In spite of claims that the economy is slowly recovering, it’s still a tough job market out there, especially at the entry level. Every day I read in the news that alarming numbers of college graduates are not finding jobs in their fields of study. Last year, a poll revealed that 40% of college grads were unemployed and 16% were only employed part time. Nearly two-thirds were working in jobs that did not require a college degree, and more than a quarter of a million college grads were earning minimum wage.
The cost of a college education seems to be rising even faster than jobs are declining. Young people considering their future plans should be weighing the cost of a higher education, how long it will take to pay off those loans, and the likely return on that investment.
The way I see it, our educational system pushes students toward college, and that may not be the right choice for everyone. Young people are told that they will never be able to make a good living if they don’t go to college. This is simply not the case. Careers in the trades are a great alternative, and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC-R) service is a prime example. A career as a service technician offers stable, year-round work, job advancement, responsibility and the opportunity to keep building new skills and work at a variety of job sites. Not to mention excellent pay and great benefits. All without the exorbitant price tag of a college degree.
Qualities that make a great service tech.
It’s obvious that people who enjoy working with their hands and fixing things are great candidates for service technician careers. Time management and problem-solving skills are also needed when troubleshooting complex systems in the field. But there are “soft qualities” that are just as important, such as the interpersonal skills needed to effectively communicate with customers, managers, and other technicians. Here at Arista, we want technicians who demonstrate confidence and trustworthiness to clients. We like to see a service mentality. Candidates who enjoy helping people, accepting responsibility and who have a good work ethic tend to do well.
Make money (instead of borrowing) while training for an HVAC service career.
Most new apprentices are hired by an HVAC-R service company like Arista, and complete a 3-year mentoring and trade school program that is jointly sponsored by their employer and a trade union. In New York City, our union is the Metal Trades Division of Pipefitters Local 638B, also known as Service Fitters. This means that instead of coming out of college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and no guarantee of work, HVAC-R techs can go to school at no cost to them, while simultaneously working and earning money as a helper.
Because New York has no city or state licensing requirement for HVAC-R techs, our clientele in this area relies on professional certifications to identify the most qualified people. At Arista, we encourage our technicians to carry certification from MSCA Star. Getting certified involves completing additional training and passing a certification exam, but the time invested pays off with better career opportunities and higher pay.
What technicians can earn.
A helper, who is an assistant working with a more experienced technician, can expect to start at about $12 per hour in the NYC area. Within 5 years, that rate can grow to over $30 per hour, and a journeyman (a full scale technician) makes near $40 an hour. And it’s no secret that union benefits packages are often much better than most business people receive. With overtime, many techs at Arista easily make $80,000 per year, and we have a large group making over $100,000 per year.
How HVAC-R techs can advance in the business.
Helpers start out working alongside other technicians on service calls. As they progress in their training, they may get their own truck. As a full journeyman with certification, they will be responsible for performing maintenance, repairs and/or installations, and possibly mentoring other new techs.
In this business, there are a number of paths and there are always new things to learn. There are a variety of types of equipment to work on, including heating systems, air conditioning systems, refrigeration and ventilation equipment. Some companies specialize in residential work while others (like Arista) primarily handle commercial systems. Technicians can work on all of these but many choose to become specialists in a specific area, including the environmental impact of HVAC-R and energy efficiency.
Those with the right aptitude and skill set can advance to service management roles, and some may even take on sales and marketing positions.
The outlook for jobs in HVAC service.
The future of the HVAC service industry is very promising. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that this occupation will grow faster than the average, with an estimated 34% increase in jobs over the coming decade. As a professional who has been in this business for quite a few years, I can tell you that there are a number of reasons to expect job growth in HVAC service.
Supply and demand. Over the next 10 years, about half of the field work force is expected to retire. People entering the field now can expect many opportunities for work and for advancement as skilled technicians will be in high demand.
Consistent work. The demand for HVAC services is consistent regardless of the status of the economy. Ours is not a business of home runs or of shut-outs. Buildings need heat and air conditioning no matter what the economic climate. It’s a consistent business and a stable career. Here’s the proof: during the recent recession, Arista did not need to make any layoffs.
NYC’s commitment to the work force. Trade jobs are highly valued in New York City. Agencies such as the Workforce Investment Board (WIB) and Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) are actively working to promote job growth and upward mobility in the trades. I was appointed to the WIB in 2011 by Mayor Bloomberg representing building trades and the HVAC industry, and will soon be acting as a WIB representative for DYCD. The role of these boards is to influence how dollars are spent to promote employment opportunities in New York City.
How to learn more.
There’s never been a better time to get into a career as a service technician. To explore the many opportunities for careers in the HVAC-R industry, the following professional organizations can provide a wealth of information: