Women in Chicago’s Mechanical Contracting industry: Persistence and awareness of career opportunities diversity provide success keys

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Despite social trends and government policies encouraging women to consider historically non-traditional careers, you still won’t find many females in the plumbing, pipefitting and HVAC service trades in the Chicago area.

However, women have enjoyed incredible success in managerial and ownership responsibilities, and these leaders say they have noticed a diversity of career paths and opportunities for women wishing to advance their careers in the mechanical contracting industry.

Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) Chicagos female members say their association has provided excellent networking opportunities and these relationships have helped them to develop and advance their careers.

Karen Riffice
Karen Riffice

“It’s getting better,” says Karen Riffice, owner of Amalgamated Services, Inc. in Frankfort, IL.

Riffice started her own business in 2006, after spending 26 years gaining experience at another company in the industry.

When she began her career in the mechanical contracting industry, she says, women were few and far between in all but the administrative and office areas, and there certainly weren’t many women in ownership or senior sales and marketing roles.

Today, her business has more than 20 employees, including 19 union members. She’s been able to win work as a subcontractor for government projects requiring WBE (Woman Business Enterprise) and DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) certification.

Lindsey Grilec
Lindsey Grilec

Meanwhile, Lindsey Grilec, a sales representative at Orland Park-based Southwest Town Mechanical Services, says she joined the business through her family (her father is the company’s president), a common path for women entering the industry.

Her brother took up the trade – he is qualified as a pipefitter – but reflecting the gender distinction that continues to define the industry, she says her family steered her to find work outside of the trades, though she started out with the family “growing up, running parts, and answering phones, helping in the shop and cleaning the office on the weekend.” As an adult, with a communications degree and sports marketing experience, she took on management and marketing responsibilities.

“My father wanted me to try something different (than the trades),” she said. “He wanted me to go to college and then decide if I still wanted to be a pipefitter. He didn’t want me to break my back. It was good advice.”

Today, she is working on challenges including implementing mobile software for 40 service techs and coordinating energy savings initiatives from the utilities, to help customers save money with the rebates and rewards. She is also the company’s safety director.

Within MCA Chicago, she serves on both the safety and information technology committees.

She acknowledges that many women still don’t want to work in the field in the tactile trades occupations, but “there are accounting positions, customer service positions,” she said. “Women can do without being a pipefitter. Some of the most reputable vendors we purchase from, their salespeople are women, they know their product … you don’t need to be technical and in the field to be very successful in the business.” Currently, many of the upper level positions in our corporation are held by women.

Riffice says she certainly encourages women toward trades careers as well as well as the office and non-trades work, though it is hard to convince them that the blue-collar opportunities are right for them. However, there are exceptions. “We have a plumber who goes out into schools, she wears a hard hat, but also wears lipstick and has earrings,” and students can see she can do the job. But few young people see these role models and so don’t even consider the trades as a career, she said.

Overall, the statistics reflect the fact that women are still very much a minority in the industry. Overall female participation at 8.9 percent has not improved much since the 1980s. “The barriers have come down,” said Kathy McCauley an industry veteran and the president of McCauley Mechanical Construction Inc. in Bridgeview, IL. “But I haven’t necessarily seen more women in the industry.”

(McCauley has previously served as the first female president of MCA Chicago’s board of directors. She currently sits on the MCAA Career Development Committee as well as the MCA Chicago Career Development Committee and is thus actively involved in the MCAA Student Chapter, serving as a judge for the MCAA Student Chapter Competition.)

The number of women-owned firms is even lower, at seven percent, according to the 2015 State of Women-Owned Business Report released by American Express OPEN earlier this year. Overall, the report says the number of women in the construction industry, which declined during the most recent recession, has yet to recover to pre-recession levels.

However, women contractors and employees say that MCA Chicago has been helpful and welcoming in encouraging their career and business development.

McCauley and Riffice both took advantage of classes at MCA’s Construction Education Institute, and they each sat on several committees and eventually assumed leadership roles within the association itself, MCA Chicago reported in a news release.

“Committees are the best way to learn about the industry and develop relationships with others who can help you in the business,” said Riffice. “Networking is essential. It taught me how others in the industry work.”

“In this industry you can do anything – marketing, computer sciences, accounting and sales,” Riffice said. “If you are tactically skilled, the trades are great, you can learn on the job through apprenticeship programs; you can figure out what the problems are with the situation on hand and work on that.” Riffice has served on MCA Chicago’s board of directors, as well as the member services and government relations committees.

Grilec, meanwhile, says if she could offer a single important piece of advice to other women starting out in the mechanical contracting industry, it would be to “stick it out.”

“If you get frustrated with the job, with the time of the year when sales are slower, ride it out and stick with it, that’s aways worked for me; let the storm pass, find new responsibilities to take on, and go learn something new. This industry is ever changing, there is always something new to learn that can bring value to you and your company.”

“In this profession, you have to be quite persistent.”

Writer: Mark Buckshon

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