Last year I was at an HVAC&R Industry event, listening to ‘experts’ speak on issues they perceive in the industry and what they believe needs to happen to move forward. There were several points in their speeches that I did not agree with and I struggled to stay engaged with the speakers. However, there was one part that really resonated with me. I sat back up and tuned back in. ‘We need to encourage more females to join the industry, and in order for that to happen we need to address unconscious bias relating to women working in the industry.’ I was elated, I even looked over at some of the others I was with and grinned and nodded for the first time that afternoon. This is what we had been talking about in our own office! The next slide was ‘and we can have women in the industry now because we have smaller gas bottles and trolleys to help with any heavy lifting.’ Now I know this is by far NOT the view of the majority of men in the industry! But this was an industry event where this was being spoken about as if it was the norm.
At the networking part of the event I met and started to talk to other men and women in the industry and discovered they all felt the same way I had.
There are amazing women doing awesome things in this industry. You have the women who run the offices, accounts and business, without whom there would be no business; women who are making waves in natural refrigeration solutions; women who are engineers; women who are refrigeration mechanics and electricians; women who although may not be certified technicians know the ins and outs of a HVACR plant better than some techs; women that are installing splits while still pregnant, because that’s their business!
In the lead up to International Women’s Day, Katrina Smith and Elizabeth Paparo from Heatcraft, along with Vonnette Cook from South Coast Refrigeration and myself contacted females in the HVAC&R Industry that we knew, and some that we didn’t, to show real women in the industry and share their stories. I hope you feel as inspired as I did after reading these.
Vonnette Cook

Business Manager, South Coast Refrigeration & Air

In deciding on what order to write about these amazing women, I shuffled everyone’s responses and picked them out randomly. When I had finished and saw Vonnette was first I was stoked! Vonnette Cook was the 2018 HVAC&R Woman of the Year. I met her after she had won the CCN Leadership Award and we just clicked. Vonnette’s experience and knowledge is second to none and the way she looks into the industry is insightful.

Vonnette started in the HVACR industry after applying for a part time bookkeeping position in 2000. This lead to becoming permanently employed with the company and running the service department. In 2014, the opportunity presented for Vonnette (with her husband) to purchase the business. Since then Vonnette’s confidence and management skills have continued to grow. My favourite answer from Vonnette was in response to ‘ What do you love most about the industry?’

“What I appreciate the most about being part of the industry is the support, plethora of information that is accessible from different mediums, training opportunities, the sharing of resources, trade shows and staff development initiatives.”

I wish to leave a positive mark when it is time to move forward.

To follow the values of working together and the commitment to excellence.

Attending High Schools for Year 10 trade information sessions, showing the passion of system components (like going to Officeworks).

Lack of Skilled / Trade Qualified HVAC+R technicians.  Currently the Technicians have the Call, which causes expensive labour totals.

Emma Connolly

Branch Leader, Heatcraft

Emma’s story of how she started in the Refrigeration Industry is probably my favourite.

“I got into the industry completely by chance..  My dad was at our local service station and over heard the lady in front of him telling the man behind the counter that she had quit her job. As I wasn’t working at the time, Dad asked her were she worked and it was Kirby Refrigeration, located just around the corner from our house. So I printed out my resume and walked into the branch and asked for a job!” When she first started she was working in administration and accounts. “I was taught a great deal about the industry by my boss at the time and moved into a sales role as time went on.” Emma then moved on to management and is now Branch Leader of the Geelong branch in Victoria. It doesn’t stop there though, In the future Emma hopes to learn more in the engineering side of things. That’s one of the things she loves about the HVACR Industry; “I love the fact that it is different every day. Dealing with the customers and helping problem solve to engineering commercial cool room equipment. You never know what the day will bring!”

The biggest challenge was gaining the customers confidence in my knowledge and the fact that even though I am female I do actually understand the industry, what they are talking about and how to assist them.

Know your stuff and really take in as many side of the business and industry as you can. Be confident in your knowledge, Don’t doubt yourself!

We need to simply get the word out there that the industry even exist. As strange as it sounds people in general don’t even know about the refrigeration industry. I’m not sure the best way to really do that however.

The biggest challenge I believe is how broad the industry has become, in the sense that regardless of your trade qualification, you are able to install HVACR equipment after a 3 day course.

It is making it extremely hard for Refrigeration and HVAC mechanics that spent 4 years doing an apprenticeship. I think there needs to be more time spent in becoming qualified to do this kind of work.

Erika Bockler Billeaud

Sales & Applications Engineer, Actrol

Erika started in the HVACR industry, studying electrical engineering and home and building automation in France. “During my degree I had to do an internship in a company and went to Siemens HVAC. After my degree they offered me a permanent position and I stayed in this industry since then.”

“I started working at Siemens HVAC in France as a technical support role in the office. Then moved to Australia and worked at Carel as technical support and then sales engineer.” She then moved from Sydney to Brisbane and started working at Actrol. “I am currently working as a sales and applications engineer and also BDM for some of our major accounts at Actrol. I started working as an office based role, but as my career evolved I went to go more face to face with the customers, go to site and do trainings. I really like this aspect of the role, meeting with customers and always trying to help them whether it is on site or on the phone. And I like learning about new technologies as they emerge.”

“Being a female (and foreign person with an accent) in this industry has been a challenge, especially when I just moved in Australia. A lot of people expect that because of your gender you don’t know what you’re talking about. It has happened a few times that customers asked to talk to a male staff when I answered the phone.

Fortunately, this is not a fatality. If you show that you can do it, then you gain a lot of respect.

In these cases, I just answered that I am a female and I will help them, they can ask their questions. Every time they apologised at the end of the call when they realised I was able to answer their enquiry and asked to talk to me the next time they called in.”

There are a lot of different aspects, a lot of different technologies and a lot of different jobs, it is very diversified and always evolving.

Writing articles and forums about women in the industry, making it look approachable for women, show that it is a great industry to work in regardless of your gender!

Katrina Smith

Account Manager, Heatcraft

Katrina was the first woman outside of our office that I met in the Refrigeration Industry.  Katrina has always flown the flag for women in the HVACR industry. The way she talks about other people she has met and worked with along the way is uplifting. She celebrates others’ achievements  as if they are her own. You wouldn’t know on talking to her that she was a finalist for HVACR Woman of the Year in 2018, but you would definitely know about Vonnette winning, and Jamie being a finalist for Female Rising Star. I wouldn’t be doing this blog without Katrina. She was the first person I rang with the idea. She is so passionate about her job and the HVACR industry as a whole.

Katrina started in the HVACR Industry when she was 19 through an Administration Traineeship through Centrelink after taking their courses in Business Administration. It wasn’t long before they asked her to transfer to Sales and do a theory Refrigeration Certificate. She is currently an Account Manager for the Gold Coast/ Northern River area in QLD for Heatcraft/Kirby HVAC&R. “I started in Sales over the counter, worked through projects/ work place training/ HR and Branch Managements and did two terms of maternity leave working art time before I was able to be confident in applying for this current role.”

” I love this position and intend to stay at the moment until I feel I have achieved the level of mastering the position to its full potential. But I am always empowering myself to be pro-active and take the initiative to be involved in Events and continuous improvement projects, so the Role is always challenging and evolving and rewarding. (Taking out the hard times that you inevitably have to deal with as part of the job).”

Check out the amazing women who work at Heatcraft in this brilliant IWD post.

It is a very Family orientated style industry and you never stop learning and never stop facing challenges that give you the motivation to make a difference The Variety in the Challenges and Customers that you can work with and help make you feel like you are worthy and they teach you along the way over the years. Security is also important to me.

Making sure I was given the opportunities (and not being stereotypically over looked or not listened too, because I was female) to continuously improve my skills and knowledge so that I could be competent and further make a difference was a self-motivation I had to push myself to ensure I was there for every chance to be recognized and secure my place to be involved in the current and future events or opportunities.

The opportunities are there if you want them. Understand People, do your Homework (pick the fights you know you can win and let the others sort themselves out) and deal with the issues at hand confidently because that is what you are good at and that is what is right and for the greater good. Learn to be a great Team Leader and you will attract the support that you need and deserve and be able to make a difference and help others, which in turn will support and help you.

Educating Women on the opportunities in the industry and the benefits for their lifestyle and security and continuous learning.

Current and relevant Education ( personal development). Acceptance to adapt to change so we can continue to grow. We need more Fun!!!

Janet Scurfield

Service Administrator, Coolphase

If you’ve ever called Coolphase you will know Janet. Janet started out in the HVACR industry by chance “a good friend offered me a job to organise the running of the service department.” For the next six years, Jan ran the Service Department, managing 375 Child Care Centres nation-wide. As the company grew, the Service Department became it’s own Division. Seven years later and a massive growth at Coolphase, Janet is still the go to person for Service Administration (and anything and everything else). You know when I say that without the people in the administration the business would possibly not function. I was basing that on my own experience with Janet and Betty. I loved reading their responses to these questions. Jan is so passionate about what we do and the people who work here. “I have watched Coolphase transform into the company it is today and am proud to be a member of this great team.”

The industry is amazing, our tradesman are very talented people, they start from scratch and build fully functional refrigeration plant and equipment in supermarkets. I visited a site we were working on and it opened my eyes to the talent of the tradesmen we have. I was very impressed with their craftsmanship.

Dealing with people who think because I am a woman I have no idea.

Elizabeth Paparo

Marketing Communications Lead, Heatcraft

Elizabeth was recruited into the HVACR industry by a former manager. “I had no idea about the industry I was heading into.” I’m not going to lie this blew me away a bit, simply because I see Elizabeth and Katrina as my HVACR Industry experts!

Elizabeth is so passionate about Heatcraft, her job and the industry as a whole. “I love that it has substance. We matter to the everyday lives of people.   I love seeing our refrigeration equipment be built and head out the driveway for delivery – knowing that we play such a major role in business and society.  And I love that we are at the start of another journey in promoting the conversion to natural refrigerants. As a nature loving Aquarian, I love that I can be on that journey.”

I loved all of Elizabeth’s answers but the one that resonated with me the most was, ‘Where do you see your future in the industry?’

“Becoming more involved in the industry, where I can sit on committees and be a voice for women in the industry.  Many of us in the industry are in support roles (finance, marketing, distribution etc). I used to think that I was not worthy  – I’m just a marketing person, but my view has now changed.  There is a place for all of us.  We all have our skill sets and all those skill sets are required.

I also want to continue to develop within the company I work in – there are always opportunities to grow and I want to grab them with both hands.  My mind is bursting with enthusiasm and commitment.”

Since answering these questions Elizabeth has accepted an invitation from AIRAH to be their NSW Diversity Champion, I am so excited to see what Elizabeth achieves in the role. I just know it will be amazing.

I am currently the Heatcraft’s Marketing Communications Lead.  It’s been a slow climb to get here.  I have been in coordinator type roles for the past 10 years and due to our flat organisational structure had to be patient to move up within the department.  I love the company and the people who I work with, so didn’t want to leave.

Overcoming the technical nature of the products we manufacture and distribute.  I don’t have a trade qualification, so understanding the product to be able to create PR has definitely been my biggest challenge.

Stay and grow.  It’s a great industry. Yes it is currently male dominated but the men are good men who are supportive and genuine (in my 10 years of experience).  Learn, listen and stay engaged.

Not sure about this one – it’s a long term challenge.  We need to bring male and female talent into the industry.  As an industry we need to be more vocal amongst high schools and in our homes – promoting awareness and the skills sets that are part of engineering type industries.

My 15 year old daughter tells me that  she was not actively encouraged to play with the same things her older brother played with – so she did not develop the same building/engineering types skills of her brother.  This was certainly not my conscious intention and I thought all the toys were free for anyone to use.   Perhaps it starts young and as parents we need to be less gender biased.

Being proactive in embracing change.  I speak mainly about the adoption and conversion to natural refrigerants.  Unless it hits the back pocket now, change is not forthcoming.

How do we fix it?  More education, more tools, more awareness.

Betty Springate

Accounts Administration, Coolphase

Betty was the first woman I ever met in the Refrigeration Industry. I had a hard time getting Betty involved in this. Much like Elizabeth was saying, she believed because she was in what she sees as a support role, she doesn’t have the authority to contribute her thoughts and ideas. It took a lot of persuading (and a few drinks) at the International Women’s Day lunch for Betty to come forward. I think it took us saying, you have been in this industry through thick and thin. You know this industry just as well as anyone else and possibly even more! You have seen it grow and sometimes fail. The experience Betty has gained over the years is that ingrained in her, she couldn’t see it.

Much like many of the women in this blog, Betty got into the HVACR industry by chance. “I was working in the plumbing industry and wanted a job closer to home and went for an interview with Queensland Refrigeration and because of my age and work ethics Dale gave me the opportunity to work with him.”

“My roll was when I started was with Agree Air as an accounts assistant progressing to Administration Officer with Aust-Coast Refrigeration in an administration roll from accounts payable, receivable to assisting with the financial running of the business.  Progressing through changes in the name to Coolphase Pty Ltd and upgrading our accounting software and transition in our daily workings within the business.”

Betty’s advice to women already in or coming into the industry? “Be true to yourself.”

Sharyn Watson

Director, Watmar

Sharyn Watson is the Managing Director of Watmar Electrical Contractors. She entered the HVACR industry by mistake, “My electrical company kept getting asked to do Air Conditioning.”

Although she loves that the projects are contained, usually in and out in one transaction, she struggles with seasonality and finding good staff and says the biggest challenge in the HVACR industry right now is the difficulty in getting good staff and retaining them. “[It’s] a very physical job with an expiration date on the tools.”

Sharyn believes we need to offer more apprenticeships to women. And her advice to women already in or coming into the industry?

“Grow a tough skin – it is a frenetic industry.”

Kelli McDonald

National Customer Relationship Manager, Airmaster

Kelli McDonald was the 2017 HVAC&R Woman of the Year at the Climate Control News (CCN) Leadership Awards. Honestly after reading her answers to this, without ever meeting in person I can see how Kelli won this award! She is exactly what we were looking for when we went looking for real stories of the amazing women in this industry. Before I start with Kelli’s impressive career, I want to share her piece of advice to women already in or coming into the industry. It is probably my favourite piece of advice.

“It’s a male dominated industry and if you try to be like the men it will be a waste of a bloody good women!!  Stay true to yourself.”

Kelli started in the HVACR Industry at 19 “I was studying Social Science Justice at the time; however was in desperate need of money as a 19 year old typically is.  I applied for an entry level position with Airmaster that was advertised in the local paper.  I honestly only wanted to work for six months to save up some cash to allow me to keep studying.  As Airmaster was a fairly small business at the time, there were many facets of the business that I could work in.  The people were fantastic and were the reason I stayed.”

“My current role is National Client Relationship Manager; which I believe is a big play on my strengths.  I have had many jobs within Airmaster; however most of my role changes have been due to me being proactive with what I want to achieve.  I moved to Sydney early 2000 to work along side the Branch manager where we were establishing the branch in Sydney, I have also held a National commercial manager role, looking after ANZ Commercial properties Nationally.”

“Even though I haven’t made my way up through the typical route of apprentice, technician, account manager, senior manager all with technical knowledge and experience.  I have been able to build a strong career within the industry.  Starting out in service control, I had a foundation of strong customer service skills that is still my number one strength today.  I have since then gained extensive knowledge of the company, industry and focused on my strengths and what I love doing.”

“The biggest challenge I faced was trying to balance a career whilst having a child.  I came back to work after two months where I had a flexible arrangement with Airmaster where I could work from home.  As a mother I’m immensely grateful of the flexibility they have allowed me over the past 8 years.  This has allowed me to grow and achieve my goals without taking too much time away from the industry or my family.”

Side note check out this post from Airmaster on International Women’s Day.

I have been working in the industry for nearly 20 years, I love my job and enjoy working with people every day.   I see myself still working within this community but broadening my horizons.

It’s a male dominated industry and if you try to be like the men it will be a waste of a bloody good women!!  Stay true to yourself.

(I know I already included it above, but seriously, it’s worth repeating)

By creating groups like you have with ‘Women in Refrigeration’ where like minded women can create a community to work collectively on educating, engaging and empowering women in the industry and to encourage women to join.  We can engage by connecting the skills of people and businesses with schools to empower young women to take the step into this industry.

One of the biggest challenges within the industry is the shortage of skilled labour.  Encouraging and Empowering women in schools, creating a network for them to be a part of will when they join the industry will help to tackle this shortage.  Being a women in HVAC is a superpower!  There are very few female technicians but boy is it their strength for them to utilise.  They are setting a legacy that creates a pathway for future women in the industry and their opportunities are endless.

Kelsi Higginbotham

Acting Branch Leader, Heatcraft

Kelsi Higginbotham is the Heatcraft Acting Branch Leader in Emerald, Queensland. When I received her answers, I was told how fantastic she has been in the short time she has been in her role and her value at Heatcraft. Kelsi was moving towns when she saw a job advertised and decided to apply. “I had no experience but I’m always up for a challenge and willing to give things a real go. Looking back now its definitely been a great move, the challenge and even the customers is always rewarding.” She was hired as a Customer Service Representative and moved to Acting Branch Leader. “That as a whole has been a massive change and challenge, but I take each day as it comes, the outcomes are always rewarding.”

“Lets put it this way, I did not expect there would be so much to learn! In saying that, that is one of the things I love. No day is ever the same and there is always another challenge or something to learn.”

Challenges – where do I begin! Overall the whole industry has been a challenge for me as I had no previous knowledge or experience. Each day does get easier though, and its always good that there is so many helpful people and resources to lean on.

Being so new to the industry I’m happy with the progress I have made already however, I am always willing to put my hand up and do things to further myself.

When I first started I got told by a Tradie “there will come times when you want to throw your hands in the air and quit, keep at it and you’ll do great”
This is honestly the best thing ever, there are times when its hard but overcoming that and making progress is always a great achievement in my eyes.

If you’re willing to give anything a go, go for it! I’m glad I made the move.