Industry Professionals Share Their Experience
While the number of women in the construction industry has grown over the last decade, they still total only 9.35 percent of the total workforce. The latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2015 reports that Total Workers in Construction numbered 9,935,000, with men holding 9,006,000 of those positions and women just 929,000.
As more women enter the construction and fire protection industry fields, they become role models for the women who will consider and enter this rewarding field. Sprinkler Age interviewed several women in various segments of the industry and asked their perspective.
A View From the Contractor’s Side
Tracy Hadwin is safety and training director at Fire Tech Systems, Inc. in Shreveport, Louisiana. She is responsible for jobsite safety inspections, working with general contractors to resolve safety issues, holding monthly safety meetings and all in-house safety training. She is also the instructor for the Louisiana-approved fire sprinkler apprentice program.
Hadwin got involved in the industry through her spouse. “My husband has worked for Fire Tech Systems since 1991. The company was looking to hire a new inspector, so I inquired about the job. Linda [Biernacki] was willing to give me a chance and I went to work inspecting fire extinguishers while working on my NICET certification.”
Biernacki is a trailblazer, role model and mentor for women in the fire sprinkler industry. She is founder and president of Fire Tech Systems, Inc., and has served on the AFSA Board of Directors since 2007. She is currently president of the Louisiana Fire Sprinkler Association, a member of Women in Construction, and is certified by the Women’s Business Council Gulf Coast. She has over 26 years of experience in all phases of business and is always eager to share her knowledge with others.
“I am very proud of Tracy and all her accomplishments she has achieved in our industry,” says Biernacki. “She is a tremendous asset to our organization and she excels at all the projects I pass her way. As a woman in a non-traditional field she has stayed true to who she is and earned respect from many of the safety managers we work with. She is the safety director for our local AGC Chapter and she routinely gets calls from general contractors for advice. She is a rising star with a positive attitude and always willing to conquer another challenge.”
Hadwin has discovered both pros and cons to being a woman in this industry.
“Pros – I can say I am one of few women working as safety director for a construction company and Level II NICET Certified for Inspections of Sprinkler Systems.
“Cons – I’m not always taken seriously. Most people assume that I sit behind a desk and do clerical work. The fact is, I’m on job sites quite often. When a safety issue comes up and I have to address a general contractor, he sometimes likes to challenge my knowledge of safety. I don’t think the men would do this if I were not female.”
Hadwin is a member of AFSA, NFPA, and the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). She’s currently serving as regional safety chairperson for NAWIC and safety chairperson for the Associated General Contractors (AGC) Shreveport Chapter.
“When I look back at what I have accomplished over the last nine years, it really makes me proud,” Hadwin says. “I went from a job I was unhappy with, to inspecting fire sprinkler systems, then to a management position where the safety of our employees is my biggest responsibility.”
What’s the key ingredient to Hadwin’s success? “This is an easy one! I’m the type of person who never backs down from a challenge, and Linda realized this right away. She loves to give me new challenges and I can honestly say I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you don’t challenge yourself you will never know what you can accomplish.”
“There are so many opportunities for women in our industry if they are willing to put the time and effort into learning the trade,” Hadwin comments. “It doesn’t matter where they start out if they are interested in other areas, learn about that position, and ask for a chance to prove they can do it.”
Alyson Nahrup is the accounting controller for the installation side of ABCO Fire Protection, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio and is part of the leadership team for the Cincinnati branch. Her father, past AFSA Board Member Don Eckert, started Eckert Fire Protection back in 1982 when Nahrup was just two years old. In 2006 Nahrup decided to join the team. In 2010 she started her own fire protection company Anox Fire Protection Services as a compliment to Eckert Fire Protection, which added new disciplines and services to serve customers. The next year, Nahrup became a certified Woman Business Enterprise (WBE), a rigorous and intense process.
“As time went on, my dad was nearing retirement and we started partnering with a company based out of Cleveland called ABCO Fire Protection. The partnership was going extremely well and we both decided to sell our companies to ABCO in January 2014,” Nahrup recalls. “My father is now happily retired, although he just started the Ohio Valley Chapter of AFSA in his spare time and currently serves as its executive director!
“Before I came into the fire protection industry I was a junior high math/science teacher. I was predominately teaching with women, so for me to step into the fire protection industry surrounded by men was quite a change,” Nahrup says. “One of the cons I have discovered being a woman in the industry is that it may take longer to gain the respect of others, especially those who have experience.
“However, if you stay persistent in wanting to learn and constantly take every opportunity to educate yourself, you will find yourself experiencing the pros of being a woman in the industry. Men and other women will begin to have respect for you based on the drive you have to learn the business.”
Nahrup is involved in the newly created AFSA Ohio Chapter. She is also a part of a Woman’s Leadership Council through ABCO Fire Protection, and participates in several charity events that ABCO sponsors.
What’s the key ingredient to Nahrup’s success? “Adaptability, always [being]open to learning, and doing what I say I am going to do.”
In addition to that, Nahrup offers her take on becoming involved in the industry: “Take every chance and opportunity to learn, whether it’s taking a new class, watching a demonstration, and/or spending a day in the field.”
Meaghen Wills is sales and project management with Anchor Fire Protection, Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from the University of Hartford and is a graduate of AFSA’s Beginning Fire Sprinkler System Planning School.
Wills has grown up in the fire sprinkler industry, as her father Ted Wills, Jr., second vice chairman of the AFSA Board and at-large director, started Anchor Fire Protection. “My grandfather started as a mechanical contractor/plumber and it grew into a fire protection company with my dad’s assistance in the ‘70s,” Wills explains. “I had no idea what I was getting into, but it has been extremely rewarding to work alongside my family and the AFP family. Knowing that everything that we do has an impact on everyday lives is gratifying and it’s what keeps me going on the stressful days.”
Wills tries not to look at her typical day as a “male versus female” situation. “I look at everyone as a peer and everyone has strengths and weaknesses,” she comments. “Finding a way to work with different personalities should be the focus. If you treat everyone equally it’s easy to weed out the people who you don’t click with or don’t respect you and move forward without them.”
Wills serves as chair of AFSA’s Mid-Atlantic Chapter and chair of the NextGen Initiative. She is a member of AFSA’s Public Education & Awareness, Apprenticeship & Education, and Convention committees; and sits on the National Apprentice Competition subcommittee. Wills is also a member of American Society of Certified Engineering Technicians (ASCET).
In 2016, Wills was named AFSA’s first-ever Young Professional of the Year. This inaugural award is one of AFSA’s annual highest honors and highlights the efforts of a young and talented fire protection professional, who is under 40 and demonstrates exemplary technical, professional and inclusive leadership skills not only in their own businesses, but also at a national level. AFSA’s Next Generation Initiative, whose focus is to involve the younger professionals in the association and the fire protection industry, created the award. Through her involvement with AFSA, Wills helped establish this group and has led the charge to grow its numbers. She says the NextGen Initiative and receiving this award are her proudest accomplishments.
“Every year I’m still amazed at how many people are participating in the NextGen Initiative and how much it’s grown since its inception a few years ago,” Wills comments. “It went from Joe Heinrich and I having a vision to help the younger people in our industry to being an important asset to our organization in only two years.
“All of the hard work behind it from AFSA staff, the Board of Directors, and the national work group is now paying off and I was honored and humbled that AFSA and my NGI peers recognized that hard work with presenting me the award in Nashville. I hope this can pave the way for my generation, the generation behind me, and for women to have something to works towards.”
What’s the key ingredient to Wills’ success? Persistence. “People in the construction industry can be finicky. One day they like you and the next day they don’t, but it’s not personal. It’s business. So keep pushing forward and let the negativity drive you to be a better person and to work harder to accomplish your goals,” Wills recommends.
What advice would Wills give to women interested in joining this field? “Be confident, be educated, and don’t let anyone influence you in a negative way. The men in this industry have a lot of respect for women who can stand their ground and know their stuff.
“With more women entering into the industry in various areas, it’s important that we continue to put our best foot forward in everything that we do to change the mindset of the current generation,” Wills says. “This is no longer just a man’s industry! And don’t be afraid to hear the word ‘no.’ Ask questions – ask for help, change orders, work, a raise… the worst thing anyone is going to tell you is ‘no!’”
Associate Members’ Thoughts
Rekha Agrawal earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering and a Ph.D. in statistics. She is vice president and general manager, Fire Suppression Products, a $1.2 billion-dollar business within Johnson Controls (JCI).
“I joined Tyco (now JCI) about 13 years ago, and have worked in a variety of roles within the company,” Agrawal states. “I really started in the industry about six years ago when I ran a region for SimplexGrinnell, a sister company. I became part of the products group (Tyco Fire Protection Products) two years ago.”
Agrawal is an active member of the industry. She is an NFPA member and participated in the “Women in Engineering” panel at the NFPA 2016 Conference & Expo. She is also a member of the Tyco Women’s Growth Network (WGN), which champions the value, growth and advancement of women with 28 chapters and 1,527 members.
“Clearly being a woman in the industry puts you in the minority,” says Agrawal, “but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. For JCI, I see our focus on diversity as a competitive advantage in this industry, in that hopefully we can reach a broader talent pool and provide a compelling vision for why people should choose us when considering a career.”
Agrawal is honored to be serving JCI in her current position. “It’s a huge responsibility to our 3,200 employees across 60 countries, and I am energized every day by the people on our team and their passion for this industry, she says. “I have been extremely fortunate to have been around great leaders my whole career, whether it has been my bosses, other people more senior in the organization, or my peers and people on my team. Learning from them has been a tremendous opportunity.”
Agrawal offers this advice to other women: “Be confident, and be vocal. There are a huge number of opportunities in our industry – don’t feel you have to sit on the sidelines before you engage and help us to capitalize on them.”
Danielle Fowler is regional sales manager for Potter Roemer Fire Pro. Her responsibilities include sales in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Northern Louisiana and Texas. She has worked for over 32 years in the fire protection industry, spending over 30 years with a manufacturer’s representative and the last year-and-a-half working directly for Potter Roemer Fire Pro. Fowler also serves as the executive director for AFSA’s Chesapeake Bay Chapter, and is an active member of the Capital Region Fire Sprinkler Association and the Fire Sprinkler Contractors Association of Texas.
“I’m proud to say that I have sold the same product for over 32 years,” Fowler says. “Customer service and the relationships I’ve built have been the key to my success.”
“Women stand out because there are not many in the industry, so educate yourself, know your products, and be your own advocate,” recommends Fowler. “It’s good to stand out, so never let being a woman hold you back. There are some very successful woman in this industry and I’d love to see even more!”
Fowler is very encouraging for women wanting to enter the fire protection field: “Go for it! Make a statement. Surround yourself with knowledgeable peers. Get involved in the associations, make friends not just customers, and remember the fire protection family is exactly that – family!”
Madison Parsons is a sales representative for Globe Fire Sprinkler and covers North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington D.C. She graduated from East Carolina University in 2016 with a degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing, but has a history with the fire sprinkler industry.
“My father [Bernie Parsons, Wayne Automatic Fire Sprinklers, Inc., Concord, North Carolina] has been in the fire sprinkler industry my whole life,” she says, “so I like to say growing up I knew more about fire sprinklers than your average eight-year-old.”
“After graduating college, during my job search I turned to the fire sprinkler industry for a possible career,” Parsons remembers. “When researching industries, this industry presented itself with a lot of opportunities, along with potential in growth. I am very thankful to have accepted a job with such a great company, Globe Fire Sprinkler.”
Parsons notes that coming into this industry, she was warned by many people that the fire sprinkler industry was a “man’s world.”
“That was a challenge I was ready to accept,” she says. “Going into this, I knew that would be something I would have to overcome. There have been plenty of times I have been the only woman in an association meeting with 30-plus men. But with that being said, I do not feel that being a woman has inhibited me. When starting anything new, there are going to be challenges, without getting gender involved.”
Parsons notes that she is proud to be in the position she is today. “When I look around at these association meetings, I am one of the only females in the room, and one of, if not the youngest person in the room. It provides me with motivation and challenges on a daily basis to continue to push through the misconceptions of my gender and generation – the ‘Millennials.’ Many women have come before me in this industry and paved the way to make gender not as big of an issue. Now, you see more and more women getting involved, which is awesome.”
One of the ways Parsons is making a difference is through her involvement with local AFSA chapters and the NextGen Initiative, which is focused on professionals aged 40 and under in the industry and the impact they can have.
“Putting gender aside, this industry as a whole is a challenge,” Parsons advises. “From learning all the components to knowing the codes and standards, there is a lot to learn in this industry. I would not discourage anyone from joining an industry just because it is outside of someone’s comfort zone.”
Amanda Rehker is market segment manager for BlazeMaster Fire Sprinkler Systems in Cleveland, Ohio. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in business management and marketing from Case Western Reserve University.
“My first job out of college was working as an intern for a local Harley-Davidson dealership. I worked my way up to marketing manager and when I sought out growth opportunities, I found Lubrizol,” comments Rehker.
In her job as market segment manager, Rehker represents the BlazeMaster brand and is responsible for all marketing activities and customer relationships in North America.
“Lubrizol is a well-known and respected corporation in Cleveland. I saw a marketing role open up at Lubrizol representing the BlazeMaster brand and thought it sounded like an exciting industry and opportunity,” recalls Rehker.
While she’s noticed that women are few and far between in the fire sprinkler industry, Rehker notes that she doesn’t see this as a negative thing.
“I see this is more as an opportunity to bring a different perspective,” she says. “I have come to notice that the industry is very welcoming to new ideas and opinions. I have met some wonderful people during my career,” she continues. “The fire protection industry is filled with passionate individuals focused on saving lives.”
Rehker is involved in AFSA’s NextGen Initiative and is excited about involving the younger generation and women in the fire protection industry. She has advice for both sectors: “Never be afraid to share your opinions and ideas – most are receptive and welcome the new perspective. Be excited about what you do; find something to be passionate about and hang on!”
A True Pioneer Reflects on a Career in Fire Protection
Carol McCain, vice president and general manager at Urban Fire Protection, Houston, Texas, and executive director of the Fire Sprinkler Contractors Association of Texas (FSCATX) has been in the industry since 1978, a time when there weren’t many, if any, women around.
“I had no clue what an elbow or a tee was when I started; I was very lucky that I had a knowledgeable estimator who mentored me,” McCain reminisces. “And I remember that women were so rare on job sites back then.”
McCain spent four years working in the North before she moved down to Texas, where she also earned a mechanical degree and her NICET Level III. “I had to earn that,” she remembers. “My first job interview I was asked about it because a state law had just passed requiring each contracting office to have a NICET Level III on staff. I’m proud to say that I burned the midnight oil and learned, and earned the 34th license. For a long while I was the only woman with that accomplishment in the state.”
McCain eventually came to join Urban Fire Protection and now serves as vice president and general manager for the Houston office. She has also been an active member of the industry, serving on the Construction Industry Council for Houston and holding a variety of offices for the Fire Sprinkler Contractors Association of Texas (FSCATX) since 1983. She has been executive director of the association for many years now.
Though McCain is still going (part-time) strong at 75, she does look forward to retirement. “I’m trying to bring the younger generation and newer people into FSCATX,” she comments. The association honored her last year with its inaugural “Champion of the Fire Sprinkler Industry” award.
“I don’t understand why there aren’t more women in this industry,” McCain comments. “It’s a great job for a woman. We [FSCATX] participate in the Construction Industry Foundation’s Career Day in Dallas and I always tell high school girls who come through that it’s a great industry. You can work in the field, as a designer, in management – this is probably the only industry I can think of that’s so open to women coming into it, but few do. You can make good money and I’ve never been without a job.”
Some notes of advice from McCain? “You’d better have a good sense of humor! Also, don’t be afraid to start at the bottom and find yourself a mentor or someone willing to help you get through the rough spots. Take every opportunity that presents itself and keep learning; I still learn stuff every day!
“As a woman in a male-dominated industry, you have to work harder and be smarter. You have to know how to get along with men and work in that atmosphere. You have to learn how to present yourself so that the men respect you,” she advises.
There is no doubt that more women are entering the construction and fire protection industries. These women and others are leaders in their fields, and with their mentorship, many other women will come to know the benefits and value of working in such a rewarding career. As McCain says: “I’m just glad I’m still here and the fact that I like what I’m doing. Every day is different; I think that fire protection gives you a lot of opportunities.”