The US Department of Labor publishes workforce statistics, including income averages and predicted need. Their 2010 publication, Occupational Outlook Handbook has some interesting stats for “Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers.”1 The first thing that jumps out is the median salary, $42,500 a year and $20 an hour. That’s a living wage. What’s more, they predict a better than average growth in the industry – jobs up 34% in the period 2010 to 2020.
Digging a little deeper, you’ll find the education requirements aren’t bad either. Depending on the need in a particular location, it is still possible to apprentice without formal education, but for most positions a certification or associates degree is required.2
For an entry level position, an HVAC certification from a local community college is enough to get a foot in the door. A two year program is better and additional certifications are always a bonus.
Better School, Better Career
The type of education needed isn’t always the same as the type you may want. This is because minimum requirements are set by state law (for licensing) and what an employer will accept, not necessarily the education you will need to open more doors.
One common example is the EPA certifications, available as four levels:3
- Level I - Servicing small appliances
- Level II - Servicing high or very high-pressure appliances
- Level III – Servicing or disposing of low=pressure appliances
- Level IV - All other categories combined.
Courses offered should include testing for these certifications, since handling refrigerant is a basic component of the HVAC skill set. Adding to these types of federal certifications, state and local certifications may also apply, so the exact education you need will vary, depending on where you live.
This is also a good reason to seek out a local, brick and mortar heating and ac school instead of getting an online degree. But even more importantly, HVAC is a hands-on application of theory. While you may understand all the diagrams and the science, the actual job involves wrestling with equipment. A good analogy is with an auto mechanic – would you go to one who had only been “book trained” and never gotten their knuckles skinned under the hood of an actual car? Me neither.
The advantage of attending a trade school for HVAC is a focus on what’s needed to get you up and running in the career. The emphasis is on AC instead of a broader education and can be less expensive than even a junior college. Trade schools also offer name recognition in the industry that an anonymous community college may not.
Trade schools are accredited by these organizations:
- National Center for Construction Education and Research
- HVAC Excellence
- Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation
The links take you to each organization’s search function. These are independent accreditation organizations that both assess programs and administer certification exams. All are recognized in the industry. Some courses are held at community colleges, some through union halls and others as standalone programs.
Advanced degrees in HVAC fall under the catch-all designation of environmental engineer. These are four-year programs that award a bachelor’s degree. They are not strictly an HVAC degree, but fall under a major in mechanical or biosystems engineering.4 Like other bachelor degree programs, this would be a fully fleshed out college education.
Master’s and doctorate programs add even more to the mix, usually focusing on indoor environmental quality and management issues. At these levels, there is a broad overlap with business education and general engineering principles over and above the technical details found in certification and associate degree programs. A list of popular universities for these advanced degrees can be found here.
Making the Best Choice
Each area of the country will have different choices available. It can be difficult to determine, based on online research alone, which of several options matches your career goals the best. Accreditation is a start, and knowing what you intend to do with your education is good too, but you shouldn’t risk the time and money until you are confident you’ve made the right choice. Here’s one way to go about it.
The HVAC community is just that – a community. It is very likely that those “in the business” not only know each other, but know quite a bit about what’s offered in your location. One of the best ways to narrow your search down is to ask those in the industry who are doing what you envision yourself doing. Ask not only technicians, but business owners as well.
Showing up with a willingness to listen serves you well, not only because HVAC people are keen to offer advice, but also, it gets your face and name in front of the very people who will be hiring you someday. Don’t make it a push for a job, you really only want advice.
Be polite, but frank. “I’m interested in a career as a technician, is there a school or program you can recommend?”
While you are at it, get their opinion about the job opportunities in your area as well. Are companies hiring? What do they require? Will they finance someone and/or offer an internship?
Not too surprisingly, this method of talking to businesspeople directly has resulted in more than a few job offers right out of the gate. You never know. An heating and AC company may just happen to be looking for a strong back and an enthusiastic attitude the day you show up.
Whatever happens, visit more than one business in your area. If you aren’t sure who has the best reputation, call a few apartment complexes to find out which company handles their HVAC services. An honest inquiry will quickly get you into the “network,” exactly where you want to be.
The learning doesn’t stop with your first certificate.
While getting that first degree or certificate is a huge milestone, to really “make it” in the field, expect to get more education as you go. There’s the 3 to 5 years of practical experience needed to learn the ropes – dealing with customers, in-house paperwork or sales, vehicle maintenance, ladder work – and a host of specialty certifications that go with different brands of products. After that, there are opportunities to go out on your own (business education) or move up the chain (engineering/commercial installs). Adding refrigeration to the mix is one popular area, as is new construction.
As with most careers, the higher up the food chain you get, the more money and the less grunt work. Rest assured though, jobs in HVAC will always be around. There’s no way to outsource it – eventually, everyone needs boots on the ground, someone to answer the phone and show up when the AC fails.