Niki Johnes grew up in a family of four brothers, so when she was the only woman in Direct Energy’s Technical Training scholarship program last year, she didn’t mind.
“All the guys were so helpful, so I think I may have gotten a little bit more support, maybe than a guy,” Johnes said. “I'm not sure, but I personally didn't think it was any hardship at all.”
And then the program led her to meeting Mike Rowe, whom she knew from his Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs.” Now Rowe has a webisode series called “Hot Under the Blue Collar” that Johnes was featured on.
Meeting Rowe was “awesome,” Johnes said, and she didn’t feel star-struck, even though she enjoys watching “Dirty Jobs.”
“He's like someone you see at the grocery store,” she said. “The best that I can explain it is he really seems like he's just like the rest of us.”
Johnes found the program by way of a friend who worked for Direct Energy. She was working in the shipping and receiving department of a tape and label distributor and knew eventually she’d “top out; there’s only so far you can go in something like that.” She took the chance and applied to Direct Energy’s technical training pilot program, which provided funding for students to train at Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota.
Johnes estimates by the end, six or seven people graduated from the program. The program had 20 spots, which were not all filled to begin with, and some participants dropped out.
“I think it's kind of sad because they didn't fill up those spots and it's really important for people to know there is a huge shortage in the trades,” Johnes said. “It's a great career to put your feet in and just kind of dive in.”
Johnes never envisioned herself as an HVAC technician, but she saw the scholarship opportunity as a better way to provide for herself and her 4-year-old son, Elijah.
Johnes now works for One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning HVAC services. Her job in the trades often surprises customers.
“This morning they were like, ‘I wasn't expecting a woman technician!’ I get that a lot. But I think they enjoy seeing women at their houses. It’s something different, I guess.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, HVAC technician median annual pay in 2015 was $45,110 and demand for the jobs between 2014 to 2024 is expected to grow 14 percent, twice the average growth rate for all occupations.
“I really didn't have a sense of direction of where I wanted to take my life as far as career goes,” Johnes said. “It really all has to do with I didn't want to be in debt for something. The other thing that appealed to me was I'd be able to work with people. Every day is a different day.”