HVAC Apprentice Sees ‘World of Opportunities’

HVAC apprentices
Apprentices Tony McKay (left) and Randy Brainard work on an air-conditioning system for Jacksonville's Thermodyne Services. McKay and Brainard say the Northeast Florida Builders Association apprenticeship program is helping them achieve their educational, career and financial goals. Photo by Florida Times-Union

By Kevin Hogencamp, Jacksonville.com

From his first grass-cutting gigs as a 14-year-old to the golf course job that put money in his pocket during high school, Tony McKay has never minded hard work.


But McKay, now 21, said he didn’t know what was ahead of him when he enrolled in a Northeast Florida Builders Association (NEFBA) apprenticeship program, a few months after graduating from high school.


“I picked up a brochure and I also checked it out online,” he said. “I honestly did not know what to expect.”

McKay said he chose heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) because he is mechanically inclined. He also appreciated the opportunity to earn a decent salary.


A field technician apprentice for Jacksonville air-conditioning contractor Thermodyne Services, McKay feels his career and financial goals are in sight because of the “world of opportunities” NEFBA’s program provides.


McKay is slated to complete the NEFBA program and go on to achieve journeyman status in 2018.


“The apprentice opportunity has exceeded my expectations,” said . “In addition to the technical information from textbooks, I especially appreciate hearing about the real-world experiences, situations and rules of thumb my teachers and classmates add to the learning process.”


Apprenticeships provide on-the-job training and related classroom instruction in skilled, high-demand, well-paying occupations. Especially prevalent in the construction and manufacturing trades, apprenticeships are sponsored by individual employers, joint employer and labor groups, as well as employer and trade associations. Tuition is usually covered by the employer or a grant.


McKay is learning to install and service residential, commercial and industrial HVAC systems, monitor automated building controls and solve problems in the field.


Bill Lauver, the Florida Department of Education’s Region 1 apprenticeship and training representative, said apprentices in state-registered programs such as NEFBA’s earn a progressive wage as their skills increase.


Depending on the trade, programs last one to five years; at least 144 hours of related instruction for each year is apprenticeship is required.


The NEFBA apprenticeship program is one of two National Home Builders Association-sanctioned programs in Florida; plumbing, carpentry and electrical training are also available.


According to Keith Ward, NEFBA’s training vice president and Apprenticeship Executive Committee chair, apprenticeships are ideal for people of all ages, with various educational and employment backgrounds, who want a career path in commercial or residential construction.


About 200 people are enrolled in the NEFBA program.


“Not every high school graduate will go to college and the trades offer high-paying wages in fields with projected overwhelming growth,” Ward said.


In addition to working 40-hour weeks year-round, NEFBA apprentices accumulate 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 600 hours of related technical classroom and laboratory instruction between September and April at Keiser University, Ridgeview and Middleburg high schools. Instructors are chosen from the trade for their expertise in the field and are trained to teach NEFBA curriculum, which uses standards that give graduates credentials accepted nationally and beyond.


Participating employers, who are all NEFBA members, cover tuition for their apprentices; many provide job placement for apprentices who are not employed when they enter the program.


“Many of our current apprentices have enrolled in conjunction with their employment. Others have responded to our open invitation for qualified candidates to embark on a career in the construction industry,” said Ward.


McKay said that upon gaining experience as a journeyman, he’ll have the credentials to become a supervisor, then a manager.


“I would definitely recommend it to others,” he said. “My short-term goals are to get a solid foundation and to learn as much as I can. Long term, I look forward to exploring opportunities and being able to take advantage of openings that would allow me to move up the ladder in the field.”


Randy Brainard, a co-worker of McKay’s at Thermodyne Services with previous experience in the industry, said the classroom component of his HVAC apprenticeship got off to a rocky start because he felt he knew most of the material.


“Then in my second and third years, I learned more than I ever thought I would,” he said. “We began to discuss realistic problems from the field and learned solutions that worked.”


Lauver said most apprenticeships require that participants be at least 18, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and be physically fit to perform the work of the trade. Apprenticeships are most suitable for people who can commit to a long-term training program, he said.