Income potential is good, but industry stability may be the sleeper attraction.

A few days before writing this, I spent almost an hour on the phone with a mom talking about a potential HVAC career for her 19-year-old son. He was described as a good kid and OK student but aimless since graduating from high school last year.

She said he has no interest in college, but is mildly intrigued by an HVAC program attended by a friend who seems happy with it. The mother decided to research the vo-tech school and along the way Googled some of my articles.

She contacted me to see if I had any insight about the particular school. I didn’t, but pointed her to other sources of information. Along the way, our conversation took some revealing twists and turns.

Wendy, the mother, lives in a ritzy suburb of Chicago populated mostly by white collar professionals, which is her background as well. She knows nobody who works in any trade, and what little impression she has of trade careers is admittedly tilted toward the negative.

Nonetheless, Wendy struck me as wise in that she isn’t inclined to nag her son into a more fashionable career path, and is helping him sort out the trade option.

She spoke of admiration for people who are able to “make things work.” I thought this a refreshing perspective from someone of her social strata. Most of her highly educated peers never give a moment’s thought to anything as practical as what it takes to keep us cool when the sun melts asphalt and warm when icicles form. They do, however, take great interest in the goofiest political discourse and psychobabble.

Wendy asked many intelligent questions. Are there good companies out there that offer health insurance and retirement programs? Are there big changes coming about that would fundamentally alter the industry’s landscape? Is HVAC a regional industry?

At one point I directed her to union pipefitting and sheet metal apprenticeship programs worth investigating. “But isn’t all that decided by nepotism?” she asked. My response was that in any walk of life it always helps to know somebody, but that union apprenticeship is much more open than it used to be. All you union JAT trustees reading this ought to take note that this impression of exclusivity lingers.

I tried to answer her questions thoroughly and clear up misconceptions - some of which stemmed from my own writings that focused on industry problems, like the business shortcomings of many contractors. I explained that this was inside baseball aimed at this magazine’s audience of business owners but had little to do with trade careers per se. To that end, I made the following points:

  • No matter who directs the work, there will always be demand for people with the know-how to install, maintain and repair our sanitation and comfort systems. What’s more, these jobs cannot be outsourced or taken over by unskilled cheap labor.


  • HVAC is needed everywhere, although the cooling component is more important down south and heating up north. I also told Wendy of the hydronics sector of HVAC and the growing popularity of radiant heat.


  • The HVAC and plumbing trades are becoming progressively more high-tech due to environmental and energy-efficiency mandates. This can only increase the value of their technicians.


  • There are more than 75,000 HVAC and plumbing contractors in this country that employ technicians. As in any other field, the quality of their jobs range from dreamy to crummy. The more capable the technician, the more in demand that person will be by the best companies.


  • That Census Bureau data does not include as many as 200,000 self-employed contractors who do not have a payroll other than themselves. I explained to Wendy that once someone acquires the requisite technical skills, there are few barriers to entry against going into business for oneself.


  • Census data shows that as of 2006, the median income of a person with a bachelor’s degree was $46,435. Many HVAC/plumbing technicians top that, and those in the top ranks can surpass the $78,212 median income pegged for persons with a PhD. Moreover, the sky’s the limit for those who start their own companies.

    Usually I am abrupt with phone calls that don’t relate to the work on my always bountiful platter. Yet, I found this extraneous conversation invigorating and didn’t feel like cutting her off. I loved Wendy’s attitude and it made me feel good that I might help reel someone into this industry.