The HVAC industry in the U.S. currently has a value greater than $16 billion, with the cooling product component accounting for more than half the total revenue. Also, projections show the industry value will increase by 5.6% annually until 2030. If HVAC career paths are on your radar, now is a great time to consider entering the industry.
The demand is stable on the traditional career path of residential and commercial installation work. However, with the increasing demand for energy efficiency in reaction to global warming, the need for alternative career choices continues to grow.
The traditional and alternative careers vary significantly by skill, pay, and availability. Consider this breakdown of available career paths for HVAC and refrigeration technicians as you think about your future in the industry.
Traditional Career Path for HVAC/R Technicians
Most HVAC careers begin by considering the traditional route. For example, maybe you want to install systems in residential properties or work for a business providing repair services. Within each career choice are varying tiers of experience and licensing. Below are three common categories of traditional HVAC career paths and the levels within each. If you prefer a less laborious route, you can read further about alternative jobs for HVAC technician.
Residential and Commercial HVAC Career Paths
Traditional HVAC career opportunities typically fall under work in residential and commercial positions. At the entry-level you have the following:
- Residential and commercial trainees. Trainees assist in installing HVAC systems and accessories for homes and businesses. They do not work alone.
- Residential installer. Installation technicians specializing in residential systems are responsible for assuring the systems they install are up to industry code and meet the manufacturer’s specifications.
- Commercial installer. Installation technicians in the commercial field work under a supervisor to install HVAC equipment and accessories in commercial buildings.
- Commercial tradesperson. A tradesperson works under a journeyman-level technician to assist in installation and servicing. You can progress beyond this position after training and education.
- Commercial apprentice. A commercial apprenticeship allows you to train under an advanced-level technician in HVAC/R installation and servicing. It is a paid position accompanied by classes and hands-on experience.
At the mid-level in the HVAC career paths hierarchy, you can choose a career as:
- Residential service technician. You can diagnose and treat HVAC system issues with very little supervision at this level. Depending on your company and the particular project, you may have no supervision.
- Commercial technician. There are three specialties for commercial technicians. Facilities maintenance techs work on HVAC/R and plumbing systems to perform preventative and diagnostic maintenance. Cooking equipment service technicians typically work on commercial kitchen installations and repairs. Commerical service technicians work in commercial buildings providing diagnostic, maintenance, and installation services.
- Service dispatcher. A service dispatcher works in the residential or commercial field, managing service calls and dispatching technicians.
When you reach the advanced level in residential HVAC careers, you essentially have two options. First, you can work as a residential service manager, supervising other technicians and installers and providing technical experience and guidance. You would likely work for a residential HVAC company and be involved in customer relations in this position. The other option is becoming a residential or commercial contractor, which entails owning an HVAC business.
Recommended: HVAC License Requirements: State-by-State Directory
Start an HVAC Business
To start your own HVAC business, you will need to reach the level of a residential or commercial contractor, depending on your area of experience and licensing. Every state has varying education and licensing requirements, but most contractors must meet the following qualifications:
- Journeyman-level licensing
- Post-secondary technical training
- A minimum of five years of experience
- EPA certification
- Any other training or certification specific to your business, such as warm-air HVAC, refrigeration, hot-water heating and steam fitting, boiler, or solar
Business owners need specific insurance as well. For example, if you intend to hire employees, you need workers’ compensation insurance. Additionally, you should have commercial general liability insurance and automobile liability insurance.
Being a commercial contractor is one of the highest-ranking HVAC career paths. It typically requires more experience and training and pays a significantly higher salary than a residential contractor. Of course, that depends on your clientele and the region where you operate.
Work for a Commercial HVAC Provider
You can work for a commercial HVAC company as a salaried employee at any level, including technician, service dispatcher, and manager. Any of these are life-long HVAC career opportunities, or you can use the experience to work toward becoming a contractor and opening your own HVAC business.
Most traditional HVAC positions require strenuous work and on-the-job troubleshooting that can bleed into odd hours. Therefore, it is not ideal for everyone. Thankfully, if you have an interest in the HVAC industry but not the labor, there are alternative jobs for an HVAC technician that are not as labor intensive and do not all require extensive education.
Alternative Jobs for HVAC Technicians
HVAC career opportunities span several industries with varying complexities. For example, you can work in sales, design and engineering, or automated controls.
The Marketing or Sales End of HVAC Work
HVAC career paths in sales and marketing include:
- Warehouse worker. This entry-level position involves order fulfillment, stocking inventory, and preparing HVAC/R equipment for shipping.
- Counter sales. If you are familiar with the HVAC industry and have experience in customer service, wholesale counter sales involve processing orders, answering customer questions, and working with other departments to coordinate operations in the warehouse.
- Sales associate. A sales associate is a mid-level employee who works in the marketing department, developing a client base, offering customer service, and keeping up with trends in residential and commercial sales.
- Customer sales representative. This in and out of office position requires you to keep in touch with clients and keep them aware of product updates. In addition, you assess their individual needs and offer estimates to help them get the best equipment deals.
The advanced alternative jobs for an HVAC technician in sales and marketing are manufacturer representatives and managers. An equipment representative has extensive knowledge of specific products and can offer solutions for complex customer needs. A sales and marketing manager covers a territory with a team of representatives and sales associates aiming to increase customer retention and bring in new customers.
Design and Engineering
The HVAC career paths in design and engineering typically have significant education or experience requirements. For example, a CAD assistant is an entry-level position that requires a minimum of an associate’s degree in computer-aided design or two years of experience. On the other hand, suppose you have experience as a commercial service technician. In that case, you may also move into the design and engineering field, where you test equipment at varying levels, including residential and commercial, to ensure it performs at industry and company standards.
The engineering field is full of advanced positions, such as:
- Energy analyst. You need at least a 4-year degree in electrical or mechanical engineering and 3 to 5 years of work experience to develop skills in analyzing the energy markets and how changes affect the HVAC industry.
- Code inspector. This position requires extensive knowledge of HVAC/R codes. You perform inspections on installations to ensure they meet electrical and mechanical code standards.
- HVAC instructor. Depending on the training program or technical school, you may need a 4-year degree or a master’s degree in an HVAC/R-related field to instruct future technicians. In addition, you must have an in-depth knowledge of residential and commercial systems.
- Mechanical engineer with HVAC knowledge. This top-level advanced position requires post-graduate studies in designing HVAC systems for any industry.
You can also take your design and engineering expertise and work with contractors as a project manager. You would oversee the design, planning, and installation phases of HVAC systems on construction sites to ensure installations are up to code and meet manufacturer specifications.
Anyone interested in the mechanical and electrical control systems that manage HVAC equipment could find alternative jobs as an HVAC technician in automated controls. You can start as a controls installer, assisting technicians in installing the energy management systems containing conduits, wires, cables, equipment, and electric controls. This is an entry-level position, but there are more advanced positions in this field. For example:
- Building automation systems technicians. This mid-level position requires experience as a trainee in repairing and maintaining the control systems.
- Building automation systems engineers. This advanced position entails installing and maintaining complex centralized water, lighting, and HVAC control systems. Most states require a minimum of a 2-year technical degree and experience in the field or a 4-year degree in an engineering discipline, such as electrical or mechanical.
- Building automation systems managers. The highest rank in automated controls is the managers in charge of managing operations for automated systems. It requires working with all other professionals in the field to ensure operations run smoothly.
As you navigate the varying HVAC career opportunities and alternative jobs for an HVAC technician, remember most of these careers have crossover lateral or advancement options. For example, there is no other experience needed to transfer from a service dispatcher to a customer sales representative or from a sales representative to a trainee in building automation systems. You can start with one of the many HVAC career paths and end up in another specialty with little or no additional training.
What Are the Typical HVAC Career Paths?
The most common HVAC careers are in traditional residential installation and maintenance. The typical job description includes installing and removing HVAC systems, diagnosing issues with HVAC systems and making the necessary repairs, completing routine maintenance, and providing customer service for clients with questions about their HVAC system.
Because residential systems are in high and increasing demand, many people start in this field and either remain there or move to other disciplines. Entry-level positions only require a high school diploma, which makes it much easier to start as a residential trainee. Additionally, many companies incentivize employees to grow within the company, either with offers of tuition reimbursement or paid onsite training.
Is HVAC a Good Career Path?
HVAC technicians generally have a great work/life balance working the standard 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM workday. They sometimes have to answer emergency calls, especially in states with extreme weather. For example, HVAC systems commonly have issues near the beginning of summer in hot climates. If a tenant in a rental unit experiences an HVAC outage, the landlord typically must have it fixed immediately to protect the safety of the tenants.
Average Pay in HVAC Career Paths
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for an HVAC/R mechanic and installer is around $48,000. However, you could make a significantly higher salary in some states, such as California. In addition, alternative jobs for an HVAC technician often pay higher wages. For example:
- An equipment manufacturer representative typically makes between $75,000 and $150,000, depending on the region and company.
- A commercial service technician can make between $60,000 and $120,000 annually.
- Sales and marketing managers can make up to $150,000 or possibly more, depending on the availability of bonuses or commission.
Every position has varying salaries and work requirements. For example, contractors often work longer hours than employed technicians, but they can make significantly more.
What Is the Highest Paying Job in HVAC?
The highest paying job among HVAC career opportunities depends on a few factors. For example, a commercial contractor has extensive HVAC knowledge, among other skills in the construction field. If a successful contractor opens an HVAC business that grows and expands, they could make up to seven figures annually.
Some alternative jobs for an HVAC technician, such as project and facilities management, can make well into six figures a year. The same is true for advanced positions in design and engineering, such as mechanical engineering and energy engineering.
HVAC career opportunities consistently expand with the growing demands of the industry. If unsure which career to pursue, start by assessing your existing skills and interests. All HVAC career paths have entry-level positions allowing you to grow and change directions as your interests evolve. You will benefit most from gaining field experience working with experts. The key to a successful career in the HVAC/R industry is remaining open to educational opportunities.