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Finishing Trade School? Some Things you Need to Know
So, I hear you're just finishing trade school. Well done.
You chose to take an excellent path, and now your journey is just beginning.
How this will go is really up to you, and that's a good thing! You aren't going to be forced in one direction or another; you get to choose.
Let's talk about what choices you will make and what you need to know to end up where you want to go (unintentional rhyme there).
Choosing an Industry Segment
Many of you may end up working in a particular segment because you were recruited into it. Or maybe it's because you knew someone, or it was the first place that offers you a job. There is nothing wrong with that, but I would first consider all of your options.
Stationary vs. Field
There are some jobs where you work as a stationary mechanic or tech on a single or group of facilities, generally as a direct employee of the facility. In other jobs, you will work for an independent contractor in many different locations and for various customers.
Stationary jobs tend to be well suited for people who enjoy routine, a slower pace, and less variability. Often, the benefits (vacation, health, retirement) in stationary jobs can be very good, though the competitiveness of the pay may vary. Stationary jobs are commonly available in areas with many buildings or units on a single property, including large schools, hospitals, hotels, and apartment complexes. In our market, the theme park industry employs many stationary engineers.
On the other hand, field jobs have more risk and variability. They are generally best suited for people who are always looking for a challenge and prefer not to have a set routine day in and day out. You may be limited to a service area or travel longer distances, depending on which other segments of the industry you choose (i.e., residential vs. commercial).
Install vs. Service
Install or projects work tends to be more physically taxing, but you would generally have a more fixed work schedule. Good install and project mechanics need to have a combination of productivity and efficiency, a strong mechanical sense, and attention to aesthetic detail (how things look). Install mechanics must be able to read plans and specs but usually don't need to learn as much from reading as service technicians. The work tends to be predictable.
Service has a lot more scheduling variability, and technicians often work long hours in peak seasons. Service requires strong problem-solving skills, communication, and the ability to think well under pressure. The best service techs can learn from many different sources, including books, podcasts, videos, etc. People who enjoy challenging themselves might feel fulfilled by the mental rigor of service work.
Residential vs. Commercial
In residential, you will generally be able to stay busy in or near your own hometown. You must be able to talk with people, handle tense situations, be willing to quote repairs, and have money conversations with customers. In general, residential requires less travel and isn't as technically difficult as commercial but can be more socially stressful. If you see yourself as a “people person,” then residential might be right for you.
Commercial work does not generally require nearly as much customer interaction. However, it will often require more climbing, lifting, and travel. On the projects side, commercial work will often require periodic night work. If you're not a “people person” but work well with your hands and don't mind night work or travel, then commercial work might be up your alley.
HVAC/R has many specialty segments like chillers, controls (EMS, BAS), VRF, market refrigeration, ammonia, and many more. Specialty segments may be more challenging to get into right out of school but often have excellent long-term opportunities for pay and advancement. One of the best ways to learn if an industry segment may be right for you is to strike up a conversation with a technician or owner in that segment on one of the forums or social media groups like the HVAC School Facebook Group. They can let you know what it's like to work in those segments and what it takes to be successful in them.
Initial Pay vs. Ultimate Opportunity
You might be tempted to choose a job based on which one pays you the most right out of school. For some of you, the need to make as much as you can right away is critical, and I understand that.
But that isn't how I would make the decision.
I would suggest looking into segments and companies where the pay after 5 years is the best rather than only considering what they pay out of school. The best way to find this info is to talk to people who have actually done it rather than trusting what a company says about itself.
I know you may think you already HAVE an education, but your education is really only starting. Find a company that will continue to invest in training you rather than one that throws you to the wolves right out of school.
Don't get the wrong idea.
There isn't a job or career path out there that will work out exactly as you planned. The goal of all your career planning isn't to make you check every box; it's to get you started out in the best direction. There will be many course corrections in your journey, and you will learn a lot about yourself as you go.
Character is Key
Before we cover what you do to get where you want to go, we need to discuss who you ARE.
You are a combination of your genetics inherited from your parents, the things that have happened to you, and the choices you've made along the way. When questions of your character come up, you will be tempted to blame your genes (“I'm just not a good reader”) or your circumstances (“I don't have time to study”). I beg of you: DON'T DO IT.
Every human who has ever lived is born with advantages and challenges, and everyone has the choice to allow these external forces to define their existence or choose to own what they become.
Whether life happens to you (victim mentality) or whether you happen to life (ownership) depends on YOU.
Character means making a set of choices based on rules that you set for yourself of proper conduct. Here are some great character rules:
- Keep your word, especially when doing so requires sacrifice.
- Treat everyone with respect, whether they deserve it or not.
- Spend time with people that make you better.
- Listen more than you speak.
- Practice gratefulness daily.
- Work hard even when you think it doesn't matter.
- Do the right thing even when nobody will ever know.
- Replace negativity with solutions.
- Don't complain… ever.
- Make decisions you will be proud of 20 years from now.
Sorry for writing a little self-help novel here, but the truth is that your character really matters.
You need to decide what sort of person you are, or your circumstances will decide for you.
What Not to Do
If you are under the age of 25, I want to state once again how glad I am that you chose this business, and I really think you made a great choice.
But please recognize that some of the things culture and social interaction with your peers have taught you will wreak havoc on your career in this trade.
So please, for your own sake, don't:
- Keep looking at your phone (seriously, don't look at it…)
- Come into work looking all sleepy and disengaged
- Show up late
- Make snarky remarks to more experienced workers (or anything that could be misinterpreted that way)
- Tell experienced guys how you “did it in school”
- Stand around (instead, find a broom, organize something somewhere, or read something directly related to your job)
- Fall asleep at work (even in the van)
- Tell people about personal stuff you don't want everyone to know
This applies to workers of all ages, of course, but these traits tend to be really common in younger workers.
What to Do Instead
Getting ahead is actually pretty simple (but not easy). You need to learn continuously, communicate positively, and do good work consistently.
Here are my top recommendations for actions you can take right out of school:
- Put aside money from every check for tools. Buy your own tools, even if the company provides them. This is about investing in yourself, not about the company you work for right now.
- Remember things the older techs tell you. Thank them later on for specifically what they taught you and how it helped.
- Read manuals. If you work on something new, read the manual beforehand if you can. At a minimum, do it later on at home if you didn't have time during the day. I don't care if you are a “hands-on” learner; that's not an excuse not to read. I suggest reading the manual just before or after you worked on a unit. You can't get really good if you never read, so start making it a habit.
- Show up to work early. On-time is late; set your clocks 10 minutes forward if you need to.
- Share facts from others. If you find that someone more experienced is doing something incorrectly, share something you read in a manual or article and ask their thoughts on it rather than “confronting” them.
- Use your resources. Do some research and study before asking a question. There is still an appropriate time and place to ask questions, but it's once you've already put in some work.
The Rule of Bob
“If Bob has a problem with everyone, Bob is the problem”
I get contacted all the time by people fresh out of school who express that everyone in the trade is out to get them. They ALL do it wrong. They are ALL jerks. EVERYONE abuses and mistreats them.
There are really only two options when someone has these sorts of complaints:
- They work for the worst company ever
- They don't know how to overcome challenges
Sure, there are a lot of grouchy, sad, negative people in our trade. That's true in EVERY job; tradespeople just tend to express it with a few more expletives than some other more “refined” professions. You've really got to learn to deal with negative people while finding ways to spend more time with positive and helpful people. Sometimes, that means finding a different company, and other times, it means using it as an opportunity to build some resilience within yourself.
Some companies and bosses are bad. You won't change them. If you work at a place that doesn't match your character, don't complain; find a better fit.
Remember, this is all about choosing a path that will take you where YOU want to go. Everything else is just circumstances, and you will decide whether they make you better or bitter.
In the words of Forrest Gump:
That's all I've got to say about that.