TONAWANDA, NY — Steve Cofta has watched the shifting sands of the Buffalo-area business community during his 35 years in the hvacr and mechanical trades. The retired business owner and current instructor-advisor at the Kenton Career Center has watched his trade lose many jobs as businesses have shuttered and left the area.

It is late March 2000, and Cofta spends his time heading up a class of 11 students, who range from 21 to 62 years old. Some of them have as much as 29 years of experience in mechanical trades and others have none at all.

Eight of the students are displaced workers whose employers went out of business. The others aren’t sure if hvacr is in their future, but they are using the class as a stepping stone for future college coursework.

Cofta said his students are caught in the middle of an area where an aging workforce is not offered enough opportunities and where the only choice for a career may be one that is geographically removed from Buffalo.

His older students are at the age when they should be thinking about retirement but can’t afford to take that step.

“These guys are too young to retire and too old to start a new career,” he added. “If they take an early retirement, the government chops down their benefits.”

Younger students are looking to fill a void in their background and make themselves more saleable to a future employer. A strong motivation to continue the coursework is prompted by the course fee: free to them.

“The program fee is $3,500 a head [but] I rarely get a student who pays their own expenses,” said Cofta. “In fact, some of the guys are paid to go to school.”

Cofta has only turned down one applicant for the program, and that was because the person couldn’t physically handle the work involved.

These students have different goals set for when they complete their coursework and take the required tests for certification. But they are united in one thought: Buffalo is not a good area for hvacr workers to earn a decent living.

“We are truly in a depressed area, despite the political propaganda that tells us we are growing,” Cofta said. “The jobs all pay minimum wage, which these people can’t live with.”

Getting inside students' heads

The Kenton Career Center is home to several different vocational trades such as hair styling, culinary arts, and auto repair. It is also home for these 11 students for five hours each weekday. Nathan Jarmuz, 49, worked as a millwright for CNB International, manufacturer of industrial presses. The company went bankrupt last year, stranding him and 300 coworkers.

“Twenty-five out of 150 people in our trades found a job after the plant closed,” Jarmuz said. “I don’t know what the others are doing.” Al Chiaravalle, 46, also laid off from CNB, said there are decent wages for people like himself, but “You have to know somebody” to get a good-paying job. Chiaravalle, an overhead crane operator, is taking basic hvac courses because he wants to be able to offer more for prospective employers. But he’s not necessarily happy with the scenario.

“After I was laid off, people asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I was doing what I wanted. Now I don’t really know what I want to do.”

Both Jarmuz and Chiaravalle are being paid for their training under the government-sanctioned Trade Readjustment Act (TRA), which funds the schooling for displaced workers.

Cofta’s class will take these men through 424 hrs of training and will include the EPA certification test and ARI-ICE exam. While the students are learning, Cofta is spending time trying to place them with local businesses.

“1999 saw us lose 1,300 skilled trade jobs alone,” he said.

“I am constantly looking for jobs for these people that will pay somewhere near what they were making when the plants they worked for closed.”

Cofta cited a recent poll of area salaries on New York’s Job Bank Web site ( search), which listed starting salaries for hvac technicians with a high school diploma and one to five years of experience at $9 to $12/hr.

Joe Cordier, 52, spent 29 years in welding, fabrication, and management. The last five years he has worked various jobs and is now interested in hvacr work, although he isn’t sure if he’ll go into it full-time.

“If the right money came along, I might relocate,” he said. “But I really wouldn’t consider moving out of New York. Sears called me and said they’d be willing to train me as a service tech. They told me to call them back when I was two weeks away from finishing the course.”

Cordier’s father retired from Sears as a TV repairman and the thought of repair work using his own truck may be strong enough to lure Cordier to the Sears’ side.

Another student with strong ties to the area is Francis Hauser, 52. He worked for 25 years in the machine-tool business as an assembler and technician. Now he feels that he needs additional training in other fields to get a decent-paying job.

“I’ve been to hvac school before but I didn’t get my EPA certificate,” he said. “That is my main reason for being here. You have to have other trade experience, such as a refrigeration background.”

Hauser said he would like to stay in the machine-tool business, but many Buffalo-area tool and die businesses have closed up over the years, leaving people like himself with little to choose from.

“I would consider starting my own business, but by the time I got everything in place, it would be time to retire,” he added.

A warmer place to work in

Although most of the class members would prefer to remain in the Buffalo area and continue in the mechanical trades, some are thinking about starting their own business or heading to other parts of the country where they hope to find good paying jobs and better opportunities — maybe even better climates.

Tim Kiel, 34, is a nine-year Air Force veteran who is seeking a secure future. He thinks hvacr training will help him round out his background, and he saw a/c work as one way to get him into warm-weather states.

“I’d be willing to leave the area and go someplace warm,” he said, adding, “I want to grow in this field.”

Ron Garner, 43, got his inspiration for A/C work while visiting North Carolina. “I was talking to an auto A/C mechanic who was doing a lot of business because he was one of the only ones around who fixed [auto A/C systems],” he said.

“I’m willing to relocate and get into car or truck refrigeration maintenance. I wouldn’t mind working for someone else while starting up my own business.”

Gardner admitted that there isn’t much opportunity to grow in the Buffalo area. “The economy has zeroed out here.”

Still deciding ...

The other students: Rich Pawelski (21), Mark Heuser (48), David Villabolos (23), and Jeff Rachuna (22), are undecided about their futures.

Pawleski has a pressman’s job lined up with a local printer but said he may take a job in the hvacr field if the pay is right.

Villabolos has a different perspective. He sees hvacr training as a way to land a side job while he continues his community college coursework at local Erie Community College. “I’m not sure if I’ll stay in the area or not,” he said. “But from what I see, the wages are bad [for the hvacr trade] in this area.”

Cofta said he enjoys the fact that so many of his students are experienced and need little supervision. Many of them act as teachers to the younger students. But Cofta is never sure if there will be enough students to fill future classes, or if the local government will be interested in continuing his program.

“I won’t know until August if I’m going to have a class starting in September,” he said.

Steve Cofta can be reached at the Kenton Career Center at 716-877-777.

Sidebar: We need more women, minorities

Steve Cofta, instructor-advisor at the Kenton Career Center, says he’d like to see more African-Americans and women in his classes, especially since there are so many opportunities for them in this trade.

He has only trained two women and one of them eventually took over his class at a Buffalo trade school after working as the first female Sears service technician in the area. “The opportunity is great here for African-Americans,” he said. “One of the largest local contractors in Buffalo is an hvacr business owned by an African-American."