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June 2019
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Women in Controls:

Inspirational, Innovational, Indispensable
Skip Freeman

Skip Freeman,
 Senior Partner & Technical Recruiter,
BASI Solutions, Inc.

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Recently I had the privilege of speaking with eight remarkable women in Building Automation & HVAC Controls. A common thread permeating all eight conversations is the unbridled enthusiasm each has for our industry along with their confidence, futuristic outlook, and tenacity. These eight professionals are truly inspirational.

The catalyst for this article occurred at AHRExpo 2019. In case you aren’t aware, AutomatedBuildings.com hosts a number of free sessions at the expo each year.

The nine sessions held in January 2019 each attracted standing room only crowds (200+). Tuesday afternoon, January 15, a crucial session regarding the future of our industry was conducted by four under forty-year-old BAS/HVAC Controls professionals, “Next Generation HVAC Controls: Open Hardware-Open Software.1

During the break, Ken Sinclair (the Founder/Owner/Publisher of AutomatedBuildings.com) and I were chatting, and our conversation segued to discussing the next generation of BAS/HVAC Controls professionals. Where are we going to find them? How are we going to train them? And in the recruitment of younger people to our profession, how do we attract more women?

In speaking with the eight women highlighted below, it’s practically a consensus that continued (and even increased) emphasis needs to be placed on the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers in grades K-12. Equally important will be the realization by our politicians and educators that not all STEM careers require a college education. Ours, for example, is one of them. A renewed respect for the trades presents a world of opportunities for those not wishing to pursue the traditional 4-year degree, and not just for men but equally for women.

But this is not a problem we will solve in this article!

So, what’s it like to be a woman in Building Automation and HVAC Controls in 2019, and what can be done both short term and practically to attract more women?

Dannah HagertyDannah Hagerty has been in HVAC and HVAC Controls for 18-years, all with ENTEK. Dannah, along with the seven other women in this article, is part of a small but elite group of professionals, i.e., the 1.4% that are the “women of HVAC.” 2

Dannah’s been on the roof and in the mechanical room. She’s gotten her hands dirty. “That’s what it takes to be successful whether you are a man or woman in HVAC,” she states. Today she is the VP of Sales for ENTEK.

As the mechanical/controls contractor for many interesting and exciting projects in and around Atlanta, ENTEK has a reputation for excellence. From her experience, she believes women have a knack for Building Automation. With the emphasis on energy savings, smart buildings, smart cities, and climate change, there are many opportunities for women on both the OEM and Contractor side.

Casey CrownCasey Crown, a Project Engineer with Sunbelt Controls headquartered in Anaheim, CA, she is located in Boise, ID, sees more women becoming building owners and also coming into facilities management. Any mechanical/controls contracting firm who has a woman on the team who can connect with this group of decision-makers will have a leg up on their competition.

Casey’s own experience, coupled with her observations, suggests that mentorship is a powerful way to not only encourage women already in the controls industry but to move more women into choosing HVAC/HVAC Controls as a profession.

Casey has been in controls since 2006. Every day she can make a system run better, she knows she is making a positive change on the carbon footprint created by that facility.

Diane Fretz“Trinity Automated Solutions is a systems integration company formed in 2014 and born out of the desire to serve customers to the highest level of performance possible,” shares Dianne Fretz, the General Manager and a Vice President. Dianne joined the firm in 2018 because she wanted to get back to a small firm where teamwork is a top priority.

Dianne’s journey into building automation began in 2002 when the consulting firm she was working for had an assignment with a controls company, Logical Automation. “They had a sense of teamwork I had not experienced anywhere up to that point in my career.” As Dianne’s consulting assignment drew to a close, the President of Logical Automation approached her about joining the company which she did.

Dianne stayed with Logical Automation through a buyout, and in 2012 became the General Manager of their Pittsburgh office. Soon after, she was promoted and became responsible for all of Pennsylvania.

It was Logical Automation’s culture of teamwork that enabled Dianne, who had a business background, to learn the technical competencies necessary to be successful in Building Automation. It’s that same culture of teamwork that is critical to attracting younger workers today, which includes women.

Irma KempIrma Kemp has seen the dual benefit both a company and its customers receive by having men and women on the team. Given the differences in how men and women think, if there is mutual respect between team members, the work is done faster and with higher customer satisfaction.

Irma is in a position to observe this firsthand since she is a Project Manager for Sunbelt Controls out of their Headquarter’s office. Hence, she is involved with numerous projects.

Before entering Building Automation, she was in Industrial Automation. Irma’s perspective is that Building Automation is a good industry for women for many reasons, one of which is less pay disparity between men and women. People get paid for the skills they bring to the job.

Both Irma and Casey, totally independent of each other, discussed with me how the Sunbelt leadership team values and encourages diversity. Additionally, there is a work/life balance at Sunbelt, which is attractive to all young people, independent of gender.

Rhonda StathamRhonda Statham, Business Development Manager, and dedicated Trane Account Manager at Lynxspring, doesn’t believe there are any glass ceilings in Building Automation for anybody. It’s a world of endless possibilities. “We just need to get the word out there,” enthusiastically comments Rhonda.

Having been a Law Enforcement Officer earlier in her career and understanding human psychology, Rhonda knows first hand that men and women have different thought processes. Rhonda’s comments in this area resonate with Irma’s above (i.e., the differences in how men and women think.)

Thus, success in bringing more women into controls is dependent, in part, on all of us understanding this reality. It reminds me of one of Steven Covey’s 7-Habits of Successful People, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.”

Erin DeFriezeErin DeFrieze grew up with her Dad being in the trades. She has been in Building Automation and HVAC Controls for over 20-years. Her career began with a mechanical contractor as a mechanical service salesperson. A couple of years later, her focus shifted to controls with the Y2K issue. She has done everything from system troubleshooting to controls programming, system engineering, and customer training.

A year ago, Erin took a new position with Lynxspring as an Application Engineer in their Professional Services Group. Erin is passionate about what she does and is happy to speak with any young person and/or woman interested in our profession.

In my conversation with Erin, she brought up a fascinating point. “Controls are invisible,” she commented. Being in the industry, we think about them all of the time. But for everyone else, they assume the room will be cooled or heated to the right temperature; the lights will come on, the windows won’t fog up, and more. They aren’t aware of this entire “behind the scenes industry,” making all of this happen. It’s up to us to be missionaries for our industry at our kid’s school, at college job fairs, and career days.

Gina ElliottGina started her BAS career in Smart Building design with a consulting engineering firm. Today, Gina Elliott is Vice President, Americas, at EasyIO. Gina is passionate about BAS and shared with me that if she had the chance to do her career over, she would want to do everything she has done, plus add the opportunity to start at the technical level in the field because “that is where the action is.”

Gina, like Erin, commented that we are an invisible industry. Building automation is like the old BASF commercial, “We don’t make the products you buy. We make the products you buy better.” If we want to attract young people, whether male or female, they must know we are here.

Gina is an advocate of the idea that if we want more women in the industry, “we as women need to recruit women.” She is involved in Campus Outreach, Social Media, helping companies develop internships and more as an advocate for our industry.

Shellie PerreaultShellie Perreault, when asked, “How can we recruit more women into Building Automation and HVAC Controls?” responded with a very unique answer. She stated, “I don’t want more women in controls,” to which I inquired, “I know there has to be a method to your madness in that answer?” She effectively replied, “I want to see more amazing talent in controls.”

Shellie, a Foreman & BAS Commissioning Technician with Southwest Electrical Contracting Services, was the third professional of the eight to state, “No one knows our industry is out here. HVAC, much less controls, is out of sight, out of mind. You don’t even think about it.”

“BAS is a cool career. You are not going to become a building automation engineer simply because you get a degree. This is an industry where you can start at the bottom without saddling yourself with years of debt, earn a great living and, if you apply yourself, become almost anything you want to become in this industry. You can do installation, engineering, programming, and sales. You can do it all.”

In conclusion, I want to speak on some topics where the professionals interviewed are “off the record.” Yes, there is some awkwardness and sexual misbehavior. But it has been minimal. However, even one instance is one too many.

While the majority of the women interviewed feel they have been treated fairly by the companies they work for, it’s the customers that often “test” them. Customers will challenge them concerning knowledge, capability, and durability. But, if one stands their ground, takes things with a sense of humor but draws the line when things are inappropriate, and is willing to go above and beyond, the relationships forged are stronger than ever.

These eight women interviewed are inspirational, innovational, and indispensable. They are pioneers to the young women who want to enter this industry.

Many thanks to:
Dannah Hagerty (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dannah-hagerty-7069b76), Vice President of Sales, ENTEK; Buford, GA (www.entek-inc.com)

Casey Crown (https://www.linkedin.com/in/casey-crown-7b7b35132), Project Engineer, Sunbelt Controls; Anaheim, CA (www.sunbeltcontrols.com)

Dianne Fretz (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dianne-fretz-0b173790), Vice President and General Manager, Trinity Automated Solutions; Bridgeville, PA (www.trinityas.com)

Irma Kemp (https://www.linkedin.com/in/irma-kemp-3197b86), Project Manager, Sunbelt Controls; Pleasanton, CA. (www.sunbeltcontrols.com)

Rhonda Statham (https://www.linkedin.com/in/rhonda-statham-58a61730), Business Development Manager, Lynxspring; Lee’s Summit, MO (www.lynxspring.com)

Erin DeFrieze (https://www.linkedin.com/in/erin-defrieze-20044255), Application Engineer, Lynxspring; Lee’s Summit, MO (www.lynxspring.com)

Gina Elliott (https://www.linkedin.com/in/gina-elliott-802384), Vice President Americas, EasyIO; Singapore (www.easyio.com)

Shellie Perreault (https://www.linkedin.com/in/shellieperreault), Foreman & BAS Commissioning Technician, Southwest Electrical Contracting Services; Converse, TX (www.swecs.com)


References

1.    AutomatedBuildings.com: Next Generation HVAC Controls: Open Hardware-Open Software – https://controltrends.org/building-automation-and-integration/01/standing-room-only-session-next-generation-hvac-controls-open-hardware-open-software/

2.    Boston Globe: Chart: The percentage of women and men in each profession (data are for 2016). There are 427,000 heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers, of which 1.4% are women (5,978). https://www2.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/03/06/chart-the-percentage-women-and-men-each-profession/GBX22YsWl0XaeHghwXfE4H/story.html



About the Author

Skip Freeman (https://www.linkedin.com/in/skipfreeman) is a Senior Partner & Technical Recruiter at BASI Solutions, Inc. (Building Automation and Smart Industry Solutions).

Skip has a BSME from the United States Military Academy at West Point and served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After completing his advanced degree at Georgia Tech, he spent 15-years in sales and sales leadership roles focused on the water side of HVAC.

Today Skip and the BASI Solutions recruiting team focus on helping companies hire top Building Automation and HVAC Controls talent and helping top talent advance their careers.

Contact Skip at Skip.Freeman@BASIsolutions.com | 678-480-4086 (cell)

Follow BASI Solutions, Inc. on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/building-automation-smart-industry/



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