Is HVAC School Worth It?

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Putting a Dollar Amount on the Value of a Tech School Education

If you’re asking yourself this question it’s a good sign you’ve got some gray cells functioning. And if you’re inquisitive enough to actually try to pin down an answer, it suggests you got the mindset for HVAC work.

In most cases, people asking this question are looking for an answer to a couple of other smaller questions: Do graduates of technical school programs actually …

  • Earn more over the course of their career?
  • Have more career opportunities?

The short answer is, yes and yes. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Data shows that graduates of HVAC trade school programs generally earn more and have better career prospects. However this isn’t universal; a lot also depends on where you live and how eager you are to learn new skills.

No doubt you’ll be curious about what others think on this subject. Asking around with other experienced HVAC techs is encouraged. As you talk with people you’ll find some with strong opinions on the matter– and it’s always worth taking opinions with a grain of salt…

Some will insist you’ve got to have a two-year HVAC degree under your belt to get anywhere in the business. These are the guys that might be struggling a bit to think outside the box.

Others will tell you a degree is a total waste of time. This might be the guy that sees formal schooling of any kind as elitist; maybe his high school sweetheart left him for some college-bound guy.

Above all else, whenever you get someone’s opinion on school-versus-no-school ask, ‘why?’ as much as possible. You’re smart enough to take all the information you can glean and come to your conclusion about what path is going to work best for you.

And finally, this issue isn’t really a zero-sum game. You can always work for a year and then decide to go to school, or conversely you could start out with a short three-month tech school program to get some of the benefits of classroom training before pounding the pavement in search of your first job.

We’re not about trying to tell anybody what’s going to be best for them, and we’re not trying to change anybody’s mind about technical college one way or another. What we are trying to do is clearly examine the major pros and cons of enrolling in a technical school program so you can make your own decision.

Long-Term Earnings

This is the most obvious question to consider when thinking about school versus going directly into a job. You can start to get a sense for this by looking at national statistics on college degrees in general, as provided here for 2015 by the US Department of Labor. These are average weekly salaries and unemployment rates by degree type factored across all careers:

  • No high school diploma

    $493 per week
    8 percent unemployment

  • High school diploma

    $678 per week
    5.4 percent unemployment rate

  • Some college but no degree

    $738 per week
    5 percent unemployment rate

  • Associate's degree

    $798 per week
    3.8 percent unemployment rate

  • Bachelor's degree

    $1,137 per week
    2.8 percent unemployment rate

This data is worth considering, but it doesn’t touch on HVAC in particular.

Fortunately there’s also research that looks specifically at lifetime earnings of HVAC techs based on their level of education. Using national data, in 2011 Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce published research with the following findings:

HVAC Techs With a High School Diploma (or less)
$1.6 Million (lifetime)
HVAC Techs With A Some College
$1.8 Million (lifetime)
HVAC Techs With An Associate's Degree
$1.8 Million (lifetime)

Interestingly as you will notice, the Georgetown study found HVAC techs with some college earn the same as those with an associate’s degree. And that amounts to $200,000 more over the span of a career than those with just a high school diploma.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher aren’t even included in the figures because the study found that just 5.7 percent of HVAC techs have those qualifications. Also notable were these findings:

  • 42.6 percent of all HVAC techs have at least an associate’s degree or some college education
  • 51.1 percent of all HVAC techs have a high school diploma or less

If you want to think of a more concrete example of long-term earnings, just look at the difference an extra $5 per hour can make over a lifetime. Figuring two weeks off per year along with weekends, a 40-hour work week, and a 35-year career, a lifetime total of work amounts to 351,750 hours.

An extra $5 per hour would give you an additional $1.76 million over the course of your career.

But all this talk about long-term earnings, school, or no school is based on national averages. Does it really reflect the reality where you work? Local salary data where you live could be affected from market demand for HVAC equipment based on climate, and market saturation (or lack thereof) of those with HVAC school credentials.

The reality is that there is no strong data out there that compares the local salary of HVAC techs on a school-versus-no-school basis. Aside from asking around where you live, the best you can do is look at select cities where some data is available to make a very limited rough sketch of salary comparisons.

PayScale is a career agglomeration website that combines real-time data from résumés and employers throughout the nation. You can use it to look up salary information for HVAC tech careers in your own city, which includes median salaries for different levels of education.

We can make a rough salary comparison with real-time data on median yearly salaries for entry-level HVAC positions in March 2017:

District of Columbia (DC) – data based on 16 samples

  • $36,841 – High school diploma
  • $38,533 – HVAC certificate
  • $40,829 – HVAC associate’s degree

Miami – data based on 13 samples

  • $32,544 – High school diploma
  • $32,737 – HVAC certificate
  • $35,218 – HVAC associate’s degree

New York – data based on 13 samples

  • $37,560 – High school diploma
  • $40,089 – HVAC certificate
  • $41,385 – HVAC associate’s degree

Atlanta – data based on 12 samples

  • $34,580 – High school diploma
  • $33,005 – HVAC certificate
  • $35,943 – HVAC associate’s degree

Boston – data based on 12 samples

  • $35,477 – High school diploma
  • $35,436 – HVAC certificate
  • $38,867 – HVAC associate’s degree

Chicago – data based on 12 samples

  • $35,495 – High school diploma
  • $34,786 – HVAC certificate
  • $34,786 – HVAC associate’s degree

Houston – data based on 12 samples

  • $34,501 – High school diploma
  • $35,301 – HVAC certificate
  • $37,861 – HVAC associate’s degree

Los Angeles – data based on 11 samples

  • $36,435 – High school diploma
  • $36,990 – HVAC certificate
  • $40,092 – HVAC associate’s degree

Seattle – data based on 11 samples

  • $35,314 – High school diploma
  • $35,188 – HVAC certificate
  • $38,403 – HVAC associate’s degree

Based on these figures we can tentatively identify two notable patterns:

  1. Generally more education leads to a higher salary
  2. The range of education-based discrepancies in salary depend a lot on the local area where you live

Are There Really More Career Opportunities with an HVAC Technical School Education?

The answer to this question is a definite yes for someone who has no prior experience. Not to say that if you’re fresh out of high school with no HVAC experience that someone won’t hire you. Right now the HVAC industry is red hot so it’s only a matter of time before you’d find someone willing to train you on the job.

When you have an HVAC diploma, certification, or degree and you stand next to someone with zilch for experience, you’ll get the job hands down.

However that might be a different story if you’re an HVAC graduate fresh out of school standing next to someone with five years of on-the-job experience. Being in the field counts for a lot in this line of work. There’s tons of theory that underlies being a good HVAC tech, but don’t forget this is a hands-on skilled trade that comes down to doing over knowing.

If you didn’t go to school but you can demonstrate to a prospective employer that you can braze a line or test a unit for leaks as well as Dale Earnhardt can get out of a rut, you’ll make it to the top of the list.

If you’re ever thinking about getting out of the truck and into the office as a manager then this is one instance where you might consider a bachelor’s degree in HVAC or a field like business. But like working as a technician, most of your success depends on your own knowledge, experience, and skill level.

Are Networking Opportunities Worth the Cost?

What do Steve Mnuchin, John Kerry, George W. Bush, William F. Buckley, and George HW Bush all have in common? They were in the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale. There’s no denying that you’ll have a greater opportunity to network in school.

America prides itself as being based on meritocracy – rightfully so, especially compared with most other countries – but everyone knows that you land the sweetest jobs by having a personal connection to someone. Like it or not, the world also revolves around who you know.

Someone you meet in school could be your foot-in-the door five years from now at your dream job. When it’s the slow spring season and you post on Facebook, “boss said to stay home this week and he’ll call if we get anything,” that guy you always ate lunch with in the school cafeteria might message you that one of the guys on his crew is out sick all week and they could use some extra help.

Is the Cost Worth all the Benefits?

The obvious disadvantage of going through an HVAC education program is cost. The question you must answer for yourself is, do you think taking a short term hit will pay off in the long run?

The cost of HVAC programs varies dramatically. Public technical or community college programs tend to be the most affordable. Here are a few examples from early 2017 (prices based on in-state tuition):

  • $27,500 – College of Technology (private) in New York City – AAS in HVAC
  • $9,633 – Monroe Community College (public) in Rochester, NY – AAS in HVAC
  • $14,721 – Everest Institute (private) in Houston – nine-month HVAC diploma program
  • $3,184 – Lone Star College (public) in The Woodlands, TX – AAS in HVAC
  • $29,158 – Coyne College (private) in Chicago – AAS in HVAC/R
  • $7,012 – City Colleges of Chicago (public) – AAS in HVAC/R

School funding has a huge impact on the short-term economic feasibility of attending an HVAC education program.

If you’re completing school as part of a union apprenticeship you’ll often find that the union pays for your education, and even pays you while you sit in class. Some employers or industry organizations do the same.

If you choose to go into debt to invest in an HVAC education program, be realistic. Ask these important questions:

  • What is the interest rate? Is it variable or fixed?
  • What is the average entry-level HVAC salary where you live? Calculate how long it will take you to pay off your debt based on this. And remember, unforeseen events can always come up that prolong this.
  • How long do you want to be in debt? If you don’t want to be making interest payments for the next 10 years then don’t choose an education program that will force you to do this.

Then remember … even the possibility of an extra $200 grand over the course of your career makes school a pretty damn good investment.

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