Women in the Cooling Systems Industry

After working in finance for roughly a decade, Stephanie Primrose decided she desperately needed a change. “It was kind of killing me, because I needed to do something a little more active. I always wanted to do something where I was creating or building,” said Primrose. 

Primrose struggled to convince employers that she was serious about working in the radiator industry. “Coming into the shop, I didn’t have any experience, so it took a while to try to make people understand that this was a career change,” said Primrose. “They would look at my resume and see all of this office experience and say, ‘Well, why do you want to be in a shop?’”

So when Primrose’s friend Whitney Cote who works at West End Radiators in Manitoba, Canada passed along her name to the manager, she got an interview. “I came in for a day of on-the-job training to try it out. Half of a day of it, and I loved it,” said Primrose. “I just came back and wanted more.” That was 10 months ago. Now a full-time radiator assembler, Stephanie Primrose builds cores daily before they’re sent off to other departments. 

One of Primrose’s mentors is Jaye Jackson, who manages the Manufacturing department at West End Radiators. Jackson herself is a radiator industry veteran of 21 years. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it has been challenging for Jackson to hire and train technicians. “I spent quite a lot of time going through applicants and having some bad hires until I ended up with the crew that I have now,” said Jackson. “Now, we’re dealing with all this COVID madness. We’ve mostly gotten used to it now, but it was quite stressful in the beginning, not knowing what the next day was going to bring.”

How Jackson got into the radiator industry was sort of an accident. When she was in college, she was involved in a summer program and got introduced to a radiator shop owner. Back then, Jackson had hardly any experience, but she was able to learn new skills on the job. “It’s the same way I train people here. I started learning by cutting tubes and real basic jobs,” said Jackson. “Then I just worked my way up. I’ve always worked in a small manufacturing environment. At West End, we have 28 employees, but manufacturing is only 4 people. So when you work in such a small group, you have to learn everything.”

When asked about what she loves about her job, Jackson said, “For me, I love working with my hands and making things. Getting to start with the raw product and being able to build a core from start to finish on my own and getting to see the finished product after. There is a real job satisfaction there. And also, I love getting to help people. When we were open during the quarantine, we made a radiator for a firetruck for a town that only had one fire truck. And knowing that we contribute to the safety and well-being of others by making a radiator is a pretty good feeling.”

“For me, I love working with my hands and making things. Getting to start with the raw product and being able to build a core from start to finish on my own and getting to see the finished product after. There is a real job satisfaction there. And also, I love getting to help people. When we were open during the quarantine, we made a radiator for a firetruck for a town that only had one fire truck. And knowing that we contribute to the safety and well-being of others by making a radiator is a pretty good feeling.”

Jaye Jackson, West End Radiators Manufacturing Manager

Linda Long of Service Radiator, Inc. in Madisonville, Kentucky co-owned the business with her mother Nora Margaret Justice from 2010 until she died in December of 2019. Before then, Nora Margaret Justice managed the business for about 23 years after her husband James Justice passed in 1987. Justice really enjoyed working, even at 93 years old. “She worked up until the day she got sick,” said Long. “My mom once said, ‘I don’t want to say I’m indispensable but I’m very needed. I am not ever going to quit completely as long as I am able to work.’ She was a very strong and independent person. If there was any kind of problem she was always trying to find a solution.”

Through the years, Justice’s responsibilities ranged from sweeping the floors, bookkeeping, working the front counter, giving estimates, managing employees, and in a pinch, she had been known to rod out radiators. Long says her mother set an example when it came to establishing open communication and good relationships with employees. “One thing she always stressed, and I stress this now: If you have a problem bring it to the office.” Another important lesson Long learned from her other was about treating people with respect. “Mama said, ‘There is just one way to treat somebody… and that is right.’”

Cindy Barlow has also had an interesting journey into the cooling systems industry. Before joining Rocore, Barlow worked for United Airlines for 21 years. “No two days are the same, whether it’s the airline industry or the radiator industry, and that’s what I like about it. Some days are very fast paced. And you get to meet different people every day,” said Barlow.

Barlow started working at Rocore/Kelvion in 2010 and now serves as the Sales and Service Manager for Rocore/Kelvion overseeing individuals in 3 locations including Wisconsin, Texas, and Louisiana. “The people skills I learned at United were from all my years of customer service. The technical skills I have now, as far as all the computer knowledge, came from this job with Rocore/Kelvion, and they’ve given me the opportunity to expand and grow and learn new things about the industry, not just about what I sell, but about products throughout the world.”

When asked what she loves most about the industry, Barlow was quick to respond, “My customers. Working with customers is the number one thing. You build relationships and friendships over the years. Most days are good days when everything goes well. On some days, it is stressful. We try to make sure the customers are satisfied and everything gets out on time.  With difficult situations, you try to turn around and work together to resolve any issues.  I truly enjoy working with the customers on a day to day basis.”

Another wonderful aspect of her job is the opportunity to visit new places. “I can now say that I’ve been to every state within the United States except for five,” said Barlow. “They’ve given me the opportunity to travel, attend conferences, not only through NARSA events, but also meeting customers face-to-face. Kelvion has just opened up so many doors for me. I’ve met a lot of great people.”

Barlow has served on NARSA/IDEA’s Board of Directors since 2019. “Some of the members can go months without seeing each other, but when we get together, it just seems like family. We get together, and it’s like a Sunday dinner when we sit down,” said Barlow. “They do whatever they can to help everybody in the industry grow.”

One organization that also helps connect women in the industry is Women in Auto Care, which is under the AutoCare Association. It started about 25 years ago by a small group of women, but has now grown to include hundreds. According to the organization’s Chair Olivia Newton, the goal is to empower women in the auto industry through leadership conferences and mentorship, as well as continuing education.

“Our scholarship program really focuses on deserving high school and post-secondary students. Some are women who are graduating high school and go into shop programs or apprenticeships. Some are going to graduate school to specialize in the aftermarket and study finance. There’s really a range of women we are able to help with our scholarship program,” said Newton. “Each recipient has such passion and strength. Over the years, there’s been so many who have overcome hardships, or addiction, or you name it. We’re very proud to support the next generation of women who will be entering the aftermarket.”

In 2020, Women in Auto Care will distribute more than $100,000 in scholarships in cash and in tools. “One of the things that can be prohibitive for women, who are graduating from some of these programs is investing in their own tool kit they need to get started. That’s also part of our program,” said Newton.”

Newton understands that the auto industry is male-dominated, but she says, “That should ever be a reason to not go into a career that is fulfilling, that can really make a difference. The automotive aftermarket is an incredible industry. The companies that I work with are filled with really great people, great mentors. There are so many learning experiences. If we are not attracting women into the industry, that’s a problem. We need women to come in to continue to make it more diverse. Not just women, we need diversity across the board.”

This feature was originally published in the September/October issue of The Cooling Journal.

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