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A major shortage of qualified HVAC mechanics and installers … and an endless number of contracting companies looking to fill jobs.

That’s a combination rarely found in any trade or industry, but that’s the current state of things in almost every major city in the U.S. HVAC contracting companies are hurting for talent as they bid jobs they don’t always have the manpower for, but that are just too lucrative to pass up. And service shops are running their lead guys ragged with more work than there are hours in the week to get it done.

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The eating is good right now for tradesman in the industry, from the in-house engineers that maintain boilers in major building complexes to the service technicians in both the residential and commercial side of the industry to the installers taking advantage of one of the biggest construction booms the U.S. has ever seen. But they’re at capacity, and employers are desperate to build out their ranks with newbies that show potential.

This competition for talent can be your best friend when you have the training and credentials contractors need to see before putting you out on a job.

There are plenty of HVAC mechanics and contractors out there that got their start with a good shop right out of high school working their way up the career ladder, but these kinds of opportunities are more and more rare these days.

HVAC is a trade that incorporates technology on all sides, from the high-efficiency building automation systems standard in new construction to the diagnostic tools used to optimize and troubleshoot them. Without some technical training to get familiar with where the industry is and where it’s heading, you’re going to find yourself in over your head real quick.

Taking Your First Step Into the HVAC Trade

HVAC training is by no means standardized. There are a couple well-established paths you can take to get into the trade: enroll in a technical school or try your luck trying to land a spot in an apprenticeship program.

But even these two paths can cross on occasion, with some technical schools actually partnering with trade associations to offer apprenticeship programs that simultaneously earn you an associate degree.

Is one better than another? That’s up for debate, and will likely depend on who you ask. A lot also depends on where you’re trying to go in your career and the credentialing requirements where you live.

Becoming an HVAC mechanic or installer isn’t something you can do by following a few easy steps that are exactly the same for everyone everywhere. Some things are universal, like holding EPA Section 608 certification, but plenty of other things are different depending on the state you work in and the side of the industry you’re trying to get into – residential, commercial/industrial, installation, service.

Formal training via apprenticeship or a technical/trade school program have become the two primary paths into the trade, but with the industry quickly becoming more high-tech, even many apprenticeship programs are leaning more toward applicants with some HVAC classes under their belt.

And if your goal is to work your way through the ranks to become a lead in your shop, and even eventually an independent licensed contractor and business owner, having that formal education will almost always get you there faster.

Technical School Vs Apprenticeship: Weighing Your Options in a Tech-Heavy Trade

There are plenty of HVAC techs and contractors who will tell you that apprenticeships are the only way to go. Many techs say that a union apprenticeship provides the best training, hands down. You can start earning money right away, and you might be eligible for health insurance and other employee benefits. As your skills improve, so will your paychecks.

Getting in with a union apprenticeship means you’ve already got a paying job, and for many techs, they say the wages for apprentices and apprentice grads can’t be beat.

But ask around and you will also hear your share of union apprenticeship woes. For starters, they can be a bear to get into. Some guys wait for years for an apprenticeship opening, and in some areas of the country, there’s virtually no apprenticeship opportunities available at all. As one tech put it: “You’ll see a lot of guys who say, ‘Work union, live better.’ Yeah, it’s not that easy.”

According to many techs in the industry, unions are the most discriminating and selective employer around.

And don’t forget that you’ve got to commit to an apprenticeship for 4 years. Drop out beforehand and you’re no closer to an HVAC career than you were before you began. Don’t apply for an apprenticeship unless you’re ready to make that kind of commitment.

Talk to a union guy and he’ll undoubtedly tell you you’re wasting your time and money in an HVAC program. But talk to a successful grad, and you’ll hear an entirely different story.

There are plenty of good reasons why an HVAC program may work for you. For example, thanks to a growing number of HVAC programs, you can be sure to find a program that meets your schedule, your budget, and you career goals. Many HVAC programs are offered either partially or fully online. This means you can complete your program without giving up your current job.

Further, most programs can be completed in a fraction of the time when compared to an apprenticeship so you can potentially fast-track your entry into the trade.

Now the bad news: Even though many schools offer job placement assistance, there’s no guarantee of a job after graduation. They can also be expensive, and being saddled with debt can break the bank when you’re making entry-level pay. Ask yourself if you can handle the sacrifice it will take to repay a significant loan before you start signing off on any docs. You might have to wait a few years before buying that new truck.

HVAC Technical School Programs: Coursework and Hands-On Training in Everything From Electrical Theory to BAS

Formal HVAC programs involve a course of study offered through a technical college, trade school or community college.

You can graduate with an HVAC certificate or diploma in as little as a few months or an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in about 18-24 months.

Including both classroom and hands-on training in HVAC theory, electronics, and the tools and practices of the trade, a comprehensive HVAC program will cover many aspects of AC, heating, and refrigeration diagnostics, installation, service, and maintenance.

Labs will allow you to work with actual furnaces and AC equipment, where you’ll gain experience in assembling, installing, troubleshooting, and repairing HVAC systems.

But you’ve got to know the ins and outs of HVAC systems and their components before you can start working on them, and coursework will bring you up to speed on everything from electrical theory to some of the newest green technologies. Leading schools also provide training in wifi-enabled thermostats and building automation systems and the latest in solar thermal, geo thermal, air and hot water zoning systems and equipment.

Some of the topics you can expect to cover in an HVAC program include:

  • Installation and service procedures of residential and commercial heating and A/C
  • Electrical controls and circuits, including the application of motor control circuits
  • Basic principles of electricity
  • Advanced troubleshooting, maintenance, and the repair of gas, fuel, oil, electric heating systems and geo-thermal heat pumps
  • Air distribution, including fans, blowers, and dampers
  • Design of duct systems
  • Blueprint reading

It will always benefit you to look for a school that also offers courses in communications and business. Business writing, evaluating industry-related literature, and reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills are some of the topics covered in these courses.

Some community and state colleges even offer paid apprenticeship programs. These schools have partnership agreements with local apprenticeship sponsors who provide on-the-job training while you complete the related classroom instruction. Most of these programs take about 4 years to complete.

Other HVAC schools offer job placement assistance upon graduation. This type of assistance is invaluable to new graduates who appreciate not being dropped-off in the job market with no industry contacts.

Learn more about getting into the trade through HVAC technical school program.

HVAC Apprenticeships: Tried and Tested Training That Can Be Competitive to Get Into

Apprenticeships connect entry-level jobseekers with employers willing to train them. Whether offered through one of the unions – International Association of Sheet Metal Workers or Union Association of Plumbing and Pipefitting – or through a non-union trade group like Associated Builders and Contractors, the goal of offering formal apprenticeship programs is to increase economic development and provide a pipeline of future talent in industries with critical worker shortages.

One of the coolest things about an apprenticeship is that it provides individuals with the opportunity to earn money while training for an occupation. “Earn while you learn” … It’s a well-worn phrase you’ve probably heard a lot, but it sort of says it all. Apprenticeships provide a unique opportunity for people who either aren’t interested in going to technical school or otherwise aren’t in a position to foot the bill for their own training.

The Department of Labor (DOL) registers most formal apprenticeship programs in the U.S. According to the DOL, apprenticeships in the trades can take anywhere from 1 to 6 years, with the majority of HVAC apprenticeships lasting about 3 years.

Registered apprenticeship programs must meet certain requirements set forth by the DOL and at the end graduates receive a nationally recognized certificate of completion from either the DOL or a partner state agency. In 2012, there were more than 21,000 DOL apprenticeship programs in the U.S.

Apprenticeship Programs in the U.S.

An HVAC apprenticeship generally includes at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training each year, at least 144 hours of related classroom-based technical instruction each year, and supervision by experienced HVAC technicians.

Depending on the program, you may receive your technical instruction at an apprenticeship training center, technical/trade school, or community college, earning college credits along the way.

Though less common, some trade schools and community colleges maintain partnerships with DOL-registered apprenticeships.

To become an HVAC apprentice, you’ll need to pass muster with the trade group or union that facilitates the apprenticeship. This can be quite the process and would usually involve sitting for a personal interview, passing an aptitude test, submitting letters of recommendation, and passing a physical and drug screen. Even then you may be placed on a waiting list.

Learn more about getting into the trade through an HVAC apprenticeship program

EPA Certification

A standard requirement for HVAC technicians and installers, regardless of where they practice, is Section 608 certification through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Just think of this as the one certification that you absolutely will need to work in the HVAC trade.

Most formal apprenticeship and technical school programs will prepare you to take this exam and become certified. You will need this certification if you purchase or handle controlled refrigerants in the course of any maintenance, service or installation. This applies to just about everybody in the trade.

The type of certification you will apply for will be based on the type of systems you work with (Type II covers most standard residential and commercial systems.):

Small Appliances. Small appliances that are manufactured, charged, and hermetically sealed with five pounds of refrigerant or less

To earn EPA Section 608 certification, you must pass an examination that includes two sections: (1) a Core Section and (2) a section that aligns with the certificate type for which you are applying.

State Licensing

In most states, you can enter the field and start practicing with little more than a solid work ethic and a willingness to learn. For example, you can start working for an HVAC contractor in Texas by simply registering with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, while in Arizona and Ohio there isn’t even a registration requirement. Some states have no licensing requirements at all for anybody in the business other than contractors, in which case becoming an HVAC tech simply means meeting employer requirements.

On the other hand, you might find your state has licensing laws that follow the standard phases common in the skilled trades, offering license classifications based on experience for apprentices and journeymen. Other states have a complicated licensing structure that requires you to hold separate licenses for different cities and multiple licenses for different types of equipment.

Moving Up Through the Ranks

No matter how the licensing structure might be set up in your state, it’s the training and experience that really matters, both in the eyes of the licensing authority and the company that signs your paychecks. This means that just about everybody in the business moves through a few phases in their career, taking on more responsibility and getting to enjoy more independence over time…

  • Apprentice | Helper/Trainee

    HVAC apprentices, and helpers/trainees take on entry-level positions that generally involve performing the most basic tasks while learning the ins and outs of the profession. At this stage, you will always work under the direct guidance and supervision of an experienced journeyman or contractor. An apprentice is usually trained in a more formal capacity to meet the specific job-hour requirements to achieve journeyman status while also taking some classes at night or on weekends. Helpers and trainees aren’t part of a formal training program and get their training in a less structured way.

    Entry-level positions like this get your foot in the door, allow you to establish your reputation with a company and over time lead to more skilled, better-paying positions once you’ve proven yourself to your boss and to the licensing authority for your jurisdiction.

    Even many entry-level jobs and formal apprenticeship programs look for candidates with some schooling or basic EPA Section 608 certification.

  • Journeyman | Mechanic/Technician

    With some classroom education and a few years of experience under your belt you have a solid understanding of key concepts, from electrical theory to the refrigeration cycle, and a deep familiarity with diagnosing problems and troubleshooting the kind of HVAC equipment commonly used in houses and commercial buildings in your area.

    The HVAC technician at the journeyman stage can work independently and can even supervise apprentices and trainees.

    In states where journeyman licenses are issued or where the status is granted through a union you might belong to, it usually takes at least four years of supervised experience as an apprentice and some schooling to earn a journeyman card. Some states recognize master tradesmen, issuing a license at this level after several years of working as a journeyman and passing an exam.

  • HVAC Contractor

    If you want to be your own boss and perform maintenance, repairs, and installation independently, you’re going to eventually go for a contractor’s license. This usually includes carrying the appropriate surety bond and liability insurance, as well as workers’ compensation insurance if you have any employees.

    Most HVAC contractors are sole proprietorships or small, family-owned businesses that specialize in residential or light commercial installation and service. Many states identify contractors by the type (residential or commercial) and/or the size/value of the jobs they bid by issuing different classes of contractor licenses.

What HVAC Employers Look For Can’t Always Be Printed on a Resume

There is no shortage of voluntary industry certs that employers like and sometimes even ask for specifically when posting a job ad. In addition to the industry’s gold-standard NATE (North American Technician Excellence) certification in…

  • Air conditioning
  • Air distribution
  • Gas
  • Oil
  • Hydronics (Gas and Oil)
  • Heat Pumps
  • Commercial refrigeration
  • Efficiency analysis
  • HVAC installation

… You can also find certs through other organizations specific to…

  • HVAC/R installation
  • HVAC/R service
  • Domestic refrigeration
  • Residential weatherizing
  • Residential auditing
  • Residential comfort systems
  • Electrical troubleshooting
  • R-410A refrigerant handling
  • Commercial AC and heating
  • Commercial refrigerant recovery

And the list goes on.

These are all valuable and worth the time and effort, but there’s a lot more to making it in this business than the number of cards you can accumulate.

Contracting companies want to hire guys with a good attitude and the ability to learn. In fact, these qualities are often more important than an impressive resume. Says one veteran HVAC mechanic: “Had some kid tell me about his 14 certifications a few weeks ago. He’s gone…I’m still here.”

The standard qualities employers look for are…

  • Mechanical aptitude
  • Good references
  • Good customer service skills
  • Good time management skills
  • Good troubleshooting/problem solving skills
  • Attention to detail

But there’s even more to it than that. One of the recurring themes among employers is their desire to find employees who want to stay on for the long haul. As one contractor put it, “I am not in the business to train people for their next job.”

Another HVAC contractor said that hiring green helpers without any education means spending “a lot of time, money, patience, and grey hairs.”

When you listen to the old dogs, you start to realize that it really isn’t that complicated. If you got enough education and training to be able to handle the tech-heavy direction the industry is leaning, you’re application is going to be at the top of the stack. If you’ve got that plus you can demonstrate character and integrity, you’re as good as in.