Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Meet Jessica Bannister, better known as HVAC Jess. After a decade of feeling unfulfilled in the corporate world, Jessica worked her way to become a Level 3 HVAC Apprentice at her family’s company, Cam Cool Refrigeration Inc., which specializes in commercial and industrial HVAC/R. She is also the current President of Women in HVAC/R Canada (follow them here) and strives to bring awareness to women in the trades, specifically women in HVAC-R, encouraging young people (girls especially) to consider it as a career option.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
I am a third generation refrigeration mechanic – my dad was an apprentice for his dad back in the 70’s. The trades were not offered to me as a career option after school, so after going to university and getting an office job, I finally registered to be an HVAC apprentice at the age of 35. I joined my family’s HVAC business, working in the office, until one day I decided I wanted to be out in the field instead of sitting behind a desk. I joined my dad and my brother on a few jobs and quickly realized my love for the trade. I registered as an apprentice and booked my first level of technical training. I am now a level 3 apprentice (there are 4 levels here in British Columbia).
What’s your favorite part about your trade?
My favorite part about the HVAC trade is the relief we bring to people. Some businesses rely heavily on refrigeration for their survival, and some people are desperate for comfort (during a heat wave or a frigid day). It’s also really rewarding to solve a problem. Not only for the client but mechanically. Some HVAC service calls are real head scratchers, while others are extremely physically demanding. Overcoming these challenges is a very rewarding experience.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
You must want to learn every single day. You need to have a growth mindset. You need to have patience with yourself and with others. In the HVAC trade, you sometimes have to deal with stressed out people who may be difficult, and you have to deal with difficult equipment. You need to be able to keep a level head and calm temper. You also need to be physically fit/strong to be able to work in certain circumstances (i.e. on top of ladders, etc.). HVAC can be physically, emotionally and mentally challenging. I believe really heavily in physical activity, so I’m at the gym almost every day, and I think that really helps me with not only my energy and my strength and my job, but my ability to react to things to people to clients that may be a little bit difficult. I really think that the physical goes hand in hand with the mental. And those days when I miss the gym, I just skip it or for whatever reason… I feel it.
What do the trades mean to you, and what important lessons have you learned while working in the trades?
I have learned that I can do hard things. The trades are not easy and it’s extremely rewarding to overcome your daily challenges. As a woman in the trades, I have taken confident ownership of some household tasks I would typically leave for my husband to do. Being in the trades has given me a confidence in myself I never thought I needed. I just wish I had gone into the trades sooner.
What is the biggest misconception about your work?
The trades are still generally looked down upon as lower class. My apprenticeship will take 5 years to complete and refrigeration school is no easy feat. The trades are a viable option for anyone looking for a career. It is lucrative and rewarding, especially if you own your own business. You come out of school with actual working experience and no student debt – in Canada we get government incentive grants for going to trade school. I wish more younger kids would explore the trades as a career option.
What are your thoughts on the state of the trades right now industry-wise?
See above. I still think the misconception that the trades are “less than” is harming the skilled trades industry. There is going to be a huge gap between the experienced generation on its way out of the work force and those just getting into it now – because for a long time university/college has been pushed as THE post secondary option. I think we need to market the trades more towards the younger generation, both to boys and girls, as much as we market colleges to them. We need to see more trades at career days and job fares. We need to see a diverse range of people in the trades – which is why I’m so active on Instagram, showing my everyday HVAC life.
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
Go for it! Give it a try. It’s not going to be easy, but if you stick with it and give it your all, it will reward you. Refresh your basic high school math and physics, you’ll need it for technical school. Find confidence and believe in yourself, even when others might not. The industrial trades provide so many opportunities, but it is not for the faint of heart. There are long, hot, hard hours, physically and mentally. Be prepared, because it’s not an easy trade to be in, but it’s completely rewarding. And I still love it, despite the challenges that it comes with.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
I am fortunate enough to live in Beautiful British Columbia, so my favorite way to spend my free time is hiking the local forests. Race you to the top?!
Our thanks to Jessica for making time to share her story and industry insights with us.