Why There Should Be More Technical Programs (Like HVAC) in High School

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“Students need to learn that a career in a professional trade, such as HVAC, can be successful and financially rewarding.”

Brian Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Technology, New England Institute of Technology

The United States needs more skilled tradespeople, particularly in the HVAC workforce. Part of the reason is demographics: as the Baby Boomers retire, there are fewer Millennials and Zoomers to replace them, and the number of skilled trade jobs continues to outpace the supply of qualified workers to fill them. But that shortage is compounded by a historical cultural push towards students getting traditional, four-year liberal arts bachelor’s degrees, few of which are necessary for a successful career as a skilled tradesperson.

Vocational-technical schools, which offer education and training in skilled trades, present an attractive option in today’s economic climate. With the cost of traditional four-year schools increasing and many industries downsizing due to automation, vocational-technical schools provide strong value for the money and a clear vision for a graduate’s career path. But many high school students still aren’t aware of these benefits; some aren’t even aware of vocational-technical schools as an option.

In the age of AI, with the nature and definition of work continuing to change, America needs more robust pathways to different forms of education. Students need easier access to opportunities in skilled trades like HVAC. If some of this education could start early, at the high school level, students, industry, and the general public would all benefit.

Meet the Expert: Brian D. Sullivan

Brian Sullivan

Brian Sullivan is an assistant professor of heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration technology at the New England Institute of Technology. He earned his associate in science degree in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technology from New England Institute of Technology. He also holds a bachelor’s of applied science in educational/instructional technology from Fitchburg State University.

Before joining the New England Institute of Technology faculty in 2009, Sullivan served as an HVAC instructor at the Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School for more than 14 years.

The Benefits of Technical Education

The value of the average bachelor’s degree might be overstated. Between 1980 and 2021, the cost of four-year tuition roughly tripled (Brookings 2023), with the annual cost of a four-year program ranging from $10,940 per year to $39,400 per year—not including room, board, textbooks, and transportation (Franklin University 2022). Meanwhile, in 2022, more than half of recent college graduates were underemployed one year after graduation, with “underemployed” defined as working in a job that typically doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree (Fordham 2024).

Bachelor’s degrees are certainly the right option for some people—but they are not right for all. With the cost of student debt rising, and AI and automation changing what the future workforce needs, four-year degrees are not the only pathway to labor market success. Technical education offers a more predictable alternative. Notably, during Covid-19, when many occupations went on hold, many skilled tradespeople, including HVAC professionals, continued to work.

“Many of the professional trades, such as HVAC, will always be needed for a variety of reasons,” Sullivan says. “During the pandemic, HVAC technicians were asked to install ventilation equipment to help remove airborne viruses and prevent the spread of disease. I have promoted my craft as ‘a technician of comfort.’ HVAC professionals make the air cleaner, dryer, cooler, and warmer.”

While technical education is sharply focused on teaching students a particular and vital trade, the curricula of technical schools and the careers they lead to are not siloed off from breadth education. HVAC professionals, for example, need marketing skills, accounting skills, entrepreneurship skills—and all the soft skills that go with those, too.

“In the HVAC industry, many hours are spent identifying mechanical problems, and the service technician is required to find solutions,” Sullivan says. “A soft skills course for first-year students is essential to teach the necessary skills needed to communicate with residential and commercial customers. It is important for technicians to communicate effectively with customers when discussing the procedures and costs to remedy the problem, so the customer feels comfortable and confident with their choice of repair company.”

The Benefits of Starting Early

The current pathways out of high school are heavily slanted towards four-year universities. There’s also an unfair but implicit hierarchy in many communities that assigns higher prestige to the four-year path, dissuading students from exploring other options. But the US is home to more than 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 a year or more that don’t require a four-year bachelor’s degree (Georgetown 2024). More can be done to expose high school students to various opportunities.

“Some high school students may be undecided as to their career and/or college choice,” Sullivan says. “They may not have considered a vocational occupation or thought they may not enjoy the work. But by early exposure, students who normally would not have considered HVAC as a career choice may now feel it is a viable option.”

Introducing technical programs at the high school level would have many benefits. In addition to exposing students to the opportunities available in vocational occupations, these programs would instill the mindset of learning for the sake of learning, creating a more well-rounded education that produces more well-rounded individuals. They’d also provide students with basic technical terminology and concepts that could be built upon later in technical colleges, leading to a more readily available and better-skilled workforce.

“Students need to learn that a career in a professional trade, such as HVAC, can be successful and financially rewarding,” Sullivan says. “Introducing the HVAC field as a career choice early on would benefit both high school students as well as the HVAC industry.”

The Future of Technical Programs

The US needs more skilled tradespeople today, which will continue. While rapid advances in AI and automation have the potential to upend many sectors of the workforce, vocational careers are perhaps the most predominantly human profession. Careers in fields like HVAC may become the most in demand over the coming decades.

America would do better to raise awareness around the power and potential of technical programs like HVAC, especially at the high school level. Doing so would help grow and reinforce the skilled workforce. It would help some students find their calling, too.

“Students who enjoy working with their hands should consider a technical college to pursue their career of interest,” Sullivan says. “Although many of their peers may choose to attend a traditional college, students interested in the trades should follow their passion.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He's been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt's writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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