Generating interest in HVAC careers and the skilled trades, at large, is a task that is growing increasingly difficult. The facts and figures surrounding the impending technician shortage are well known and staggering in scope.

However, efforts like the ‘Ride and Decide’ program in Tennessee are providing a much needed bridge between high school students and rewarding careers they may not have otherwise known were available.


The program, which takes place in the summer months, pairs students with contractors in many different positions throughout the trades. Students are paid for their work and, provided they are sophomores or juniors, are invited to return again the next summer.

“For the pilot program, everything was done through the Knox County, Tennessee, career and technical education teachers,” said Beth Killen, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Inc. “We sent teachers applications and asked them to show them to the students, and it grew from there.”

“This is something for kids to do in the summer other than bagging groceries or washing cars,” said Gordy Noe, president of Pioneer Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. in Knoxville, Tennessee. “The skilled trades, in general, are all struggling to find qualified people, and there is an enormous amount of money spent on college that goes for nothing.”

In fact, per the Economic Policy Institute, roughly 8.5 percent of college graduates between the ages of 21 and 24 are unemployed. Similarly, college debt is increasing. Per the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), “The average class of 2015 graduate with student-loan debt will have to pay back a little more than $35,000.”

WSJ also points out that “almost 71 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients will graduate with student loans, compared with less than half two decades ago and about 64 percent 10 years ago.”

The skilled trades are an option that many are overlooking or avoiding due to stigmas that exist against them.

“You do still have that stigma out there,” said Noe. “People are brainwashed against skilled labor, and it’s not just the kids — it’s really not the kids. It’s the parents, guidance counselors, and administrators in the schools. I even have people today who say this is the greatest thing in the world, but also say their kid is going to college.”

Ride and Decide launched this past summer with 42 enrollees. Thirty-three students finished the program, and 24 employers took part.

“School administrators were very receptive to the idea and the concept of the program,” said Killen. “Most of the schools we talked with have job shadowing in place or have people visit the schools to talk about the profession. Our kids get full-time employment and earn more than minimum wage.”

Killen’s own son, Ty, was the impetus behind the creation of the program.

“He is an absolutely brilliant 16-year-old kid, but he is not a fan of school,” said Killen. “And, he isn’t alone. There are a lot of kids out there who are very hands-on, but don’t want to be behind a desk. The summer before last, at the end of summer break, he was out on the back porch and made a potato cannon out of PVC pipe. I talked to Gordy Noe and told him we needed something to offer kids like mine who like computers and building things. Within a few days, Ty had a full-time job, and he was ecstatic to go to this job. He told his friends about his experience, and the program was born from there.”

Noe believes one of the best ways to continue generating interest in the program is by having those who’ve completed the program tell their friends how much they enjoyed it.

“Instead of just working for a semester or job shadowing, they get four to six weeks on the job,” said Noe. “The idea is for them to start as early as their sophomore year and try out several different jobs. They spend four weeks with a plumber, then four weeks with an HVAC tech, and so forth. It allows them to work with each aspect of a company and learn the entry-level requirements of an industry.”

Feedback from technicians and others who have worked alongside the students has been somewhat mixed, because some students — around 10 percent — enter the program and then not show up for an interview or realize they don’t want to give up any of their summer break.


With the pilot program having been a success in 2015, Ride and Decide is looking to expand this year.

“Right now, California, Virginia, and New York have all brought it to their PHCC [Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association] boards and want to do the program next year,” said Killen. “We’re also looking at expanding into the Nashville, Tennessee, area.”

“It’s really just started to blossom,” said Noe. “Local people here in Tennessee really liked the idea, and 90 percent said it was a great idea for the industry. We ran it by Knox County and now we’re going through the national PHCC. They liked it and said let’s try it for a year or two as a pilot program and see how it goes.”

Noe presented the program to the country at a national PHCC convention, and 25-30 chapters from different states asked to learn more about it afterward.

Also, because only sophomores and juniors are invited to start the program, those behind Ride and Decide haven’t yet been able to see if these students will relay their energy and passion for the industry into a career after they graduate from high school. However, there are plans in place to keep track of those who go through the program and provide guidance wherever needed. For more information on Ride or Decide, visit

Publication date: 2/8/2016

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