Discover the arts behind the trade. This is Renee Joseph’s story

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Photo of Renee Joseph. She  is outdoors, smiling at the camera.

La Crosse, WI – May, 2021

Growing up on a small rural farm in Western Wisconsin, I learned very early in life the importance of hardwork. Despite my creative spirit and desire to become a classical pianist and watercolor artist, I pursued a more practical career path.  Immediately following high school, I entered collage to become a nurse. Unfortunately, I found this profession to not be well suited to me and so began what I describe as my wandering years.  It was the mid 70’s.  I found myself working for a placement director at a technical college in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where Trane had their headquarters.

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One day, on a dare, he said, “There’s a position at Trane headquarters, let’s see if Trane will hire you”. At that time, they only hired men with engineering degrees.  I accepted the dare.  I didn’t hold back, I went in, and I got the job.

As time went by, I built a very successful career at Trane leading their global sales and marketing team. I did go back to school to get my business and marketing degree roughly five years after starting the company but found that with each promotion and new opportunity I became more and more enamored with the “world of buildings and HVAC” and working with all these talented male engineers.  My career at Trane ended abruptly when my father became ill and I made the decision to stop work to help my parents seek treatment. 

Renee is sitting next to a beautiful painting. Below the painting is a musical instrument. It looks like a classical guitar.

Several years passed and after losing both my parents I decided I wanted to go back to work.  I knew I wanted to return to the world of buildings and HVAC because in my opinion there is not a career field that impacts so many people in so many ways.  I applied at Johnson Controls and was offered a position there. Ten years in, and now, I am the Global Vice President of Customer and Sales Enablement, driving customer enablement across a $12 billion portfolio. Specifically, I lead the development and deployment of a digital transformation customer facing platform with a team of roughly 400 people.

While my journey into HVAC was atypical, I now find that there is no better industry to work in.  HVAC impacts the lives of people around the globe no matter where they live, they work or play.  I love the industry because we make such a difference in people’s lives, everyone needs some form of heating, air conditioning and/or refrigeration to survive.

After returning to the industry after not working in the space for roughly 10 years I was amazed to see how little had changed.  I attended the industry trade convention with over 100,000 people in attendance only to discover that it was still mostly older white men.  As I walked the convention floor, I happened upon a small table with several women hosting conversations with a sign that said, Women in HVACR a non-profit with a mission of attracting and helping to retain women in the industry.  I thought “Wow, it would be great to be a part of this!”

Renee is painting on a piece of paper. she is using a small brush. She is smiling.

If you look at the demographics, today, it just hasn’t changed much over the years. That is what attracted me the most about Women in HVACR. So, I joined and after about a year they asked me if I would be on the board. We focus on providing a network for those women in the industry as well as offering programs and support to attract new talent into the industry. 

So, for us “Women in HVACR”, we have done a nice job growing our membership considering the times.  But when you look at the overall demographics in the industry not a lot has changed.  There are several factors coming into play however that I believe will start to move the needle. 

First the workforce especially in the United States is aging with roughly one third retiring in the next two to five years.  The population remaining is roughly half women so companies will now need to focus on women to be viable in the future. There is also a large amount of research that now shows that organizations that have diverse talent are more successful and profitable.  Having a diverse workforce makes good business.  Many companies understand that this is a talent war and have now set goals, incentives, and rewards to bring more diverse talent into their organizations. 

Renee is typing on a computer keyboard. She is sitting in front of her desk.

Secondly women are becoming increasingly aware of the impact this industry has on the lives of people around the world as well as the impact it has on the planet as we are one of the largest consumers of energy.  The ability to make a difference on such a broad scale is intriguing to many women.  Outreach programs such as the Ambassador program offered by the Women in HVACR helps to showcase the opportunities that exist in this space.

Whether you want to become an engineer and influence the designs of products, refrigerants, government regulations, or go into sales, manufacturing, procurement, contract installation or service organizations supporting the industry the jobs and opportunities are almost endless. The use of artificial intelligence and IoT to create smart and healthy buildings is an emerging field which is especially appealing to women. 

Finally, women are also becoming aware of the financial rewards afforded by this industry.  Not only does it offer great opportunity for the college bound or college educated person but careers in the technical space are especially in demand and very lucrative.  Basically, whatever your interest, this industry has something to offer. 

One challenge many companies that have brought women into their organizations are having has to do with retention.  Creating an inclusive environment is not always easy.  The habits and behaviors of the past are difficult to reshape.  Women in HVACR is a great resource for helping to connect.  We offer educational programs, networking events, mentorship programs and just plain old good fun especially when we can connect in person which we are planning to do at our annual conference this year. 

Renee smiles for the camera. She is on a porch. Behind her is a beautiful natural landscape.

The interesting part of all of this is that we collaborate with a lot of men every day. When we find a way to connect and make it personal for them, for example if a guy has children or grandchildren that are starting in this business who are women, suddenly, they have a real interest in women’s inclusion. It is just interesting to see that as I talk to people about their families and what their career interests are that is attracting more people into the conversation and then they are seriously engaged in the topic.  The good news is that this is all helping us to spread the news about this awesome industry. 

At WHVACR, all the board members are volunteers with a major passion for helping to move the needle in this industry.  Many are owners of their businesses or have significant roles with companies.  We do our best to build programs that allow our members to engage and help to spread the news about the opportunities. 

The bottom line is at a nonprofit like ours we are really aimed at those women in the industry and see how we can educate and mentor them, provide them with the tool sets that they need.

Renee is sitting by the piano. You can see joy in her eyes. She smiles.

If I were to change one thing in the sector, I would say maybe just the need to change our name.  I mean how appealing is HVAC to someone not in our industry.   Several years ago, I conducted a workshop with grad students trying to brainstorm why so few women in are in our industry.  They highlighted that the name “HVAC” didn’t have good connotations.

If we could change the dialogue about what we really do and how much we impact people’s lives and the health of the planet they were confident that we could change the landscape.  We really need to position this differently and I wish we had the power to make an impactful campaign to promote that.

The best lesson for me after so many years working in this sector is just not hold yourself back. Many women tend to hold back and say well “I don’t have everything I need; I don’t have all the credentials”. They don’t put themselves out there. So, my one lesson is to take those risks. What is the worst that can happen? You may not get the promotion, or you may not get selected for a key project but o well…at least you tried.  Just pull yourself out there!

Finally, if you are curious about the industry just give it a try. As I mentioned earlier the opportunities are almost endless.  So, it is about giving it a chance, talk with someone who is in the industry.  I promise you will be amazed at the career opportunities, the talented people you will work with and the difference you can make.