A little honesty and hard work - in the right field - can go a long way in securing one’s financial future.
“I tell my students that they are learning to control the weather, and people are always willing to pay you to do that,” said Bill Frye, instructor of the Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Technology program at Richmond Community College.
Frye is entering his second year as an instructor of this program that the college began offering in 2010. It prepares students to work with heating and air conditioning in residential settings and commercial refrigeration in restaurants, stores and warehouses.
“Students are learning a completely transferable trade, meaning you can work in California, Canada or Florida. All heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems operate basically the same no matter where you go in the world. It’s the same theory,” Frye said.
Students learn about mechanical refrigeration, heating and cooling theory, electricity, controls and safety. They can enter the diploma or degree programs.
Graduates of the diploma program will be able to assist in the start up, preventive maintenance, service, repair and installation of residential and light commercial systems. Graduates of the associate degree program will demonstrate an understanding of system selection and balance and advanced systems.
“Most people don’t realize how much theory they have to learn and understand. They also have to couple that with good hand-eye coordination, be able to troubleshoot, put forth a good personality and be able to communicate with customers, employers and employees,” Frye said.
While this line of work is better suited for people who have an interest in electrical and mechanical operations, Frye said someone with no prior knowledge can enter this program and graduate with a solid understanding of all aspects of heating, air and refrigeration systems.
“When I started the program, I knew that air conditioners blew cool air. That’s all I knew,” said Chris Jackson, who graduated from RCC in May with an Associate in Applied Science Degree in Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Technology.
A week after graduation, Jackson began working for Shelby Heating & Cooling in Shelby. He is a member of an installation crew that provides service for both residential and commercial customers. In a year’s time, he’ll be able to move up to a service technician position. The promotion comes with a higher salary.
Jackson, who is married with two sons and a daughter on the way, was employed as a cook at a local restaurant in Rockingham when he decided to go to college and earn a degree that would lead to a job with a promising career.
“The heating and air program at RCC is awesome. I enjoyed everything about it: the instructors, the hands-on time and the class time. It was fun to go to school every day,” Jackson said.
Students learn quite a bit of information in two years. There are written tests as well as lab work. The college recently added a new software program that allows the instructor to track the step-by-step procedure a student uses to diagnose a problem within an air condition or refrigeration system.
Once students graduate the program, there is a period of time in which they must prove to be knowledgeable and skilled before reaching their full salary potential.
“To leave here (RCC) and go into business directly would be like a doctor getting out of medical school and opening up a practice. He or she must first work under another doctor,” Frye said. “This occupation works the same way.”
Entry-level jobs include installation and start-up technicians. As technicians gain experience, they move up and can expect to see pay increases.
“A good technician with several years of experience can make between $25 and $30 an hour,” Frye said.
The median pay for industry workers is approximately $20.45 per hour, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between now and 2020, the field expecting to grow by more than 33 percent, a rate “much faster than average,” the federal agency notes.
There are many job opportunities for people going into this trade in both the public and private sectors. Technicians and contractors who work for the general public will have to pass a licensing exam regulated by the state in which they live and work.
Frye also counsels students who are interested in operating their own heating, air or refrigeration business. Frye operated his own business, Frye Refrigeration, for many years, worked for an equipment manufacturer and was an outside salesman for an HVAC/R wholesale company, encompassing more than 36 years of experience in this line of work. He is also a member of the N.C. State Board of Refrigeration Examiners.
“I teach my students to be the total package when they leave RCC,” Frye said. “I teach them to be knowledgeable but also to be good, honest technicians and contractors.”
Dr. Dale McInnis, president of RCC, noted that the program experienced a 33 percent growth in enrollment since last fall.
“With our experienced faculty and investment in state-of-the-industry equipment and trainers, we are building a reputation within the heating, air and refrigeration field that RCC graduates highly skilled technicians – technicians who will be in high demand,” McInnis said.
As Frye tells his students, “If you learn this trade, you’ll never have to look for a job. The job will be looking for you.”