Northern Nevada Apprenticeship Spotlight: HVAC Service Technician
Updated: Jun 23, 2019
“Be a plumber—they get rich,” said Shark Tank’s notorious straight-shooting millionaire Kevin O’Leary, also known as Mr. Wonderful, in a CNBC “Make It” feature last month. “Everybody has to have a plumber, even in a recession.”
O’Leary was speaking to the misconception that anyone who wants to make a lot of money needs to go to college. Not so, says O’Leary—and anyone who’s ever been or known a master plumber, whose salaries can reach into the six digits. And most of them get there without the crippling student debt that plagues college graduates for decades after earning their degree. Northern Nevada’s registered union apprenticeship programs in the building and construction trades provide not just free but paid college-level education and state-of-the-art, high-tech career training in the classroom and on the job, with the opportunity to earn concurrent college credits from a local, accredited community college—also free—while in the program. Apprentices start earning above-average wages on day one, receive a full benefits package after one to three months, and graduate out-earning most of their college graduate counterparts.
But this gem of a career track goes unnoticed by many—including students, parents, educators, and legislators. So today we’re kicking off a new monthly series to highlight apprenticeship-based careers in the Northern Nevada building and construction trades. And we’re starting with a career track that’s both, shall we say, hot and cool: HVAC Service Technician with the UA Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 350
Technicians specializing in HVAC, which stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, are the unsung heroes of the plumbing industry because they’re often working behind the scenes—unlike plumbers, whose work tends to be more visible—to keep us comfortable at home and at work. An HVAC service technician’s job is equal parts mechanics, technology, and problem-solving.
“It’s all about balancing,” says Randy Canale, apprenticeship training coordinator for the UA Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 350 in Sparks, NV. “Our HVAC service technicians are out there analyzing and assessing heating and cooling systems, but in the end it’s all about balancing—making sure the equipment is properly calibrated, and the flow is optimized for maximum comfort and efficiency. A lot of what they do is troubleshooting.”
Troubleshooting, Canale says, turns out to be the best part of the job for many HVAC service technicians: learning and mastering the high-tech tools necessary to analyze heating and cooling systems, coupled with the mental challenge of investigating a problem and determining the best way to solve it. “It’s a job that directly impacts the bottom line for customers, keeping systems efficient and saving customers money,” he says. “And keeping everyone comfortable. Our techs find that really satisfying.”
When people think of construction careers they don’t often think “high-tech,” but the industry—especially in the union trades, where training centers offer the most state-of-the-art equipment, tools, and education available—is driven by technology, and today’s tradesmen and women need to have the technical aptitude to master them. “Almost all of the diagnostic tools for HVAC systems are computerized,” says Canale. “Service techs plug laptops into the equipment to run flow and calibration tests to help locate and clear problems. From a single screen they can take the temperature, so to speak, of a very large commercial building’s entire heating, cooling, and ventilation system and all of its channels and components.”
We think that’s pretty cool. (pun intended)
HVAC service technicians work in a variety of sites and circumstances, from smaller speciality mechanical shops to builders and developers of new construction to large resorts, schools, and tech centers. Continuing education and training opportunities (free for union members) with the UA Local 350 allow techs to keep expanding their skills and boosting their careers with new processes, equipment, and technology—much of which can change fast.
“There’s always a lot to learn,” Canale says. “It changes rapidly and our instructors are constantly being trained at the leading edge of the field. That’s definitely one of the advantages to being in the union: the opportunity to take advantage of ongoing, high-caliber training free for life. That doesn’t happen with non-union training programs.”
In Northern Nevada, the job outlook for HVAC service technicians is strong. Canale says the program has tripled in size over the last few years, and demand is still outpacing the supply. He doesn’t see that slowing down anytime soon.
“We usually only open up interviews for the apprenticeship program once a year,” he says, “but it’s so busy right now we can often put applicants to work as maintenance tradesmen, or helpers, to fill in the gaps while they’re waiting. It’s lighter, less specialized work and it won’t count as hours toward the apprenticeship requirement, but they’ll get good wages and benefits while they’re waiting and it’ll increase their chances of being accepted into the apprenticeship program when the time comes.”
So what does it take to be an HVAC service technician apprentice with the UA Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 350?
Canale says basic math and mechanical skills and tech aptitude go a long way, along with good problem-solving skills. And techs have to be comfortable with mentally-challenging work. A high school diploma or equivalent and a valid driver’s license is required.
The paid apprenticeship program for HVAC Service Technicians at the UA Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 350 is currently four years, and combines both classroom and on-the-job training. While in the program, apprentices also earn concurrent college credits toward an associate’s degree through a local, accredited community college—all free. Apprentices start out on day one of the program earning $16.37/hour, and receive regular increases as they move through the levels of apprenticeship until they graduate into Class B Journeyman status earning $33.09/hour. In some cases, apprentices are able to quickly achieve Class A Journeyman status, earning $38.42/hour, though for most that process takes about a year. Full health and retirement benefits kick in after 30 days.
UA Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 350 is an equal-opportunity employer and its opportunities are available to all who meet the minimum requirements, regardless of age, sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or nationality.