When was the last time you were in a building that wasn’t artificially cooled or heated? We depend on heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to control the interior environments of homes, schools, hospitals and office buildings.
That makes being an HVAC technician — the person who installs, repairs and maintains those systems — a career field with staying power.
“I’ve been in this business over 40 years and there were very few weeks when I was without work,” said Gerald Cook, HVAC instructor at Lincoln College of Technology in Marietta.
The demand for HVAC technicians is expected to grow by 34 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Many older technicians are retiring from the industry so there is going to be a need for trained, qualified technicians,” said Tyree McReynolds, HVAC program director at Lincoln College of Technology. “HVAC is one of our most popular programs.”
Besides job security, the field offers good compensation and paths for advancement.
“The money has always been good in this field,” Cook said.
The median wage for HVAC technicians is $21.89 per hour or $45,540 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Many people make more than that with peak season overtime work. Others move into sales or management, and someone with five years of experience who can pass the state licensure exam can start his own business,” Cook said.
HVAC technicians need education and training, but not a four-year degree. Twenty years ago, systems were simpler and technicians could train on the job, but today’s technology is more complex.
Most technicians learn their skills at a technical college. Lincoln College of Technology offers an HVAC certificate program that prepares graduates with entry-level skills in 48 to 73 weeks (depending on whether students take day or evening classes). The associate degree of applied science in air conditioning, refrigeration and heating service management takes 65 to 97 weeks.
Students take an introductory course on climate control systems, followed by classes in electricity, basic refrigeration systems, heating and air conditioning systems, energy efficiency and green technologies. Associate degree students take classes in professional development, and management and supervision, as well as general education courses.
“There are so many different job opportunities and settings where people can use their skills. Our students go to residential and commercial contractors, manufacturers and equipment warehouses. We try to introduce them to a wide range of areas and skills, and encourage them to find their niche,” McReynolds said.
Day classes are taught in a modular format in which one subject is explored for 20 days before moving on to the next one. About half of the class time is spent in the lab gaining hands-on experience with different HVAC equipment.
“Older equipment is still around, so people need to know how to work on it, and new types of systems keep coming along,” Cook said. “My teaching method is to tell them (using books and manuals), show them (on training equipment) and then have them show me.”
Besides an understanding of electronics, HVAC technicians need to have good mechanical skills, manual dexterity, physical strength, trouble-shooting and problem-solving skills, and an attention to detail. Because they work in clients’ homes or offices, HVAC technicians should possess good customer service, communication and time-management skills.
Joshua McKnight was employed in the data and security systems industry when his roommate told him about the HVAC program at Lincoln College of Technology.
“He was enrolled there and thought I’d be good at it because I’m mechanically savvy,” said McKnight, who decided to explore HVAC as a second career. “I started in January and have about a month left to get my certificate. I have learned so much and (have) thoroughly enjoyed it.”
McKnight hopes to land a job working as a service technician for a residential HVAC contractor and sees possibilities for advancement in the future.
“My roommate started as a service tech, then became a head technician and now is a maintenance manager for an apartment complex. There’s a lot of opportunity in this field,” he said.
“There are at least 75 companies in Atlanta that hire trained HVAC technicians, and our graduates can also take their skills anywhere in the U.S. and work,” Cook added. “Technicians like the opportunity and the autonomy of working in different locations every day. They travel to the home or business, find the problem, install the necessary parts, solve the problem, write up the service ticket and collect the fee. It’s like running your own small business.”