With 12 Women as HVAC Techs at San Diego Company, ‘I’m Watching Them Succeed’
Kelly Jo Anderson started stuffing envelopes for the family plumbing and HVAC business when she was 10.
A dozen years later she had graduated from San Francisco State University, but wasn’t sure about her direction.
That brought her back home.
She started selling re-pipes for Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air outside San Diego. She was given no special consideration, merely told to do the work that had been part of the dinner table discussion her entire life.
“She did amazing,” Mary Jean Anderson, Anderson president and Kelly Jo’s mother, said. “Like, over-the-top amazing.”
Among her achievements starting out as a young woman in a traditionally male world, Kelly Jo brought the highest revenues and had the highest closing percentage at the company.
“She was really successful,” Mary Jean said. “So I thought, ‘I’m on a mission to find women.’”
In a male-dominated world, a woman brings a fresh perspective. Women in the home may be more comfortable talking to another woman representing a business. Opening the trades to women opens the doors of opportunity to women, who traditionally have not worked in the trades.
The top listings in the Department of Labor’s top 25 most popular jobs for women are predictable: registered nurses, administrative assistants and elementary and middle school teachers. None of the trades are listed. The government’s most recent statistics on women in the trades are from 2018, and show that only 9% of construction workers, 2% of plumbers and 1% of HVAC workers were women.
Opening the trades to women diversifies the business, provides high-paying, secure jobs to interested women, breaks down stereotypes and provides a path to women for starting and owning a business. In the end, companies benefit too.
Mary Jean is a living example. She took over the company in 2006 when her first husband decided to move on from the company the two had run together.
She wasn’t sure she wanted the company at first, but after reflection decided to buy it so she could put her imprint on the business. In the 14 years she’s owned Anderson, the company has grown from $4.6 million in revenues to $33 million.
The second woman she hired did “really, really well” before moving to Texas. The third was referred by a home nurse who was caring for Mary Jean’s father in his last days. The nurse told Mary Jean her friend was smart, dedicated, mechanically minded—and living in her car.
“She was literally homeless,” Mary Jean said.
She did not hesitate to interview her, and several years later, (the woman) still works for Anderson, has four children and just bought her second home.
“When you see that, you realize that you can help so many,” Anderson said. “One thing I've learned in life is that when you as a woman … when you know that you can support yourself and you don't have to rely on anybody, it opens up a whole new world for you. You actually become a better partner. You become a better wife. Just because you know that no matter what you can take care of yourself.
“I get to see women do that every day. Go to work, and I'm watching them succeed.”
Committed to providing opportunity
Anderson has 12 women technicians, an unusually high amount in the industry. She is so committed to providing more opportunity that she actively seeks women students in a school the company started to teach and apprentice those interested in learning the trade.
“What I tell them is that the sky is the limit,” Anderson said. “And with us it’s equal pay for an equal job.”
Opportunity leads to advancement. Kelly Jo now is the Service Manager of the company her mother runs. Kelly Jo also was president of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling-Contractors Association—San Diego in 2012 and 2013.
“I think it’s more about not eliminating someone because of their background, but instead hiring for talent and potential,” Mary Jean said.
The work to open the trades takes work. In many cases, the only barrier is a stereotyped image of what a tradesman looks like.
“What (my daughter) told me was that when a woman goes into the home, there's an immediate connection,” Anderson said. ”If you think about the home as feminine, you know, Spanish La Casa, everything about the home is feminine, and the women do overall make the decisions. But she also said that when a man is there, and not a woman, and they see she knows what she's talking about, their guard’s completely let down, and so she could sell even better to men.”
Paths to more women in the trades
In Missouri, Trisha Mackey, office manager of Superior Heating & Cooling northwest of St. Louis, talked of attending Bryant Heating and Cooling’s annual Women in HVAC conference.
Bryant coordinates the invitation-only effort, it says, to “foster inclusivity and create an environment where women can excel in the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) industry.”
“You learn about new technologies, new products,” Mackey said. “You get to talk to women—it's only women—and you have to be an owner or a director-management kind of scenario. There's breakout sessions on marketing, how do you Google local services, etc., etc. It's just a phenomenal group of women.”
Superior offers an apprenticeship program for women through the local St. Louis-area chapter of the Air Conditioner Contractors of America group. Anderson has its school, which the company started in 2017 because more people were leaving the trades than entering.
If Anderson can find a woman to enroll, all the better.
“In the state of California, you don't really have to have a license, right?” she said. “You work under my license. So what you see is Joe the plumber training Justin the plumber, who's training Isaiah the plumber, and you've got this really watered-down stuff going on.
“And so we realized that if we wanted to be the best in San Diego, which was always our goal, that we had to start our own school, and we had to train them from the very start, with no old habits, all the way through.”
Her second husband runs the school. Enrollees are paid minimum wage and start in-classroom work two days a week for 16 hours with three days each week with on-the-job-training.
“We’re able to find really good people,” she said.
‘Raising women in the industry’
Some went to college, others didn’t. Most start with limited knowledge. All seem focused on finding their niche; white-collar work and law school are not for everyone. In three years, Anderson has bought 63 people into the school and retained almost 90%. Those who complete the course go on to secure, well-paying jobs in businesses that are considered essential.
“You can go anywhere in the country,” Anderson said. “The jobs can’t be computerized. It’s total job security.”
The National Association of Home Builders is trying to address the need in a similar way. Its Professional Women in Building (PWB) Council works to grow the number of women in the trade while it adds more workers to what it calls a lagging workforce. Its numbers show 1.2 million women worked in construction in 2019, but the great majority are in sales or office work. Only 3% work in the skilled areas.
“I'm always looking for women,” Anderson said. “It could be in a restaurant. It could be the waitress. It could be … well the other day I was getting my eye exam, an eye check, and the girl started talking to me about it.
“I explain that we are successful in raising women in this industry.”
Recently Anderson’s client care manager closed escrow on her new house.
“I watched her have her baby,” she said. “It took seven years for her to get pregnant, and I've watched this whole thing unfold, and it's just really cool to see that. Plus I've been able to bring women in, so that's really the best part, is equal pay for an equal job.”
Anderson recently spoke via Zoom to a high school in the San Diego area. Her message: The trades are for everyone.
“About what's out there for them,” she said. “And how successful they can be.”
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