Workers with training in electronics or heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration (HVAC/R) are employed in a variety of industries from computing and construction to energy and automotive. HVAC/R and electronics vocational schools offer a number of pathways to specializations within these broad fields. Certifications, while generally voluntary, help you to exhibit mastery of a specific skill set and make you more attractive to potential employers.
Electronics and HVAC/R specializations
As an HVAC/R technician, you can work as a generalists. You might choose to focus on either residential or commercial or you can focus your training on:
- Specific systems such as solar panels or commercial refrigeration
Electronics vocational schools can train you for a number of different jobs across many industries -- not just a residential electrical repairs. Your training may lead to a job installing computer systems in cars, inspecting electrical relay systems at a hydroelectric plant, or supervising as an apprentice repairs the wiring in a high-rise office building. Electronics specialties include:
- Automotive (transportation) installation and repair
- Electronics engineering
- Powerhouse, substation and relay repair
- Residential electrical installation and maintenance
HVAC/R certifications and degrees
It used to be that you entered a trade, like becoming an HVAC/R technician, after completing high school. You would work as an apprentice for several years before becoming licensed and certified. While that path remains for some, increasing numbers of HVAC/R technicians have some sort of postsecondary training -- ranging from a certificate to an associate's degree. Either way you approach your training, you will learn about heating and cooling systems along with skills like reading blueprints, basic plumbing and best safety practices.
There are entry-level certifications in light commercial heating and cooling, residential heating and cooling, and commercial refrigeration. Advanced certifications in HVAC/R offered by national associations include specialized areas such as energy auditing, light commercial air conditioning or heat pump installation. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates that anyone handling refrigerants must be certified. HVAC vocational and trade schools offer both the preparation and the exams for the four levels of EPA certification.
Electronics certification and degrees
As with HVAC/R, electronics training ranges from formal apprenticeships to associate's degrees through electronics vocational or trade schools. Most electricians still enter the career as apprentices. A high school diploma or GED are required, as is a course in algebra. Your apprenticeship will cover safety regulations, code compliance and electrical theory. You may learn how to read blueprints, solder wires or install fire alarm systems. Most states require electricians to be licensed and certified.
In contrast, most electronics engineering technicians and electrical installers and repairers begin their careers at an electronics vocational school. Some may simply take relevant courses while others complete an associate degree program. Coursework might include analog and digital circuitry, programming in C++, and, of course, electric theory and blueprint reading. Over 50 professional certifications exist. Certification is voluntary, but demonstrates mastery and makes you a more attractive job candidate.
Salary and career outlook for HVAC and electronics
In May 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported national median salaries for HVAC technicians to be $43,880 annually or $21.10 an hour. As you may guess, the states with the largest number of HVAC/R techs are warm -- Florida, Texas, and California. However, the top-paying states are Alaska, District of Columbia and Massachusetts. The BLS's job outlook for HVAC/R techs is strong, with 21 percent growth predicted through 2022.
In the field of electronics, the BLS reported the following national annual median wages in May of 2013:
- $50,510, electricians
- $52,830, automotive electrical and electronics installers and repairers
- $58,540, electrical and electronics engineering technicians
The three states with the highest number of jobs and location quotient for electricians are Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska. Alaska is also the top-paying state for electricians, followed by New York and Illinois. For electrical installers and repairers, the states with the highest job numbers are Nebraska, Virginia and Kansas.
In 2013, Forbes.com reported on the high demand for workers in the skilled trades, including electricians. The skilled-trades workforce is aging and there are fewer trained workers available to fill those positions.
Building a solid career in HVAC or electronics
It's hard to outsource electrical installation or repairing your building's air conditioning system. While no career path can promise job security, training at an accredited HVAC/R or electronics vocational or trade school may be a first step when deciding to pursue one of these in-demand jobs.
Electricians, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/electricians.htm
Electrical and Electronics Installers and Repairers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/electrical-and-electronics-installers-and-repairers.htm
Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/heating-air-conditioning-and-refrigeration-mechanics-and-installers.htm
HVAC Excellence, http://www.hvacexcellence.org/
Plumbing, Heating, Cooling Contractors of America, http://www.phccweb.org/index.cfm?ewebToken=&Site=PHCC
The Indoor Environment & Energy Efficiency Association, http://www.acca.org/education/epa/
The Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA), http://www.pahrahvacr.org/Content/WhatIsPAHRA_32.aspx