Why trade schools replaced apprenticeships for HVAC careers

Why Trade Schools Replaced Apprenticeships for HVAC Careers


Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning ( HVAC) technicians install, repair, and maintain HVACR systems. Along with cooling and heating systems, they have expertise in refrigeration systems that preserve food in production applications. Given the growing emphasis on pollution and energy efficiency, this field is expected to grow steadily over the next decade. It is anticipated that many HVAC systems will have to be upgraded, retrofitted, or replaced altogether.

As such, careers in HVAC are estimated to grow as fast as other occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupations in heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration are expected to grow at a rate of 5% from 2021 to 2031 – an average of 40,100 openings yearly. The median annual salary of an HVAC technician was $48,630 in May 2021. They find work in many settings, from schools to factories to residential buildings. Now, every person’s journey towards a skilled trade is different. What may work for one person may be different for you. In this article, we’ll explore why trade schools replaced apprenticeships to better help you decide the path forward.


With only a high school or GED diploma, you are ready to start training for an HVAC career. You can enroll in a certificate, associate, or apprenticeship program. In many states, HVAC technicians do need to be licensed. This means passing a licensure exam. It can also include showing proof of work experience and having liability insurance. However, the requirements will differ from state to state. South Dakota, for example, does not require HVAC technicians to be licensed, though the cities within the state might need it. On the other hand, Texas HVAC technicians require supervised experience for four years before being licensed by the Texas Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Contractors Advisory Board.

Trade schools offer HVAC programs that teach technical topics such as basic electricity, thermodynamics, blueprint reading, motors, auxiliary controls, advanced troubleshooting, refrigeration, load calculation, tube and pipe fabrication, and industrial safety. Associate degree programs take longer (up to two years) and teach the aforementioned and additional general education classes. Apprenticeships predominantly feature hands-on training on the job under a licensed professional while offering individuals the opportunity of paid work in air conditioning contracting. A trade school therefore offers more holistic training to provide students with a solid foundation to build their HVAC careers.


It should be noted that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that all technicians working with refrigerant systems acquire the relevant Section 608 Certifications. There are four of them – Type I, II, III, and universal. They indicate that a technician can handle these hazardous materials safely.

  • Type I — for technicians working on small appliances containing less than 5 pounds of refrigerant, e.g., residential refrigerators and freezers.
  • Type II — for technicians working on high-pressure appliances, including outdoor AC systems and commercial refrigerators and freezers
  • Type III — for technicians working on low-pressure appliances using a refrigerant with a boiling point higher than 50 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Universal — for technicians who have passed the core exam and the three parts of the Section 608 certification examination.

There are other voluntary certification programs offered by industry groups – the most notable being the North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification. It is considered by many to be the best, and it demonstrates both real-world and fundamental knowledge of HVAC systems. The NATE certification also falls into four categories.

  • Ready-to-Work Certificate — meant for entry-level technicians with little to no education/experience.
  • HVAC Support Technician Certificate — for those with six to twelve months of work experience.
  • Core and Specialty Certifications — for those with two years of experience. It covers diverse HVAC fields, including air distribution and oil heating.
  • Senior Level Efficiency Analyst Certification — the highest NATE certification

Most vocational courses will cover type I and II EPA certifications which are enough for many HVAC roles. The rest can be pursued at later stages. Depending on the college and an individual’s availability, it can take as little as nine months to complete HVAC training. Those with busy lifestyles can partake in part-time or custom programs. If you’re wondering why trade schools replaced apprenticeships, here are six reasons:

1. Apprenticeships Are Hard to Get Into

An apprenticeship requires a substantial investment from the company offering it. As such, getting into such a program can be pretty hard, whereas a trade school offers a far easier path. Furthermore, apprenticeship programs are becoming more likely to pick those with prior education and experience. This is a change from the past when they selected a higher number of individuals with no prior knowledge of the field. It is much harder to build someone from the ground up than to have someone who can hit the ground running. If you have applied for an apprenticeship or are waiting for an opening, you may want to consider enrolling in an HVAC installation trade school.

There are two unions in the HVAC trade that run most of the HVAC apprenticeship programs in the US and Canada:

  • United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States, Canada – commonly referred to as UA or Union Association.
  • The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers — often referred to as the Sheet Metal Workers Union (SMART)

They are highly selective about who gets in due to their investment in the success of a program. Also, the performance of their indoor air quality HVAC technicians will reflect on the union, so it’s in their best interest to hire only the most talented professionals.

This is not to say that there aren’t non-union apprenticeships. There are, and they are usually run by a single employer or through the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) trade association. Apprenticeship programs will often work with local trade schools or community colleges to provide the required classroom hours for certification.

2. A Faster Route

Trade schools replaced apprenticeships because they can be completed faster and are easier to access. As mentioned earlier, HVAC apprenticeships have a high demand meaning hopeful individuals may spend months or even years before finding a heating and cooling company to take them in. This can be discouraging; even afterward, completing an apprenticeship takes three to five years. Compare that with trade schools, and it becomes clear why trade schools replaced apprenticeships. Many more people can get into the HVAC trade via trade schools, some in as little as 33 weeks, depending on the course. Taking under a year to become an entry-level HVAC technician is a more attractive proposition.

3. A Holistic Education

A company offering an apprenticeship typically trains individuals in their business’s area of interest, i.e., what they want them to do for the company. Depending on what the cooling and heating services company does, this can lead to a narrow area of expertise. For example, the HVAC company you train in may not provide refrigeration services, or they may only work with specific brands. This may leave you with gaps in your education that can be a disadvantage if you want to seek work elsewhere.

Other companies may require you to be able to provide different HVAC services, or they may work with various popular brands other than those you are used to. HVAC trade schools take a well-rounded approach which is why trade schools replaced apprenticeships. They teach all high-demand HVAC services to better position graduates for the job market or higher specializations. A trade school also teaches soft skills (communication, writing, time management, budgeting, etc.) – these better endear you to employers and are crucial to working effectively.

4. Lessons From Licensed Instructors vs. HVAC Journeymen

Apprenticeship programs are typically taught by an appointed company mentor, usually an HVAC journeyman. Trade schools have professional and licensed instructors. While an apprenticeship HVAC mentor is often highly skilled, they may not have the aptitude for teaching that licensed instructors do. Furthermore, trade schools offer a more relaxed learning environment with no time constraints or job deadlines.

It creates a better learning environment where students can take their time learning about concepts and applying them in the lab. The trade school’s licensed instructors are skilled teachers who can guide each student effectively through the course. On the other hand, apprenticeships rely on a mentor who could be great, or perhaps not. Furthermore, your experience can be frustrating if you do not enjoy the company’s culture.

5. Trade Schools Have Job Placement Programs

Another reason why trade schools replaced apprenticeships is that many trade schools have job placement services to help their students find their footing in the trades. In addition, they may also teach resume writing, interview techniques, communication skills, skills assessment, dress code, and more. Many job seekers find interviews to be a stressful experience, so that some prior training can be beneficial.

Trade schools also tend to have built relationships with local or national cooling and heating repairs and installation companies. Therefore, they can offer graduates a path to employment or apprenticeship faster than they would be able to do so on their own.

6. Flexibility

The sixth reason trade schools replaced apprenticeships is that they offer students the flexibility to work at a job while also attending school. It is not only apprenticeships that provide students an opportunity to earn as they learn. Many trade schools offer part-time or flexible evening classes to allow time for work. Some even blend online classes with on-campus training. However, aspiring technicians should be careful in choosing a school. Good schools offer hands-on training and have a good reputation within the teaching and HVAC industry.

Finding the Right Trade School

The goal of attending a trade school is to get the necessary skills to perform air conditioning installation, maintenance, and other HVAC tasks. Therefore, you must go to a school that provides the right learning path. Here are some things you ought to look out for:

  • Choose an accredited school — accreditation means that industry peers have reviewed the program to meet the accreditor’s standards. This includes having qualified instructors with current field knowledge. Good schools hire HVAC instructors who are working in the field so they can impart current industry practices and knowledge. Also, inquire about the school’s track record, including information such as their student’s course completion rate and job placement. This will help you make the right decision.
  • A comprehensive curriculum — trade schools replaced apprenticeships because they also offer excellent skills training to their students. As such, you need to check that the school offers everything from installing a new air conditioning system to electricals to OSHA safety protocols.
  • Hand-on workshops — as part of a comprehensive curriculum, it’s vital that you have a practical understanding of HVAC products. Theory alone is not enough. The school should have a well-equipped training lab where you can become familiar with different HVAC tools, equipment, and assemblies.
  • The school’s reputation — How long has the school been running an HVAC program? What do online reviews say? Ask around and get to know the school’s reputation before paying to avoid disappointment.
  • Job Placement — Find out how much career support the school offers its students. This will vary with every school, so it may sway your decision. Inquire as well about their external certifications. Certificates such as the NATE Ready to Work and EPA should be part of the program as they inform HVAC employers that you are ready to work.

The learning path one chooses depends on the outcome one seeks. It’s a personal choice that is affected by factors such as available opportunities, budget, job demand, aptitude, and preference. Trade schools replaced apprenticeships, but aspiring HVAC technicians should still gather as much information as possible on possible learning routes. In addition, understanding the big economic picture and potential career paths is crucial to making a well-informed decision. For more information, reach out to us.

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