says. “But it is very difficult to make a living playing the piano.”
Working for a placement director at a local technical college in La Crosse, Wisconsin in the 1980s, Joseph was dared to apply for a position at the Trane company. “He approached me and said there was a position at Trane headquarters,” Joseph recalls. “He said, ‘They only hire men, and they only hire engineers. Let’s see if we can get you in!’”
Without any experience or working knowledge of the HVACR industry, Joseph accepted the position of application engineer assistant. “I was basically a gofer,” she says. “I would pull drawings and wiring diagrams and help the engineers get ready to troubleshoot problems with chillers on rooftops or air handlers across the globe.”
She didn’t stay in that position for long. Relying on her intuition and boldness, Joseph was promoted to overseeing the global warranty department, and then the aftermarket parts business, and eventually to leading global strategy and marketing for the company.
“I was very fortunate that the men at the company really took me under their wings. They took me with them to jobs to show me how the equipment worked, and I picked up very quickly. Not technically, but I understood what it was we were really trying to deliver to our customers,” Joseph recalls.
Her coworkers were helpful, but it was Joseph’s ability to recognize where the company needed improvements that ultimately escalated her career path.
“I was handling a lot of warranty issues and realized that the processes in place were not very good. They didn’t track warranty claims or how long it would take to resolve,” she recalls. With each observation, Joseph put together a business case on areas for improvement. She requested meetings with top executives and discussed her suggestions. “That opened up many doors,” she says.
The wandering artist had secured a 20-year success story at Trane, creating her own path every step of the way.
As women often do, Joseph took a step back from her career to be a caregiver in 2000. “I left for about 10 years after my father was diagnosed with cancer, and didn’t plan on returning to work,” Joseph recalls.
After losing both of her parents Joseph needed to fill her time with something productive, and found a calling back to the industry she embraced on a dare many years ago. In 2010, she re-entered the industry accepting a position at JCI in the global warranty department.
“Soon after, I went to an ASHRAE conference and noticed there were so few women there,” she recalls. “I remember walking the show and seeing a booth for Women in HVACR, and thought I should get involved in that.”
The challenges for women in the industry had not changed much from when Joseph was the only woman working in a non-administrative role at Trane. And when she came across Women in HVACR — an organization that works to provide professional avenues to connect with other women growing their careers in the HVACR industry through networking opportunities, mentoring and education — she picked up where she left off 10 years prior.
Joseph introduced herself to the group, got involved, taught a few workshops on personal development and was recently asked to join the board of directors.
She sits on the Outreach and Sponsorship Committee where she hopes to double the number of people applying for scholarships this year. “We have a list of 30 or so colleges and universities that are technical schools that have programs in HVAC,” she says. “We are reaching out to educators to try and get people aware that we have scholarships, and we plan to go out and talk to those schools about the importance of women and what they can do, and how successful they can be.”
It’s about creating awareness and being bold
From the start of her career and up until this point, Joseph has recognized that one of the biggest challenges for women in this industry is to be taken seriously — by others, and introspectively. “We have a lot of things we can offer,” she states.
Joseph plans on meeting with the Girl Scouts of America to reach out to younger girls. She also plans to meet with the creators of Roominate — a construction set created by two women looking to inspire young girls to enter the STEM field — to see if she can get them to include HVAC pieces into their models.
“The sky’s the limit, and you shouldn’t be constrained by anything,” Joseph says to young girls. “Whatever it is you decide you want to do, just do it. Be confident and pursue whatever you see that’s interesting to you. Don’t set any limitations.”
Joseph speaks from experience. She entered an industry that was completely foreign to her and made it her own by taking risks and speaking up.
Today Joseph leads a team that’s responsible for building channel sales capabilities across the globe including playbooks, best practices, Ease of Doing Business technology solutions and sales and customer facing training and loyalty programs critical to JCI's transformation.
That’s a long path traveled, and she’s not done yet.
Joseph has teamed up with 24 other thought leaders at JCI, as part of a STEM Re-entry Task Force initiative driven by the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch.
Together, under the leadership of Linda Chapin, vice president of human resources at JCI, they have launched the Next Chapter, which offers employment opportunities for women in STEM fields who are returning to the workforce after a two- or more-year break in their careers.
Joseph is hopeful for the future of the industry, and women’s seat at the table. She cautions however, “We have to begin to create a compelling message.”
She doesn’t look at a HVACR system and see a product made of parts, but rather a complete system that impacts the lives of everyone. “We have to really reframe what we are as an industry,” she says. “We impact the lives of people everywhere; where they live, work and play. We make people’s space safe, secure and comfortable.”
Messaging is important if we are to reach and recruit a more inclusive workforce.
As for women who are already in, or considering the industry, Joseph says, “Get comfortable. Be bold. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Joseph’s journey in the industry was unique in many regards. But her challenges echo those of many women.
“As a gender-based group, we have to be more confident and bold and be risk-takers,” she says. “Don’t be discouraged. If something doesn’t work one way, then regroup. Rally the hill another way. I’ve had to go up some hills several different times to get over them.”
Joseph encourages women in the industry to join the groups that we have available, make connections, and build relationships.
“Tell other people about what you are doing. Be the advocate for what we do in the industry,” she says.
Melissa Coolidge creates her own path to success
Since childhood, this woman has put an emphasis on individuality and ambition as cornerstones of success.
Melissa Coolidge, eastern region sales manager for Matco-Norca grew up on the outskirts of a small town in northern Pennsylvania. “At an early age,” she says, “I was encouraged to work hard and figure things out for myself.” This type of learn-as-you-go process continued into her adult years. “From cars to mowers to plumbing and more, I enjoy do-it-yourself challenges.”
That frame of mind has served Coolidge well in her position as a regional sales manager. “I am faced with lots of challenges,” she says. “But I can’t say that these challenges arise because I am a woman; they are part of the job.”
Coolidge’s main role is to work with company representatives and her management team in providing quality products at competitive prices to her customers. She is responsible for covering 15 states from Indiana and Kentucky east to Virginia and north to Maine.
“I have had customers quiz me about my knowledge of our products and know how,” she says. But Coolidge certainly doesn’t see this as a challenge only women face. “I don’t focus on being a woman in a male-dominated industry. I actually seldom think about it at all.”
Coolidge started in manufacturing at the age of 18. She took evening classes in college while working for GTE/OSRAM SYLVANIA as a buying assistant. She worked her way up to a buyer, and then a consultant. “I can tell you, I have never laid out a plan for my career,” Coolidge says. “I basically focus on what I’m doing at the present time, and when an opportunity presents itself, I don’t feel obligated or disappointed that I didn’t stick to my plan.”
She says she admires people that can map it out, but for her, that’s a lot of pressure to try and guess where you want to be some day down the road without really knowing all of your options.
In her early 30s, Coolidge and her friend invented and patented a product that became successful. This new career was far from the manufacturing setting she got her start in, but fell perfectly in line with her hard work ethic and willingness to “figure it out.” She completely flipped her career path to health care development for eight years, again, far outside of anything she would have planned, but it worked. A few years ago, Coolidge decided she wanted a new challenge and found her way to Matco-Norca.
“I like what I do,” she says. “If you know your products and can talk about them to customers with knowledge and confidence, you will succeed and earn their respect and trust. If you don’t know something, you can learn. It all depends on how much you apply yourself going forward.”
When faced with challenges, Coolidge says she focuses on how to handle the situation in the most positive way possible. “You can only learn and grow from such things. Face it straight on and trust in yourself, but also consider others’ points of view.”
It seems Coolidge took that advice as a child to figure things out and make it work. When asked to define herself, she simply says, “I don’t know if I do define myself.” Coolidge describes herself as a very independent person, a forward thinker and an encourager.
“Still no master plan,” she says. “I am very happy where I am right now. Since I started with Matco-Norca, I feel I have found a company that I respect and truly enjoy working for, customers I want to retain and grow with, many that have become good friends, and co-workers that are simply the best on all levels, personally and professionally.”
Women in Industry
At the American Supply Association (ASA) Women in Industry 2017 Spring Conference, held April 26-28 at the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown in Austin, Texas, Coolidge was encouraged to see young women from Texas A&M University apply their knowledge and skillset in the industry. She adds that we should also look beyond universities to recruit talent; the message should be more universal. “I would tell any young woman that this industry has plenty of room for her if she applies herself and has a willingness to learn,” Coolidge says.
The industry is huge, and we should paint a picture that shows just how exciting it can be. “I can tell you, my days are filled with plenty of action,” Coolidge says. “From customer visits to working with reps to traveling, my day is packed full, and it keeps me on my toes.”
As for young girls considering entering the industry, Coolidge says, “I would tell them to apply. It’s that simple. If they see a job they find interesting in our industry, they should go for it!”
Coolidge says many people, especially young women, don’t apply for jobs because they feel they aren’t qualified. “I can assure you, if you don’t apply and take the chance, you’ll definitely never get the job.”
She encourages young women to call someone in the industry and ask for advice. She urges women to reach out to local people in the trades, sales reps or wholesalers and observe what they do for a few days/weeks. It’s important to learn about all the ways products are used in the industry. “The opportunity is out there,” she says. “And those who have been in our industry for years know we need younger people to join our us.”
This was Coolidge’s first ASA event, and she decided to attend because she believes it’s a great way to meet and connect with other women. “The women I’ve met so far in the industry, whether they are selling, managing or buying, are all strong, confident women, but each has her own style. I find what each of them do interesting; a lot can be learned from them.”
In regards to other networking events for women in the industry, CooIidge says, “I would encourage everyone to see themselves as an individuals. Seek out events in the industry that would expand your knowledge and network.”
Mary Phelps is not afraid of the devil
Breaking barriers and setting her own high expectations, Mary Phelps found her way into the plumbing industry.
“I’ve always been somebody who wanted to be successful in life and do the best that I can do,” says Mary Phelps, strategic accounts manager, health care leader, Sloan. “I want to be known as someone you can count on, someone who is knowledgeable and respected.”
Phelps has held these beliefs from the word go, and she’s integrated principles in her life to allow her to live up to these self-imposed expectations.
They’ve served her well.
A graduate of Texas A&M University (TAMU), Phelps completed the Industrial Distribution (ID) program in 1982 and set forth in a career path paved with challenges, and rewards.
“From the time I was in middle school, I wanted to be in design,” Phelps recalls. “But then I received a full scholarship from Exxon to attend my local community college.” Exxon awarded scholarships in the hopes that students would opt to be lab techs for its research and development division, or would go on to get their chemical engineering degree and come back to work for the company. Phelps always knew she would go on to graduate from TAMU, but she switched direction once she enrolled.
“Chemical engineering and I didn’t really get along so I transferred into the ID program.”
You can tell the pride she has in the program by the way she describes it.
“The ID program, in my opinion, is one of the most well-rounded programs at TAMU. I took everything from marketing and management classes to business law, engineering, and even a welding class. You take these different classes that make you more marketable to any sales organization, but also to the manufacturing or supply-chain industry. It’s a very well-rounded degree, and there are many opportunities once you graduate.”
From knowledge to practice
Phelps took her well-rounded training and education out into the workforce and began her career working for Brown Oil Tools selling down hole fishing equipment for oil rigs.
“Training was actually on the rigs,” she says. “As you can imagine, that was a very male-dominated industry with very few females.” After the oil bust of the early 80s, the company laid off the entire training program and permanently closed the doors two years later.
Phelps didn’t let the setback dissuade her ambition. Instead, she joined the plumbing industry in 1984 and never looked back. For 32 years, she worked for American Standard in varying roles and capacities. She gained a lot of experience, both through successes and challenges.
“The challenges came from the industry I called on, not my employers,” Phelps insists. Early in her career, she was tasked with calling on wholesalers. At that time, she says, “every single person who worked with one particular wholesaler, whether it was the outside salesman or inside salesman, people in the warehouse, drivers, whoever, made it very known that they didn’t want to work with me because I was a woman.”
Obviously that presented a challenge. Phelps says she talked to the manager who told her he would talk to the men, and in fact, he had a meeting with all of them to say, “You will work with Mary, and you will give her an opportunity. You will allow her to sink or swim, but either way, you will give her the opportunity to do her job.”
Phelps says she felt that this wholesaler’s manager was her mentor at the time. “This guy could have easily said to me that I don’t want the trouble of hearing it from my employees. But he didn’t do that. He gave me a shot. I have always felt grateful to him for going out on a limb. In 1984, that was big.”
Phelps was the first female factory rep in the city of Houston. She recalls having to deal with inappropriate comments, actions and attitudes. “There isn’t much I wasn’t confronted with,” she says. “But my parents instilled a good work ethic in me and constantly told me I could do or be anything I wanted. They told me that I was intelligent enough, had the gumption and drive to succeed. My mother use to tell me I wasn’t afraid of the devil, and I do believe that’s right. So, my challenges made me more determined to succeed. I was going to prove anyone wrong who thought a woman didn’t belong in this industry.”
She not only proved to her mentor and the men in the industry that she was more than capable of doing her job, but she also proved that she was a force to be reckoned with.
After 32 years at American Standard, Phelps was presented with an offer from Sloan and a new challenge and opportunity. They were developing a new department called strategic accounts, and she was contacted to gauge her interest. “I wasn’t necessarily interested in leaving at first, but after several months of consideration, I made the decision to leave.”
In her current role, she does a little bit of everything, which is perfect for a woman with a well-rounded track record. “I am ultimately responsible for a whole range of products,” Phelps says. “My key accounts are architectural firms, mechanical and plumbing engineer firms, designers, mechanical contractors, wholesalers and even some plumbers. I go out and educate these industries about our products. I get in front of them and get them familiar with our products and our company, and start working with them on projects.”
Phelps says both companies she’s worked for employ women in leadership roles and are very supportive of them. “I had many opportunities at American Standard to advance, but some of them required moving, and we had to make decisions to balance my husband’s career and mine financially, as well as the family.”
Stake your claim
Phelps has worked hard for all her accomplishments. And she has done it because of personal choice. When asked what advice would she give to young girls when it comes to planning their professional futures, she simply says, “Pursue something you love, or at least like a lot.”
Every professional decision Phelps has made has been a direct result of weighing what is important to her, and how that will impact everything else she loves. “You will spend an enormous amount of time at work, and you need to enjoy it, be challenged by it and grow/develop by it,” she adds. “Know that you can do anything; you are just as qualified as anyone else. Have confidence in yourself. Be trustworthy and credible. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Find a company that respects, values and appreciates you.”
The challenges will always be there, regardless of industry, or decade. Women have certainly come a long way in the professional sphere, particularly in the plumbing industry. “I think there is significantly more acceptance of women,” Phelps says. “I always felt like I had an obligation to try and make attitudes about women better by my body of work and actions. I have three daughters, and my hope was that they would not encounter the problems I did as they became professionals and went out into the workforce. I do honestly think it’s better. Certainly not without challenges, but better than in the early 80s.”
One of the same challenges women face today has to do with being dissuaded from entering the industry. Phelps had a conversation with a young lady who is getting ready to graduate from TAMU. “She had an interview with a woman in HR from a waterworks company who told her that this industry (waterworks) is male-dominated, and she would not want to work there,” Phelps recalls. “That made my blood boil! Every person has the right to pursue their dream whether it’s professional or personal. That decision should be yours. Don’t let someone else dictate to you what you should or should not do.”
Phelps says if she had listened to that kind of advice, she never would have been in the plumbing industry, which has provided her very fulfilling career. “Go get what you want, it’s not going to come to you. You may get push back, but work hard to be the best you can be,” she says.
When I ask Phelps to define herself, she says, “I am a TAMU ID grad, class of ’82. I’ve been in the plumbing industry since 1984. I’ve been married for 34 years, have 3 daughters and am Nana to 3 grandchildren. I think of myself as driven and ambitious.”
Driven and ambitious sound about right. I’d add accomplished to that list too.
Phelps is still going strong and is looking ahead to what else she can do. Though she hasn’t been involved in a mentoring program, she says it is something she would like to pursue at this stage of her career and life.
“After talking to some of the ID students at ASA’s Women in Industry, I felt that I have something of value to offer them,” she says. “I want to help them, not by making decisions for them, but by proposing the ideas and questions that will help them, in their own mind, formulate their own ideas about where they want to go with their career.”
In her never-ending pursuit of being known as “someone you can count on, someone who is knowledgeable and respected,” Phelps hopes to be of service to the new generation of the industry’s workforce.
My goal is to talk to leading women in the industry each month and share their stories, thoughts and insights. If you know a woman, or are a woman who should be featured, let me know.
If you know women in the industry who would benefit from receiving the Women in PHCP newsletter, have them sign up.
© 2023 All Rights Reserved