By Samkelwa Xaba

Since entering the sector in 2018, I have developed both personally and professionally – finding ways to tick off items on my checklist of ‘to dos’. Now is the time to take the next leap of faith in making my visions a reality.

To my mind, having the opportunity to present an article in the RACA Journal was something I considered only a fairy-tale, but as my journey progresses I realise more and more how how everything has fallen into place, and things are just meant to be.

Giving up my established career in bio-technology, having obtained my diploma and completing many successful years of work was not an easy decision. However, I realised that the HVACR sector has many opportunities for women to participate and so I took my first leap of faith into the sector by again entering the arena of learning and becoming an apprentice in what is widely considered a man’s world.

My story started back in 2017 when my interest was ignited through another female technician who introduced me to the industry – which until then I had not even known existed. After some research, I tried to work out the industry dynamics and in particular, how women fit in. My research and engagements showed me that you don’t find much on women in the sector in South Africa, in fact, to my knowledge, there is no committee, organisation or body catering to women in HVACR.

Now, because we already have established official bodies in South Africa that specifically focus on HVACR, my vision is to establish (hopefully with their assistance) a body or sub-division where representation for women can be made, and grown for the sector. We already have access to experienced professionals, and it would be a practical solution to use the existing base.

Historically, trade occupations have, generally speaking, been seen as ‘a man’s work’ and women are often overlooked. But in many recent drives – and in many industries – positions for women in the trade sectors have increased, although progress is a bit slow. Taking a closer look at this, you have to consider all of the reasons why this is, starting from the fact that trades are pecieved to have a lower appeal, not to mention the fact that most young people don’t even know what HVACR is.

You may, for example, want to consider why the medical field is so popular and attractive for people to get into – it is always promoted well and looks like a ‘fancy industry’, and well-presented. Why are trades not promoted like this in South Africa as desperately needed skills? The medical field also has lower spectrum employment but on the surface, no one sees this because of the way it’s continually promoted.

Trades on the other hand are the opposite – they are always perceived to be the bottom end of the spectrum because you never get to see the shiny and beautiful installations of a plant room that has been completed to perfection, or see what technology goes into developing heating and cooling technology – which is becoming a major factor globally. The HVACR sector probably has as much technology as the medical field and is also responsible for so many elements no one even considers – this is all installed and maintained by the technician.

The current landscape in our country is that while women are intellectually strong and generally hard workers and committed to their jobs, one persisting element is the lack of a community of other women with which to share, be guided by and get advice from. It is no secret that in this country, women continue to battle inequality and have limited opportunities. I personally have never met a woman who has many complaints, and when a woman decides to do something, she does it for the love of it and is dedicated to the end.

The idea or vision behind establishing an organisation dedicated to women in HVACR is to: recognise and promote women’s participation in the sector, create positive movement through regular engagements, provide guidance as to how to handle ourselves in the industry, deal with challenges, work with and promote innovations, have workshops, provide mentorships, improve business skills, and ultimately create a platform for true entreprenership, which is much needed in our country.

Honestly speaking the work I do in my field is challenging, it requires patience and you need to be physically and mentally prepared to handle your work each day – and unfortunately, ladies, you cannot wear your nails to work. But not all elements of being involved in the HVACR sector is that much physical ‘hard work’ – you don’t have to do the ‘heavy lifting’. Workplaces have evolved to the point where even male employees have the tools and facilities to make the work easier and more efficient.

The fact that you work with your hands on a practical level and with a variety of tasks – rather than being confined to an office with loads of paperwork all of the time – offers fulfilment in itself, and re-building a compressor or engine is not physically hard work at all. The same is true for certain servicing acpects like changing belts, or oils.

Sure, when I started in this field as a new student I didn’t know anything about a spanner, a side-cutter or electric components, but because I wanted to know and learn, I put in the effort. For most people, doing something new is a scary process – now imagine how much more scary it is when you have zero support!

This is all part of my own journey, I am the one who is willing to put all of my efforts into making something work and tick off all of my goals (which I keep in my journal I started when I changed careers), I have always dreamt of the day that I am ready to move one step on.

Today I am proud that I have almost completed all of my training modules and made a lot of progress along the way and I want to share with other women in the sector that if you have a dream or a goal, to push through and find a way to make things happen. With the support of an organisation this will also get easier.

HVACR is an extremely interesting field and in my opinion it’s all about where you want to see yourself in 5 or 10 years’ time. As individuals we need to think beyond – bigger than where you are at the moment. When you have a dream you have to go for it, so I am taking the next step in my journey – you should too.

Watch this space ladies!

Samkelwa Xaba is a qualified bio-technologist and is currently completing her apprenticeship with GEA Africa Thermo King.

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