20 to Watch: Women in HVAC - Staci R. Ashcraft
Associate, project manager, and mechanical engineer, Glumac
Name: Staci R. Ashcraft
Title: Associate, project manager/mechanical engineer, Glumac
Educational Experience: B.S. architectural engineering, University of Kansas.
Professional Credentials/Accreditations: P.E. in California, Texas. WELL Accredited Profession (WELL AP), Living Future Accredited (LFA).
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: ASHRAE member, USGBC Member, Living Future Ambassador, and founder and previous co-facilitator for the Orange County Living Future Collaborative.
When did you fall in love with engineering?
From an early age, I loved thinking creatively, which carried into my early career in engineering. I would get recommendations from senior engineers about the way something’s “always done,” but I would want to break the mold and try different things. Even though I came to engineering because I was good at math and science, I really fell in love with it when I found clients were receptive to new ways of thinking and creative strategies.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
I feel the proudest when I can help design a system that keeps people comfortable in a space that is challenging architecturally to accommodate HVAC systems. I enjoy thinking outside the box to design and specify new systems and ideas and then being able to show that the system really works once the space is occupied.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Why aren’t there more women in engineering?
In my program in school, our entering freshman class boasted an almost 50 percent female enrollment; however, by the time I graduated, that number dropped to under 20 percent. The women in my classes faced true sexism from several professors. We faced a lot of stigma from our peers in other programs, as well. We would hear that women in engineering aren’t desirable for dating, or that we couldn’t have families if we had full-time careers. Many women left the program because they didn’t foresee how they could have fulfilling personal lives after graduation.
These same pressures come to women after starting their careers as well. I’ve witnessed and personally experienced that young people in the industry expect both themselves and their partners to have to work full time to afford their rents, mortgages, and other expenses, especially if they decide to have families. In our industry, with project-driven deadlines, we have not adapted yet to flexible work environments, such as working from home or flexible hours. Because of that, I’ve seen many young mothers leave the industry or even the workforce. If the industry hopes to increase women in our field, we need to start embracing the technological tools that we have to more appropriate work/life balances.
Describe what your job entails on a day-to-day basis.
As a project manager, most of my day consists of interfacing with clients and my team, which includes mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers. Sometimes, I will be helping coordinate the mechanical system with one client, then be discussing contracts and invoicing with my accounting team. I also assist in managing the staff of the office, ensuring that each person is properly planned to work on projects and not under or over utilized. I mentor junior mechanical designers and engineers, helping them to learn HVAC design as well as the design and construction process.
What drives/motivates you every day?
My day-to-day goal is to keep our clients happy and to mentor our junior staff. I love knowing that we can help our clients achieve their project goals, whether that’s maintaining a budget, achieving a sustainability goal, or obtaining an architectural aesthetic. I also take great pride in seeing our junior engineers learning and growing, from completing their set of load calculations, submitting their first project on their own, or earning their P.E.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
I designed a hybrid natural ventilation and mechanical ventilation system with radiant heating and cooling in an existing high rise building in downtown San Diego. The project won an AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) award, and when the judges reviewed their reasons for selecting the project, they mentioned that the unconventional HVAC system was a driving factor for their selection.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t done yet?
I would like to work on a project in my home states of Kansas and Arkansas. More specifically, I’d like to design a massive central plant and be able to see pipes as large as 18 or 24 inches for chilled water, for example. Some of the most inspiring projects to me have been clean, freshly installed chilled water central plants with massive pipes routed nimbly through the project site. I’ve always wanted to do something large-scale like that.
What’s one thing no one knows about you?
I write as a hobby. When I was in high school, I wrote five complete novels, mostly for my younger brother to read. I aspire to write more as an adult and publish full-length novels.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
I’ve had several great mentors at my firm. Brian Berg was my supervisor for several years while I worked in our Irvine office. Beyond teaching me engineering basics, he has believed in me and my potential. With and without me asking, he allowed me to take on additional responsibility, even if I’d never done it before. Another mentor is Amanda Brathwaite, a mechanical engineer who is now a director of preconstruction for a mechanical contractor. Her mentorship has shown me that while working full time in our industry is difficult, it’s possible to have a family, too. She has constantly inspired me as a woman in the industry by promoting herself and her capabilities.
What does the future hold for you?
I hope to encourage and inspire change in our industry toward accepting flexible work environments and more realistic work-life balances. I firmly believe that in order to recruit and retain talent, our industry will need to compete with large tech firms that offer those benefits. My desire is that by embracing change, we will be able to deliver projects faster and more efficiently than ever, but at the same time, offering our employees lower stress jobs and better work life balances. I will keep being an advocate for women in industry, leading by example to demonstrate that we can be successful leaders as well as mothers and partners while still investing in ourselves on a personal level.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
Speak up for yourself. Some of the best advice I received was to ask and accept additional responsibility and to “do the job you want to be doing.” Do not hold yourself back from the career that you want and can do due to “what ifs.” If you think you’re capable of something, even if you’ve never done it or don’t know how, ask. If you’re told no, then keep asking until someone listens to you and do not accept your position if you are unhappy, even if it’s safe.