How to Become an HVAC Project Manager
There is no formal process, nor just one path to becoming an HVAC program manager. This lack of formalized training to get the role provides experienced HVAC technicians with a wide range of ways to advance into project management. The following details the pathways someone could take to become an HVAC project manager.
Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years)
While in high school, it helps to take courses in math, physics, and vocational education. Classes like automotive tech, woodshop, or electrician courses can be good training for the physical and problem-solving skills that professionals need to become competent and productive HVAC technicians. If a student knows that management is their ultimate goal, having a bachelor’s degree (while not necessary) may be a competitive advantage. Students should plan course loads accordingly.
Step 2: Graduate from an apprenticeship program, or pursue a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree in HVAC (six months to five years)
Experience as an HVAC technician is necessary to become a project manager, and training is needed to become an HVAC technician. Which program a future HVAC technician chooses will depend on who they are as a student.
Those interested in getting to work as soon as possible after graduation can choose the apprenticeship route if it is available in their state. Apprenticeships are hands-on, in-the-field learning programs where new HVAC techs spend three to five years learning the trade in the real world with experienced HVAC technicians. Depending on the state requirements, may also need to complete classroom work. In some states, a completed apprenticeship is adequate to apply for licensure.
If no apprenticeship programs are available, the next-quickest route to work is through diploma, certificate, or vocational programs. These programs can last six months or more, like the one at The Refrigeration School in Phoenix, Arizona. Of the school-based routes, these programs tend to be the most affordable.
Future HVAC techs who are interested in gaining a wider breadth of training before starting work can pursue an associate of applied science in HVAC. In addition to HVAC requirements, associate degrees may require students to complete some general education requirements like English and math. Most AAS degrees offer more coursework than certificates, degrees, and diploma programs, which give future HVAC techs a broader taste of the field. Some AAS programs also allow students to specialize in residential versus commercial HVAC, like the programs available at Central New Mexico Community College. Although it varies from program to program, AAS degrees generally take two years to complete.
Finally, future HVAC project managers can also choose bachelor’s degrees specifically in HVAC, or can choose to study mechanical engineering. Students who want a well-rounded education that allows for the in-depth study of HVAC equipment and processes are those that may want to choose the bachelor’s route. Bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete, require the greatest number of courses to complete, and are typically the priciest of the three options. That said, bachelor’s degrees may also make a candidate more competitive in the job market.
Most HVAC programs are campus-based and require in-person attendance, but some programs, like the bachelor of science (BS) in HVAC/R engineering technology at Ferris State University are offered online.
Step 3: Earn all necessary certifications and licenses (timeline varies)
For any technicians who perform maintenance, service, or repairs on, or dispose of equipment with the potential to release ozone depleting refrigerants into the atmosphere, EPA section 608 Technician Certification is required. Depending on the types of equipment an HVAC tech decides to work with, they may need to earn multiple certifications:
- Type I – Small appliances
- Type II – HIgh pressure appliances
- Type III – Low pressure appliances
- Universal – All types of equipment
In addition to EPA requirements, each state has individualized requirements for licensure. HVAC techs should ensure they understand and acquire the correct license for the state in which they plan to work.
Highly motivated HVAC techs who are really looking to distinguish themselves in current positions or impress future employers can earn specialist or high-level certifications from North American Technician Excellence (NATE) or from HVAC Excellence.
Step 4: Work as an HVAC tech and volunteer for higher level tasks (up to five years)
The most important stepping stone to managing others is to have the experience and knowledge required to face common issues on the job. Because HVAC is applicable to a wide array of industries, time spent working will also help HVAC techs to gain the kinds of specialized knowledge that is often valued in a project manager. Specialized knowledge can also help techs garner a higher salary both as a tech and as a manager. For example, according to PayScale.com (2020), HVAC techs with commercial skills made more than those with residential skills.
While on the job, techs interested in project management should develop interpersonal and leadership skills as well/ Hopeful HVAC managers should volunteer for opportunities to do client-facing tasks, organizational tasks, team-lead tasks, and should also offer assistance to current project managers. Engaging in tasks like these can accelerate an HVAC tech’s pathway to project management by demonstrating a capacity for leadership.
Step 5: Climb the ranks, or apply to outside project manager positions (timeline varies)
By volunteering for high-level tasks at their current places of work, it may be possible for HVAC techs to earn leadership positions within an organization. However, if an organization already has strong HVAC project leadership, there is no shortage of need for those with HVAC skills who can also lead. In May 2020, Indeed.com had over 20,000 listings for HVAC managers.