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HVAC Instuctor and students in technical training school

When you look at the trade school brochures, every graduate smiling up at you from those glossy pages looks like they have been crimped with the same press tool… Hollywood smile and an expression that’s a little too cheerful, young and eager to take on the whole HVAC world from the cab of their brilliantly clean and dent-free rig…

…You know exactly how they got their well-paying, 9-5 gig working in clean houses for polite and understanding families: two years of training under the guidance of good-humored and experienced instructors…

The reality is different, of course. The houses aren’t all clean, the clients aren’t all polite, the hours aren’t always regular. And every mechanic has to find their own way into the business, a path that can sometimes take surprising turns along the way.

Born Into It – Joining the Family Business

HVAC businesses are often small businesses, and small businesses are often family businesses. A lot of technicians are born into the job, riding along with parents, cousins, and uncles from the time they are small. For them, there almost isn’t a decision about going into HVAC… it’s a foregone conclusion.

Anyone who has ever worked with a family member professional will understand that such a route into the business can have some real ups and downs. But it also often offers a route to an ownership stake, which is a long-term goal for many HVAC mechanics.

Having a customer base you’ve grown up around and a real commitment to the long-term success of the business is a great way to get into HVAC… assuming you have the option.

For folks who don’t already have family in the industry, the road to HVAC work can take more than a few twists and turns.

HVAC Trade School Is Only A First Step

Although not everyone has the same trade school experience shown in the brochures, it’s tough to get a decent job in the industry today without some sort of training. Whether it is a union apprenticeship or a community college or a trade school program, education is a common thread in most stories techs have about how they got into the industry.

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But going to school is just one step, on the path to an HVAC career, and sometimes it is a pretty big step. Whether for financial or family reasons, not everyone can just sign up for two years of training right out of high school.

Many would-be HVAC mechanics get their start in unskilled construction trades before deciding that HVAC is the way to go. Collecting trash on job sites and lugging lumber around can be a powerful motivator to look for a skilled trade to get into. Watching the HVAC guys cruise on and off the site while collecting big checks makes that an obvious upgrade.

Other guys come into the industry after getting their education at Uncle Sam’s expense. Around ten percent of all construction workers are veterans, according to the Department of Labor, and some of them learned pipefitting or other electrical and mechanical skills during their service. Some states, such as Washington and New Mexico, accept related military service as qualifying experience for local licensing. And the training is valuable to any employer.

There Can Be Hairpin Curves on the Road to Success

For HVAC service manager Kyle Buscher, HVAC seemed like the antidote to spending his days in front of a monitor. Originally going to school for web design, Buscher switched to the HVAC program when he realized a desk job didn’t appeal to him. After some research, he identified HVAC as an area with solid pay and a high demand for qualified technicians.

“I kind of realized I didn’t want to sit there and pound a keyboard all day every day,” he says.

Buscher’s father started having serious health issues as he was finishing up his first year of school, though, which made the prospect of completing a second year—covering commercial HVAC—a stretch. With the encouragement of a teacher, Buscher dropped out of the program and went straight into the workforce.

“I knew there was such a high demand, I knew I was good, I picked it up very quickly. Honestly, someone is going to hire you right now with just the residential degree.’”

That was exactly what happened. But the first company he got hired on with went bankrupt in less than a year.

Before long, though, he landed an even better position at his current firm and quickly advanced through the ranks. When the outfit started taking on commercial work, he found that he made the transition quickly despite having missed that year of school.

“It made me feel a lot better about the choice I made,” Buscher says.

Although Buscher is still in the early years of his career, he enjoys the business and is on track to eventually own his own shop, assuming the opportunity arises.

The Paths Into HVAC Will Change Over Time

Of course, the way guys came on the job twenty and thirty years ago isn’t exactly the same as today, and the way it works today will only be a memory in another thirty years. Certification and licensing has become much more important in the industry, as has technology. It’s important to be able to crack a book now and study up.

“The big thing is knowing how to read the code book,” Buscher says of passing the licensing exam in Minnesota, where he works. “I’d say probably half the guys in our office have passed on the first try and the other half took probably two tries. And I guess that goes to show the guys who put in the effort to actually study, versus the ones who thought ‘Oh, it’s open book.’”

Technicians who have grown up in the digital age have the advantage of familiarity with computerized equipment. Setting up a wifi-enabled home thermostat system is old hat to Millennials. Buscher, whose career alternative was developing websites, is a case in point—it’s no longer just the blue-collar kids who are looking at HVAC careers.

But it seems likely that at least some families will always be HVAC families. Although the days are gone when a wink and nod would get your kid into the pipefitter’s union, having a friend or family member already on the job putting in a good word still means something.

Sure, one of the old dogs can put in a reference, but that doesn’t really do anything—there’s no guarantees. Education and aptitude are now the primary requirements.