About 20 years ago, Shelly Matter was a single mother of three school-age children and was having difficulty making ends meet. She looked around for jobs with more earning power and stability when she hit upon a career in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry, or HVAC.
She hasn’t looked back.
“I saw stability long term in an industry where there was career development,” says Matter, who is director of business development for HB McClure, a HVAC company based in York County. Her job involves expanding the territory for the company on the commercial side, while also getting involved with training and development of HB McClure’s workers, among other duties.
HVAC careers increasingly are attractive to women, especially as the pay, benefits and job security offer a stable, family-supporting income, several observers of the industry said recently. Like all construction and trade jobs, the HVAC industry has struggled with finding enough qualified workers to fill positions, even during the pandemic. The high demand for workers offers job security. But much more needs to be done to beef up the workforce, which is losing experienced technicians at a high rate as Baby Boomers enter retirement. That makes recruiting women even more critical, they add. And those efforts have been helped as societal expectations of women have changed and more women enter the trade industries, including HVAC.
Matter got her first job in HVAC on the sales side and eventually moved her way to management and the position at McClure, where she has been for about five years. Some people assume that jobs only are available in the technical side of the industry, which is always looking for trained technicians. But the industry has careers in engineering, project management and sales, and the opportunities are endless for those who want to advance, she adds.
She points out that technical schools increasingly train girls entering high school on the hands-on aspects of an entry-level job. She often makes presentations at events, including school career fairs, where she touts the possibilities of expanding that first job into a fulfilling career. She points out that she started from scratch, worked hard, and built relationships along the way that led to more opportunities.
Teachers and recruiters have been marketing HVAC jobs to women — including girls who haven’t yet entered high school — for years now, she and other observers point out.
“Society in general is more accepting of it,” Joanne Custer, work-based learning coordinator at Dauphin County Technical School, said about girls entering the trade industries, generally. “People are more open to it, and the mindset has changed. And parents are more accepting of it.”
The technical school mails materials to students in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades — boys and girls — to highlight the opportunities in the trades. Each year, there are hundreds of applications for a limited number of spots in the technical school. For example, in 2021-22, the school has space to enroll 324 freshmen, while it will likely receive double that in applications.
As far as the School of Construction Programs within the Dauphin County Technical School, the HVAC track has eight girls enrolled in the 2020-21 school year, and that accounted for about 29 percent of the overall enrollment, Custer said. That is a slight increase from the seven girls enrolled in the HVAC classes in 2019-20 and nearly double the enrollment in 2018-19, when five girls were enrolled, Custer said.
The other trade programs — building construction, electrical construction and maintenance, masonry and carpentry — round out the disciplines in the School of Construction. Landscape and greenhouse production was added this year, Custer also said.
With the increased interest in hiring, training and recruiting women, new trade associations have developed to encourage women in the construction trades, including national and local chapters of the National Association of Women in Construction (nawic.org/nawic/) and Women in HVAC (womenofhvac.org). Matter is a member of the local chapter of NAWIC, which was founded in July 2019 and has 35 members. She attends meetings to get to know other women in the construction industry and to network.
The group has about two events per month, with one in-person gathering and one virtual meeting, said Lindy Hitzel, one of the newest members of the NAWIC South Central PA Chapter. Hitzel handles business development for Campbell Associates, a York County-based construction company, which was founded by her father, Steve Campbell.
The local chapter uses Facebook and LinkedIn for content and information sharing. And Hitzel said the meetings offer an opportunity to network and socialize with accomplished women in the trades. She has been in her job about a year and became interested in a career in the construction industry while in college. As a newer member of the group, she finds it inspirational to talk with other women in various stages of their careers. She would encourage other women who are still in school or in another industry to consider entering one of the numerous fields in construction.
“The more you talk about it, the more it becomes normal to talk about it,” Hitzel said. “It’s not a boy’s club anymore. There is awesome change that is going on.”
While women held 50 percent of American jobs in 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that 2% of the HVAC labor force includes women, said Darren DuHadaway, a public relations strategist at GillespieHall Public Relations that handles some marketing for HB McClure. GillespieHall has offices in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
“That is still a boost: eight years ago, only 0.6 percent of the HVAC workforce was female,” DuHadaway said in an email.
Technicians are going to be needed to fill about 115,000 new positions by 2022, he added. That point is driven home on the Women of HVAC website (womenofhvac.org/), which actively recruits women for the industry.
“Our country desperately needs skilled technicians to diagnose, repair and install heating and cooling equipment,” the website says. “The field is currently experiencing incredible demand, with a low supply of workers and lacking capable women for the job. As a result, heating and cooling technicians are earning great rewards and benefits.”
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