After Melissa Elcheck graduated from high school, she raised a family and held down various jobs that never felt fulfilling. Then, at the age of 43, Elcheck took control of her career. She entered a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, or HVAC, technician training program for six months at Orleans Technical College in Northeast Philadelphia. “I like fixing things, and I wanted a recession-proof job,” she explained.

Elcheck nailed both goals. Since 2018, she’s been employed at increasingly skilled, and better-paying, positions at Christian Heating and Air Conditioning in Southampton. Now 47, she worked through the entire pandemic making house calls, monitoring, repairing, and installing equipment. “The best part is making customers happy,” Elcheck said.

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“HVAC is a very hot field right now. If a person has a great work ethic, they’re going to do well,” said Denise Collins, continuing education manager at North Montco Technical Career Center (NMTCC) in Lansdale, which trains both high school students and adults in HVAC. The Pennsylvania Center for Workforce Information and Analysis projects an 8% jump in HVACR (the “R” is for refrigeration) jobs in Philadelphia County between 2018 and 2028, higher than the estimated nationwide average increase of 4% in about the same period.

HVAC techs usually work in either residential or commercial settings, rarely both. Residentially oriented workers such as Elcheck visit people’s homes to monitor, repair, and install equipment such as air-conditioning and heating units. The tricky part of home visits is having to work in crawl spaces and attics, where customers in small houses sometimes hide their equipment, Elcheck said. Commercial employees may install HVAC systems in new construction, such as apartment buildings and shopping centers, or maintain existing systems. Their hours tend to be more predictable than technicians who may have to go out at all hours to attend to home emergencies.

In Philadelphia, someone who has finished six months to two years of post-secondary education in the field can expect a starting salary of at least $39,760. For the remainder of the two- to five-year on-the-job training periods, income rises fast, with a highly skilled HVAC technician hauling in $66,840 or more in Philadelphia.

“You’re getting paid and building up experience without acquiring college debt,” said Joe Perpiglia, president and CEO of the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a trade group for non-unionized firms.

This recession-resistant quality has made HVAC companies unique among construction fields in being attractive to takeovers by private equity firms, according to a report from the construction consulting firm FMI. Refrigeration, in particular, is considered a growth segment, partly because of the continuing rise in sales of online groceries, which require cold storage in large warehouses.

Unlike most construction jobs, HVAC work is usually steady — homes and businesses need air conditioners worked on in the summer and heating units in the winter. Older units constantly need updating. The quest for energy savings drives demand for new equipment. In addition, a predicted 5.9-degree rise in temperatures by 2050 ensures that air conditioning will remain in high demand.

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Going into HVAC work can present an alternative to a traditional college education. Bill Ronayne, 66, owner of Brandywine Valley HVAC in West Chester, was on a college-prep track in high school. Yet, the day after he graduated in 1973, he took shift work instead of attending college. “I wasn’t willing to spend all that time and money on education,” he recalled. A year later, he became a shop helper at an HVAC company. He continued to work his way up in the field and then, in 1993, started his own firm. As a sideline, he is board vice president for the Air Conditioning Contractors of Pennsylvania, a local affiliate of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

These days, many HVAC technicians start with post-secondary school training at technical schools or community colleges. “A strong candidate needs to be good at spatial recognition, math, and reading specifications and codes,” Perpiglia said.

“You should have a passion for working with your hands, your whole body,” noted Debbie Bello, director of admissions at Orleans. Technicians who work in people’s homes also must be “polite and well-liked by customers. It’s important to have loyal customers. Ninety percent of our work is done on repeat and referral business,” Ronayne said.

Although post-secondary HVAC training classes usually cost money — from $2,599 for a six-month program at the Community College of Philadelphia to $16,415 for a six-month course at Orleans — that tuition is minor compared with the $60,000 or more for a four-year university education. In addition, financial aid for HVAC school training is widely available, and future employers often underwrite tuition.

Despite these perks, there is a shortage of HVAC workers in the country — one estimate by Women in HVACR, a national networking organization, puts the shortfall at more than 115,000 by 2022. A deficit has been around for 10 years, Perpiglia said. As a result of COVID-19, when fewer students trained, the situation for employers has become “even more dire,” noted NMTCC’s Collins. “We had one company call offering $7,000 sign-on bonuses.”

The problem is that a similar number of younger workers are not replacing retiring baby boomers, according to Perpiglia. Nationally, the average age of HVAC workers is 55, according to the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, or ACCA, a trade organization. Perpiglia blames secondary schools for not promoting trades careers enough.

There is one group that could make up the difference but hasn’t: women. Only 9% of American HVAC employees are female, according to the ACCA.

Ronayne often speaks at high schools and other places in Chester County, promoting the benefits of HVAC employment. He believes that potential technicians have many misconceptions about a job that has changed “dramatically” in the last 20 years, he said.

“You don’t have to be a weightlifter to do the work we do today,” he said. “There is still a lot of heavy equipment, but it is smaller and lighter, easier to move.” In other words, the physical labor is something many women can do. The emphasis these days is on technology. “You need to understand computers,” Ronayne said. But you don’t have to be a whiz. “If you can use a smartphone, then you can do the work,” he added.

At bottom, HVAC is a skilled craft, Ronayne said. “The work is beautiful. I tell my employees, ‘Whatever work you do, make sure you’d be proud to show your mom.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.