Man on an HVAC Career Mission

Some good column material arrived this week, as I was preparing to provide a humorous look at my first experience flying Spirit Airlines. This will be much more beneficial to you, so here we go.

Steven Long, co-owner of GSM Services, Gastonia, NC, a third-generation family-owned HVAC business — and the CONTRACTOR magazine 2022 Contractor of the Year — describes his mission in a letter to industry editors, about the often-discussed inclination of students to opt out of trade schools in favor of four years of college. (See Last Word on page 56 for a related editorial.) His concern is for HVAC installers and technicians, plumbers, welders, electricians, carpenters, masons, roofers and others. 

Mr. Long pulls no punches. He describes this situation as “a dark cloud upon us that could very well turn into a hurricane if something doesn’t change quickly.”

To help prove his point, Long shares a bit of his own career path, and how his experience relates to today’s realities 

‘Every single trade job is noble, will provide meaning to the individual worker and serve a greater purpose for the overall good of their community.’ – Stephen Long

“As I was graduating high school in 1988, I and most or all of my classmates were encouraged to work toward attending a four-year university. Learning a trade was never discussed and frankly, it was frowned upon. Those wanting to get into the trades were looked down upon. I was lucky that my summer job was in the HVAC world, so I was exposed to trade work early in my life. This view has continued to be at the forefront since then and continues today. It is to the point where some trades are seeing a five-to-one retirement exchange. For every five tradesmen (this does not apply to every single trade) that retire, only one new person is coming into that trade. This is a situation that will have some real serious consequences in the coming years.”

A Path to Prosperity & Success

Present day: Long presents a real-life scenario of two18-year-old high school grads. One has decided to attend a four-year college, certain that it is the better path to success. Over those four years, they accumulate $200,000 in college debt, and graduate. The graduate can’t find a job in their chosen field of study, and if if they do, the average starting salary in 2021 was close to $50,000/year.

Long’s second example: an 18-year-old high school graduate starts as an HVAC company apprentice. He or she starts out at $14/hour and this company happens to have a scholarship program at the community college, with a tuition reimbursement program. This individual takes advantage of the tuition reimbursement program, makes $30,000 in year one, $40,000 in the second year, and completes a two-year associates degree. They begin their career as a full-time service technician, earning $50,000 to $60,000 per year. 

And with career advancement, that wage can eventually hit $90-$100,000. And so, after four years, one individual has personally made close to $200,000 working, has built experience, and may even be living in their own home; while the first individual is starting their working career $200,000 in debt. That is a $400,000 swing by the age of 22-23. 

Does this make you sad, and perhaps worry about your own children’s career future?

Long says most of GSM’s leaderships team do not have four-year college degrees, and yet, the career path at the company can mirror a college graduate’s, and possibly overtake it in terms of time required to reach a career goal. 

“This could lead from apprentice, to field technician, to field team leader, to project manager, to division team leader, to regional/group manager, to company owner.

A Path to Meaning

Long writes that he dislikes hearing phrases like, “He’s only a plumber”, or “He decided to just go to tech school to be an HVAC technician.”

“What in the world does that mean and what message does that send to kids trying after graduating from high school?” he asks. “I realize there is nothing more noble than working in the trades. Where else can you ensure that people are comfortable and breathing clean air in their homes? Where else can you help homeowners live dry and safely in their homes? Where else can you ensure that someone’s crawlspace is not full of moisture and biological growth? The trades literally keep people alive and healthy. There is nothing important than protecting someone’s home and helping them enhance their health and quality of life. This is what those of us in the trade world are doing every day.” 

“I am on a mission to spread this message and help others see what is possible through a career in the trades. I am personally biased toward the HVAC and commercial roofing industry, but every single trade job is noble, will provide meaning to the individual worker and serve a greater purpose for the overall good of their community.” 

Write to Steve to learn how he’s going about this mission, at steven@gsmsince1927.com I know I will.