Technical School vs. College: How HVAC Professionals Can Earn More Than College Graduates
March 23, 2020
Getting a college degree is expensive and causes many students to take out student loans, work multiple jobs, and rely on their parents for financial relief. These high costs have caused future students to take a second look at their career plans. For these students, technical fields like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) are a smart alternative to expensive college degrees — and for good reason. HVAC professionals can become successful while spending much less money and much less time in school.
To understand the financial consequences of a traditional college education versus technical HVAC training, there are a few things one must consider: the average salaries of college graduates compared to the average salaries of HVAC professionals; the cost of education; and the potential of going into debt. Read on to learn more about why the HVAC field can be an attractive path for students looking to earn a living without going into too much student debt.
Earning Potential of HVAC vs. College Graduates
The average annual pay for an HVAC technician in the United States is $49,234. Annual salaries can be as high as $74,000 or as low as $24,500, but most range from $39,500 to $56,500. This is impressive, as 51.1% of HVAC technicians have a high school diploma or less, while 42.6% have an associate degree or some college education. HVAC salaries have the potential to greatly increase over time as technicians gain real-world experience and skills that make them invaluable to their employers.
To understand the merits of HVAC jobs, it’s important to compare the average annual earnings of HVAC professionals against the salaries of those who have received some college with no degree, associate degrees, or bachelor’s degrees. The data below comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and was collected from full-time and salaried workers over 25 years of age:
- Some college with no degree: $802/week or $40,100/year
- Associate degree: $862/week or $43,100/year
- Bachelor’s degree: $1,198/week or $59,900/year
- Master’s degree: $1,434/week or $71,700/year
- Professional degree: $1,884/week or $94,200/year
- Doctoral degree: $1,825/week or $91,250/year
The True Cost of a College Education
From an early age, many Americans are taught that a college education is the only logical step to take after receiving a high school diploma. And while there are many benefits to attending a university, it’s not for everyone. That is especially true today, when a college diploma has the potential to send students into debt they will be paying off, in some cases, for the rest of their lives.
Approximately 44.7 million US students have taken out student loans — and 71% have debt to pay after they leave school, typically during a repayment period of 10 to 30 years. The average college student graduates with $31,172 in student loan debt, and the average monthly loan payment for graduates is $393.
The total student loan debt in the US is $1.52 trillion, and an average of $2,858 in student loan debt is accrued every second. Many student loan borrowers are still paying their loans back after they have reached retirement. However, those between the ages of 35 and 49 have the most outstanding student debt at a collective $548.4 billion.
College vs. HVAC Training Costs
College tuition costs have skyrocketed in the past 50 years. Many students pay more than double what their parents paid to attend college.
In 1971, the average cost for a semester’s tuition, fees, and housing at a public four-year university was $8,730 in 2019 currency. Today, that average cost is $21,370. This is a 145% increase many households struggle to afford, as household income has only increased by 28% in that same period.
HVAC jobs can be attractive to parents who cannot afford to send their children to Ivy League schools. But these jobs are also appealing to high school graduates who want an affordable degree that lets them enter the workforce with a high earning potential soon after graduation.
An HVAC certificate typically costs anywhere from $1,200 to $15,000, depending on where you get it from. Many technical schools or community colleges offer HVAC certification through programs that can last anywhere from six to 24 months.
Those looking to jump into HVAC with hands-on experience can also receive their certification through apprenticeship programs, which can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 for a length of about three to five years. An apprenticeship program usually involves home-study work combined with on-the-job training from an HVAC employer.
Like college students, HVAC students should expect to pay additional fees for housing and textbooks and supplies. This can cost about $5,000 to $10,000 annually — a cost that is doubled or even tripled for students receiving the traditional college experience at a university.
What Is the Average HVAC Salary in Each State?
While there are many employment options for HVAC professionals, the HVAC technician role is one of the most common. To get an idea of how much HVAC professionals can make in each state, we’ve collected annual salary information for HVAC technicians in the US.
Annual Salaries for HVAC Technicians in the US
This data comes from ZipRecruiter, and is based on salary estimates in job postings for HVAC technicians in each state.
- Alabama: $43,930
- Alaska: $49,234
- Arizona: $46,822
- Arkansas: $44,351
- California: $48,861
- Colorado: $46,702
- Connecticut: $49,617
- Delaware: $46,586
- Florida: $41,212
- Georgia: $44,096
- Hawaii: $49,376
- Idaho: $49,234
- Illinois: $43,125
- Indiana: $45,709
- Iowa: $45,532
- Kansas: $45,157
- Kentucky: $45,489
- Louisiana: $45,423
- Maine: $44,525
- Maryland: $49,882
- Massachusetts: $53,429
- Michigan: $42,871
- Minnesota: $46,457
- Missouri: $42,690
- Mississippi: $42,676
- Montana: $49,234
- Nebraska: $49,664
- Nevada: $49,234
- New Hampshire: $52,450
- New Jersey: $46,784
- New Mexico: $43,532
- New York: $53,873
- North Carolina: $38,051
- North Dakota: $49,234
- Ohio: $45,749
- Oklahoma: $45,554
- Oregon: $46,478
- Pennsylvania: $46,643
- Rhode Island: $47,210
- South Carolina: $46,435
- South Dakota: $46,674
- Tennessee: $46,234
- Texas: $44,052
- Utah: $45,981
- Vermont: $49,234
- Virginia: $48,159
- Washington: $48,965
- West Virginia: $47,663
- Wisconsin: $44,922
- Wyoming: $49,234
What Do HVAC Professionals Do?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, HVAC jobs include the following responsibilities:
- Installing, cleaning, inspecting, testing, and maintaining HVAC systems
- Installing wiring and other electrical components
- Discuss system malfunctions with customers and recommending maintenance
- Repairing or replacing defective systems and worn parts
- Keeping work and repair records
What Are the Benefits of Entering the HVAC Field?
HVAC mechanic and installer jobs are expected to grow by 13% through 2028. Much of this growth is expected to be caused by commercial and residential building construction, as well as the demand for energy-efficient HVAC systems such as solar and wind turbines. Additional growth stems from developing technology, internet-connected appliances, and more:
- New technology needs skilled technicians. Every HVAC system has an expiration date. Most systems only last about 15 to 20 years even with regular maintenance. HVAC professionals will always be needed to upgrade existing systems and replace them with new systems.
- Smart, internet-connected appliances are always in development. Devices connected to the internet of things are making their way into homes and businesses all around the world. Smart HVAC systems are no exception, and HVAC professionals will need to be on call to install and troubleshoot smart technology.
- Green energy is expected to be in high demand to address climate change. To lower their carbon footprint, many companies are turning to green energy and green HVAC systems. HVAC professionals will be highly sought after to replace outdated systems and bring buildings into the 21st century.
- Americans demand temperature-controlled residential and commercial buildings. The US is the world’s biggest user of air-conditioning systems, with almost 90% of households having some type of AC system installed. HVAC professionals will always be needed to install, maintain, and repair these systems.
What Types of HVAC Jobs Are Available?
HVAC professionals have many different career options in the field, including the following:
- AC technician: An AC technician ensures the temperature is comfortable in homes, businesses, hospitals, and other locations. They may need to be on call in case of emergencies, like AC systems dying in the heat or summer or the cold of winter. They are typically employed by companies that specialize in HVAC.
- Average annual salary in the US: $55,000
- Automotive HVAC technician: An HVAC technician ensures AC and heating systems work properly in vehicles.
- Average annual salary in the US: $48,861
- HVAC engineer: An HVAC engineer ensures HVAC systems are properly installed. They also may evaluate system performance and recommend repairs. Some engineers also design HVAC systems for new construction. This position usually requires a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering or a professional engineering license.
- Average annual salary in the US: $82,047
- HVAC installer: The HVAC installer installs new systems in homes and businesses. They must have a thorough knowledge of how HVAC systems work, and must also have the physical skills to install complicated systems in both new and existing construction.
- Average annual salary in the US: $46,178
- HVAC mechanic: HVAC mechanics are usually on call to assist with HVAC system repairs in case a system breaks down. This position can involve some travel and a lot of troubleshooting skills.
- Average annual salary in the US: $50,261
- Refrigeration technician: A refrigeration technician ensures that refrigeration and cooling systems are working properly in homes and businesses, including commercial kitchens and even grocery stores. They must have a thorough knowledge of how these systems work, as they may need to perform repairs or even upgrades.
- Average annual salary in the US: $55,143
- Solar technician: Solar-powered energy is becoming more common throughout the country. Solar technicians specialize in the installation and repair of solar panels on roofs, patios, and other areas for homes and businesses.
- Average annual salary in the US: $50,305
- Wind turbine technician: These technicians specialize in repairing, maintaining, and even installing wind turbines in areas looking for alternative energy sources. This is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country, and is expected to grow 57% from 2018 to 2028.
- Average annual salary in the US: $49,511
- HVAC service manager: Service managers oversee HVAC department operations, whether for an HVAC company or the maintenance department of a company. They usually manage other HVAC technicians and assign specific jobs and duties.
- Average annual salary in the US: $71,575
- HVAC supervisor: An HVAC supervisor typically oversees HVAC system installation and repairs, making sure they meet safety requirements. They might also authorize the purchase of HVAC equipment. This position may require a bachelor’s degree.
- Average annual salary in the US: $72,997
- HVAC business owner: This position is much broader than the others mentioned above. HVAC business owners might have years of experience working as HVAC technicians, and owning a business allows them to use those skills in a very unique way — with a very high earning potential.
- Average annual salary in the US varies greatly.
How much you earn in an HVAC position also depends not only on where you live, but also how willing you are to pick up new skills and stand out from the crowd. And while the amount of training and education you receive are imperative, so is actually being in the work environment, practicing your skills on real HVAC systems, and honing your craft through hard work.
How to Become Licensed or Certified in HVAC
HVAC Certification Programs
An HVAC certificate program provides students with the basic training they need to repair and install refrigeration and heating systems. Students will learn how to understand motor controls through applied physics and technical mathematics.
Course work in an HVAC certificate program typically involves learning necessary safety procedures, learning how to use essential tools, and learning to read blueprints. Students will also learn HVAC theory and design, helping them understand heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems from the inside out.
EPA 608 Certification
The US Clean Air Act requires HVAC technicians to pass the Environmental Protection Agency’s 608 Certification. The cost for this certification can vary between $20 and $150, depending on whether you choose to take the Type I exam or the Universal exam. Additional resources like study material can incur additional costs, though they are relatively low.
- Type I: For servicing small HVAC appliances.
- Type II: For servicing or disposing of high- or very high-pressure appliances, except small appliances and MVACs.
- Type III: For servicing or disposing of low-pressure appliances.
- Universal: For servicing all types of equipment. It includes the Type I, Type II, and Type III exams.
Optional HVAC Certifications
Some HVAC certifications can look impressive on a job application, but aren’t necessarily required to be an HVAC technician.
- North American Technician Excellence (NATE)
- HVAC Excellence
- The National Inspection Testing and Certification Corporation (NITC)
- The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES)
HVAC Licensing Programs
In addition to certificates, HVAC professionals are required to be licensed in 35 states. These licenses are relatively inexpensive, but most must be renewed annually. The initial licensing fees can cost anywhere from $75 to $300, with additional exam and application fees. Renewals usually cost around $50 each year.
Individual State HVAC Licensing and Certifications
According to The Refrigeration School, the following 35 states require HVAC technicians to possess certain licenses or certifications:
- Washington D.C.
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
HVAC College Degrees
If you want to enter the field of HVAC but are looking to make a little more money down the line, an associate degree in HVAC technology might be a good option. However, these degrees are much more expensive than certification programs or apprenticeships, costing anywhere from $15,000 to $35,000 for a two-year program. Some colleges also offer bachelor’s degrees in HVAC, which can last for about four years and cost about twice as much as an associate degree.