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Women in Contracting: Don’t let gender hold you back

Jan. 19, 2018
You don’t need to know how to pipe a bathroom to run a plumbing contracting firm.

Over the last two decades, plumbing and heating trade publications have written copious amounts of news stories, articles and editorial opinions on the skilled worker shortage. Editors and industry experts have offered advice to contractors on recruiting techniques to hire the right workers. That advice includes marketing the plumbing and heating industry to school children, veterans and women.

While women working as HVAC techs or plumbers are still a small portion of the plumbing, pipefitting and HVAC industry, more women are moving into managerial roles or even running these contracting firms. Many of these women-operated businesses are family owned, where women work alongside fathers, brothers or husbands to make the company a success.

Alexandra Nicholson and her husband, Mike Nicholson, started Framingham, Mass.-based Nicholson Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning (www.nicholson-hvac.com) in 2010. A Bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology, and an award-winning career in property management, didn’t give her all the knowledge she needed to make the business a success, so she took the initiative to educate herself, including working with her mentor, Mike Agugliaro, founder of CEO Warrior. Today, she is the director of operations for the 25-employee firm.

“To learn the skills necessary to grow our residential plumbing/HVAC firm into a successful enterprise, I did a lot of self-teaching and researching, testing and measuring things,” Alex Nicholson says. “I sought out professional training at every opportunity. I had the hunger to learn and had a vision I was determined to achieve.”

At T.Webber Plumbing & Heating (www.twebber.com) in Cold Neck, New York, it is a definitely a family affair. Tom Webber started the company in 1987. Today, his children help run the company — son Tommy Webber is vice president, daughter Kelly Webber is the marketing and operations manager, and daughter-in-law Kelsey Webber serves as an accountant.

Kelly Webber grew up in her dad’s company but took a different path as she went to college — a Bachelor’s degree in marketing and German, and a Master’s degree in intercultural relations and international education. She worked in the travel industry and as an international student advisor before returning to the family business.

“I came back to work for my family company because I missed being in an entrepreneurial environment,” Webber explains. “I think any kid who grows up with parents who work for themselves has it in their blood. I felt stifled by the bureaucracy of higher education and came back to work for Dad to be able to see the fruits of my labor and know that my actions have direct results.”

Working in a family business can put a strain on familial relationships — especially on the ownership end. The key is to find the strengths of family members and use those abilities.

The Nicholsons have a clear delineation of responsibilities based on their individual strengths.

“Mike is more technical, so he is the support for complex issues that come up with his technicians, as well as training the techs and handling complex customer issues,” Nicholson explains. “He is a bit of a wizard when it comes to diagnosing and designing system installations. I handle the operational processes, human resources, marketing and setting the roadmap for our growth.

“Our roles have developed drastically over the years though — I started out by answering phones, doing the bookkeeping, running our parts and even helping Mike on installations at times. I wear fewer hats now and focus more on the business development.”

With 48 employees, Webber’s focus on marketing and operations at Nexstar member T.Webber allows her to provide leadership on a subject she is passionate about — customer service.

“Everything from the top down revolves around providing excellent customer service,” she says. “For a long time, the home services industry got a bad rap for providing poor customer service. Fixing the problem was the only thing that mattered — the service aspect was often forgotten. I’m committed to raising the bar in the service industry and providing not only great technical repairs but with excellent customer-focused service.”

'Don’t ever let your gender hold you back. Whether in the business support side or as a technician, you can excel at anything you put your mind to.'

Nicholson agrees: “Customer service is everything! We set ourselves apart from our competition by offering top-notch service and treating our customers like a sister or an aunt. Having a contractor in your home does not need to be a rough experience coupled with the anxiety that the technician will talk over you or take advantage of you.

“We train every staff member from technicians to the warehouse staff how to deal courteously with customers, talk to them in layman’s terms, ensure the customer has a full understanding of the scope of work, and make the homeowner aware of all possible options available to them. Customer service is a passion for us and it should be for everyone in the service industry.”

Recruiting skilled labor

While neither company employs female plumbers or HVAC techs, both Nicholson and Webber would relish adding women to their field staffs.

“The industry has a shortage of skilled labor and what better time for women to jump in and fill that gap?” Nicholson notes. “We are just as capable and often add different perspectives that can add significant value.”

Nicholson Plumbing is looking within to grow its technician roles. Its long-term plan is to turn apprentices into “superstar” techs.

“Talent is hard to find and it’s best when it is homegrown,” Nicholson says. “But we never stop recruiting. Through referral and sign-on bonuses, we hope to find the very best — men or women. While we do not employ female technicians at this time, women have played a significant role in our company’s growth.”

Filling the labor gap is tough, Webber admits, but T.Webber Plumbing & Heating keeps priming the recruiting pump.

“We do a lot of recruiting through our existing employees, the vendors we deal with, the regular online recruitment channels, social media and radio,” Webber says. “We also focus on being a premier workplace in our area, with excellent pay, benefits, a positive work culture and providing regular full-time, year-round work. I truly believe if you build a positive work environment with opportunity for growth, it will attract the talent you want and need — including women.”

She notes that, as gender stereotypes begin early on, it’s important for parents, educators and career counselors to encourage young women to explore all career options, including the skilled trades, during their K-12 school years.

“To draw more women into our industry, we need to do a better job of educating girls and women that a career in the trades is not only an option but an excellent one,” Webber notes. “It’s all about education and representation. The more women we see as plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians, the more other women will feel empowered to make that choice and follow that path.”

Their advice for women considering a career in the plumbing and heating trades?

“Go for it, this industry needs you!” Nicholson says. “Don’t ever let your gender hold you back. Whether in the business support side or as a technician, you can excel at anything you put your mind to. I had hesitation when I first entered this industry, too, and felt insecure because I didn’t know anything technical. With some drive, I quickly acquired the knowledge I needed. I continue to learn every day, and you can, too!”

Webber adds: “Women can excel at anything they put their mind to. As girls, we aren’t always steered towards the trades. But as women, with training and education, we can do any job.” 

About the Author

Kelly L. Faloon | Freelance Writer/Editor

Kelly L. Faloon is a contributing editor and writer to ContractorContracting Business magazine and HPAC Engineering and principal of Faloon Editorial Services. The former editor of Plumbing & Mechanical magazine, Faloon has more than 26 years of experience in the plumbing and heating industry and more than 35 years in B2B publishing. She started a freelance writing and editing business in 2017, where she has a varied clientele.

Faloon spent 3 1/2 years at Supply House Times before joining the Plumbing & Mechanical staff in 2001. Previously, she spent nearly 10 years at CCH/Wolters Kluwer, a publishing firm specializing in business and tax law, where she wore many hats — proofreader, writer/editor for a daily tax publication, and Internal Revenue Code editor.

A native of Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula, Faloon is a journalism graduate of Michigan State University. You can reach her at [email protected].

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