DebonAir Mechanical technician Ernesto Oliva is thankful to be in the HVAC field, alive and working in the United States. “I sacrificed many things, leaving my mom, sister, and beloved grandfather, but for a great cause; the most beautiful of all - to be free and useful to society,” he said.

Survival instincts come natural to most. Survival tactics come harder for some. In this instance, two young Miami-area men chose methods of survival that most of us cannot imagine. Because they did, however, each found the life of freedom and opportunity they had hoped for when they set off on their harrowing journeys. And, here may be the best part: Their newfound opportunities came by way of a local school - the Air Conditioning Technical Center (AC Tech), formerly known as ARPEC (Air Conditioning, Refrigeration & Pipefitting Education Center), which has opened doors for many.

As most would agree, schools are meant to make a difference in people’s lives. Some schools make life-changing differences. When they do, it’s a story worth telling. And this story, the story of Ernesto Oliva and Freddie Palma, is certainly worth telling.


Six years ago at age 28, Oliva decided he could no longer live within the government suppression that was a way of life in his native Cuba. Through buying and reselling rum, he saved “penny by penny to raise the $8,000 it took to buy a ticket to freedom.” This ticket provided no guarantee beyond the last opening available on a 32-passenger speedboat escaping to the United States. He took the chance, at one point believing they all would die when a boat of Cuban soldiers approached with guns aimed their way.

Inexplicably - but fortunately for Oliva - the soldiers turned and left without firing their guns. Seven hours later, Oliva and his companions, only four of whom he knew, made it to his promised land.

“I sacrificed many things, leaving my mom, sister, and beloved grandfather, but for a great cause; the most beautiful of all - to be free and useful to society,” stated Oliva. “Let me be there in America and I’ll show you, and prove what I feel.”

Prove it he did.

Oliva began taking classes at a local vocational school, where one of his teachers informed him about Local Union 725’s technical training center in Miami, where he could pursue a lucrative career, earning money all the while he was going to school.

He did just that. For the past four years, Oliva has been employed by DebonAir Mechanical, headquartered in Hialeah, Fla.

For the past eight years, Freddie Palma has been employed at Siemens, first as an apprentice and now as a journeyman.


On the other side of this tale, Palma has a similar story to tell of a frightening escape - but he did it with only two other men on a man-made inner tube raft. His six-day, ocean-tossed journey to freedom in 1989 ended on a leased Spanish freighter manned by Germans, who picked them up just as they were resigned to die from lack of food and water.

Transferred to a Coast Guard ship, Palma and his traveling companions were brought to Miami, where he moved in with his aunt. To support himself, he worked at indoor plant maintenance and numerous other jobs until he learned about AC Tech from a teacher at the school where he was studying English.

“It was exciting to hear about this,” said Palma. “I wanted to learn about air conditioning and then I found out about this best school where they would help me find a job, so I could work during the day and get paid and go to school at night.”

The 39-year-old added, “I couldn’t believe I could actually go on to school, build a lifetime career and not pay any money. Working and getting paid to go to school is something great!”

In the end, AC Tech has added great value to both their dreams of freedom. Among other benefits, it has given each a lucrative career in a high-demand industry.

“Every single day I apply the skills at my job that I learn in school,” said Oliva. “It’s unbelievable. And, the teachers are different because they have all worked in the trade. They really know how to do it - not just from a book. “That’s something I couldn’t get at other schools.”

Both young men studied and have become United States citizens. DebonAir Mechanical even had a big party for Oliva when he received his citizenship.

Meanwhile, Palma has been employed at Siemens for the past eight years, as an apprentice and now as a journeyman. While the two struggle with the separation from their families, they compensate with studying, reading, and hard work. Their work allows them to send money back to their families in Cuba on a regular basis.

The dream of freedom and a great future hadn’t come easy. But, when they found it, they latched on and made it even better with a lot of courage, diligence, and an exceptional school behind them.


For others interested in seeking a lucrative career path, Art Warren, school director at AC Tech, provides a clear statement.

“Opportunity, career, free tuition, great wages, and an excellent benefits package are all part of AC Tech’s total educational commitment,” said Warren. “Our students even get paid to work in their field of study while going to school for free. It’s a great deal for someone who wants to build a lifetime career. They just need to provide the desire and hard work, like Ernesto and Freddie have done.”

AC Tech, located on NW 45th Avenue in Miami, has been building careers for over 50 years. The school - which is affiliated with Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the Federal Bureau of Apprenticeship, and the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Washington, D.C. - covers all facets of the piping and air conditioning industry, including the latest in control devices, energy management, and building automation, as well as jobsite supervision and leadership development.

Visit for more information about the school, its curriculum, and admission procedures.

Publication date:10/08/2007