Women in HVACR: Spotlight on Jessica Bannister
Originally published: 05.01.22 by Heather Langone
A pervasive issue in the HVACR industry has been the shortage of qualified talent to fill the demand for work. It’s an industry-wide problem plaguing HVACR business owners. Over the years we have published articles on the need for collective recruiting efforts within the industry, and the difference these efforts do make. Still, the problem persists… Here’s why you are feeling the pain: In 2019, a report in the National Science Board, projected that there would be “3.4 million unfilled jobs in skilled labor by 2022, and “…and there will continue to be serious demand for skilled positions like technicians, plumbers, and electricians …well-paying jobs with promising career prospects.” And, as reported by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, “more than 10% of HVAC technicians are currently female. With an expected worker shortage of 115,000 people, the female workforce in these skilled positions is expected to rise.”
Add to that, the industry has no coordinated recruitment efforts, and we are left with a growing need that will significantly increase over the next decade. We continued to write about this topic because we believe it is possible to reverse the trend – (See our article in Staffing & HR titled, Reverse the Trend for more on that).
Outlined below are small steps that you our readers can take to make a monstrous impact…
Photo credit: Jessica Bannister
10 Small Steps to Coordinate Recruitment:
- Set up or sponsor recruiting events at high schools and trade schools
- Sponsor sports teams. Have a presence in the community to garner interest
- Sponsor training events for vocational students wanting to pursue a trade
- Offer to match fees for training to qualified candidates
- Offer scholarships for training or qualified students
- Advertise at trade schools
- Get to know instructors at local schools
- Become an instructor
- For family-owned businesses, start legacy planning now
- Be the example for other HVACR business owners
- Make HVACR cool again
Change is possible.
Photo credit: Jessica Bannister
A Reverent HVACR Technician. A Fierce HVACR Changemaker.
Enter Jessica Bannister – a woman who is working to change the HVACR industry through mentorship, professionalism, and leading by example.
Currently, Bannister works as a level 3 apprentice technician at her family-owned company, Cam Cool Refrigeration Inc. in Toronto, Canada. Bannister doesn’t look like the stereotypical HVACR technician. Always keenly aware of her professional appearance so she will be taken seriously, she noted that as a female, there is more to it. She yearns to show other women that they too can be multi-layered and still get excited about a career in the trade.
While she is just getting started, she has quickly become one of the most prominent faces for women in the HVACR industry over the past five years. Bannister made sure to clarify that she takes this responsibility seriously. And, while also quick to point out that she has absolute reverence for those who have paved a path for her to do this work – especially as the daughter of an HVACR business owner – there is a real understanding on her part that she is changing the stigma.
During the interview, my impression was that of a confident, serious technician. Yet, I found her to be more than humble as well. Moreover, her enthusiasm for the work was infectious. Bannister seems excited by how bright the future looks for women wanting a career in the skilled trades. As such, she works hard to spread the word through her Instagram and YouTube channels. She also shared a bit about her plans with Women In HVAC-R, a Canadian organization for which she serves on the board. Bannister plans to speak at schools to educate students about a potential career in the trades.
Photo credit: Jessica Bannister
Following is an excerpt of my conversation with Bannister.
You and your brother both work for your dad’s business. What are your expectations of each of your roles once your dad retires?
Our roles are quite different already because on top of my “in the field” work, I do all the admin work, such as managing schedules, quotes, jobs, and invoices using Jobber, our business management software. I think my brother and I will take over as a 50-50 partnership together. I would, in the short term, like to grow a little bit. I'd like to hire a few more people and support a couple more families. My dad has kept it small deliberately. He’s done that for his reasons. But I'd like to expand the company. Beyond that, I think it'd be great to continue being a spokesperson for women in skilled trades, specifically, HVACR. Whether that means being a spokesperson or whether that means working as an instructor in a classroom, it's important to me. And I think it’s important not only for girls but for guys as well. They need to see a female instructor at the head of the class, you know? It is important to see a teacher who is also a technician giving the lectures and everything that that entails. I think it’s vital to have that kind of representation. So… yes, I’d say in the short term, I'm going to be with the family, and continually push for more women in the skilled trades.
Moving forward, as you attract more women into the industry just through your example, do you have a marketing strategy to attract more female technicians?
Yes. I think it's going to be through my work with Women in HVAC-R, our Canadian organization. The one that I mentioned to you earlier and for which I'm currently the president. We’ve just celebrated our very first anniversary in March. But I think that [organization] will be the catalyst for my role as a spokesperson for more women. Already, I feel like I am making progress. I’m heading to the CMPX conference this week and I have to say, in my daily life already, I feel a little bit like a celebrity. People are extremely excited to meet me. I was just on the cover of the Plumbing + HVAC magazine. It’s all so exciting.
Photo credit: Jessica Bannister
What challenges do you see for women in HVACR?
There are challenges, namely the physical abilities needed to do the job. I would add that women grossly underestimate their abilities, even their physical abilities. I have done it myself. I think, there is no way that I can do that. Then I try it and think, I was able to do it. What else can I do?
Let’s talk about the stigma you face in your day-to-day role… Do you feel it at all?
Yes. There is a stigma, not only around HVACR but the trades in general. I think that's something we have to fix more on a parental level. For both boys and girls, I would say the trades (versus universities) still have a stigma attached. And parents and schools are still pushing for universities and colleges as the only way. I think they should be talking about trade schools just as much, if not more. It’s a viable option, one that offers a satisfying and lucrative career and offers little to no student debt after graduating. You come out with work experience and an income. Especially, parents of girls who consider these kinds of careers need to remain open-minded.
My dad has always been a refrigeration mechanic. My brother became a refrigeration mechanic right after graduating high school. It was just natural for him, but it was never a possibility for me. It never occurred to me to say, “Hey dad, can I try this?” And it never occurred to him to say, “Hey, Jess, do you want to try this?” I feel like if I had seen a woman doing what my dad did at the time, it might have been a different consideration, whether I had pursued it or not. I would have thought about it as a possibility and had the choice to say, “Well, okay, let's make that decision.” When I first started getting the message out on social media, I was so enthusiastic. I told anyone who would listen to try working in the skilled trades. Now, I realize that it is not for everyone. The work is geared toward a specific type of person. First, it can be a dangerous and dirty job. It’s a physically demanding job. But with all that, we need to be more open-minded, so that it is at least a considerable possibility for young girls and boys. I push my message on social media hard, but I also try to portray myself in a certain way. Yes, my job is dirty, but I dress clean-cut, in professional attire – deliberately. I want to show that I will get dirty, but it's fine, I am still professional; I carry myself as such. I need to look good not only for women to see the possibilities but also for our customers and the image of our business. I keep a clean-cut, professional image always.
What advice would you give to women (and men), on how to build relationships with vendors so that they begin to trust you?
I have been a bit sheltered working with my dad, and my brother. I feel like they have my back behind the scenes. I have been incredibly lucky. I have been able to learn the relationship-building part of the business and the product knowledge and all that goes with it, all at the same time. But I do think it is important to find a company that will nurture you as you gain these skills. A company that will help guide you through.
Does Women in HVACR focus on mentoring young technicians, especially females?
Mentoring is a big part of it. I always say you need to be confident. If anyone gives you trouble about still being an apprentice, own it. Yes. I am still an apprentice, I am learning, but just know that I'm highly supervised. There is someone always supervising my work. You must be confident and assertive and know that you are there because you are supposed to be there.
Do you think you can set the example and connect the dots for women who do not want to travel the traditional corporate route?
I think so.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, during the last five years, the number of tradeswomen increased by almost one-third (32.1 percent). What are your thoughts on that?
The problem that I find right now with my social media marketing is that I'm preaching to the choir. Those seeing my message right now are already in the trades or involved peripherally. So, I am trying to figure out how to get the message out [to new prospects]. That is what my organization Women in HVACR, is trying to help with, especially when it comes to speaking to schools. I need to speak to younger kids – and not only the kids but their parents as well.
As a new face in a male-dominated industry, you are also breaking stereotypes associated with females who choose to work in a technical field. Is that intentional on your part?
Yes. For International Women’s Day this year, I posted a photo of myself and my refrigeration textbook on Instagram. In the photo, I had one foot in a boot and the other foot in a high heel. It’s like… we can love what we do and be whatever we want and stomp out stereotypes.
The other day, I had coffee with a supplier whom I have not worked with yet. He revealed that even in his branch, over the last five years, he has seen so many more women coming through the front doors. It’s happening. I am not a pioneer by any means. I know I am not the first HVACR woman or HVACR tech to pave the way. But with social media as a platform, we can now share our experiences, and because of that, things are changing. For whatever reason, Instagram has become this great community of trades. People who are supportive and encouraging – we all share. It's amazing.
I spoke to a woman in Toronto who has traveled a similar career path, but she is ten years ahead, both in age and experience. She was saying how she wished that she had had that kind of community when she was still an apprentice. It’s so great to bounce ideas off people, you know? If I'm having this really bad day or I come across a technical issue, I can reach out. It’s fantastic!
In closing, is there anything that you would like to say about women in the industry that you haven’t?
Yes, only to reiterate a sentiment from a quote I like, “You can't be what you can't see.” I feel like if you are willing to put yourself out there and let other people see you as a skilled female in the trades, it matters. I try to push that message on social media. On International Women's Day, I read this comment by a woman who works in the industry. She works as a welder, and she was lamenting that she has become the “token” woman. Every time there's a media opportunity or a photo op or whatever, she said, “I'm shoved at the front because I'm the girl. I don't want to be the token girl. I just want to put my head down… do an excellent job.” There is that point of view as well. I appreciate having read her viewpoint because I'm always expressing to women that they need to put themselves out there.
But reading her statement made me step back. This is what works for me. I want to be out there. I’d say to women, if you're willing to put yourself out there, please do it!
With that, we closed our conversation. Over the next few days, I was left with one lingering thought… Visibility can affect meaningful change. See it and you can be it. Period.
Photo credit: Jessica Bannister