Russ Helton is like many individuals in the hvacr industry. He started as an apprentice and in 1997 obtained his Virginia Mechanical License. He is 29 years old, a husband and father, and he works as an electrical and hvacr supervisor for the Manassas County School Board. His career path is typical of others in the field.

But unlike others, Helton has taken advantage of an opportunity in Virginia that has gone almost unnoticed by many past and present apprentices.

Last summer, Helton started taking courses at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) to obtain an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Air Condition-ing and Refrigeration. Eighteen credit hours and one year later, Helton has his degree.

The opportunity came about due to an articulation agreement between NVCC and the Fairfax County Office of Adult Com-munity Education. The agreement went into effect four years ago and provides apprentices with the chance to receive college credit and a degree by passing the Industry Competency Exam (ICE) and taking 18 nontechnical electives at the NVCC Wood-bridge campus.

“Everyone looks for degrees,” said Helton about employers. “This is a golden opportunity.”

Common Goals

The articulation agreement between NVCC and the Fairfax Adult Education Program is only four years old, but it had been in the works for more than 10 years.

Dr. Ellen Carlos, an apprenticeship coordinator for the Adult Education program, said that the idea for the articulation agreement came about after comparing notes with the hvac program at NVCC. The NVCC program basically covers the same theory and concepts as the adult education apprenticeship program.

“For many years, employers have wanted us to explore this,” said Carlos about a degree program for apprentices. “In 1997, we finally got beyond the exploration.”

The program is open to individuals who have a Virginia Master Mechanical License like Helton, or for those who have passed the adult education apprenticeship program. Prospective students must then take the ICE certification and pass with no less than a 75%. They then can apply to have their apprenticeship count towards college credits, approximately 50.

After the credits have been approved, apprentices can enroll in non-technical courses at the NVCC Woodbridge campus to gain the 18 credits needed for the associate’s degree.

There are only a few stipulations; individuals must pay for the 18 credit hours and any other expenses such as books and supplies. Also, the associate’s degree and the credit hours cannot transfer to another school towards a bachelor’s degree.

All involved believe that the program is an opportunity that should not be passed up. But for the last four years, interest in the program has not been overwhelming.

“The turnout has been low,” said Pat Dennis, head of the NVCC Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Program. “I was getting ready to drop it.”

Dennis has a few theories as to why apprentices are passing up the opportunity. One possibility is the job market in Virginia. Like other areas of the country, there are many jobs open for graduating apprentices. According to Dennis, a recent job fair at NVCC showed that there were four jobs for each student in the program. With this in mind, Dennis feels that apprentices are taking advantage of starting a career and making money early, instead of going through more schooling for the associate’s degree.

But Dennis also adds that the average age of those enrolled in the degree program is 26. He explains that many apprentices go into the workforce after graduation and then realize that in order to move up in their careers, they will need that degree.

But even with the low turnout, Carlos is adamant that the program is important. She says it is an issue of creating more awareness of the program and its benefits.

“We had hoped for dozens and it has not been dozens,” said Carlos about enrollment. “But if one person can take advantage of it, it is worth doing.”

Should technicians really take the time to pursue a degree?

Contractors and owners hire technicians without degrees all the time, but according to Carlos, the degree plays an important role. She explains that a degree can be crucial if an individual wants to move up the career ladder, or if a technician wants to move on to a technical position within government. Also, a degree will sometimes be required in order to be a supervisor or technical worker within a facility such as a hospital.

Joe Teets, the program supervisor for the adult education program, takes things one step further. He explains that hvacr jobs all around are becoming more technical and demanding. He explains that the workforce for the new millennium is one that requires employees to have a variety of skills. This includes not only being up to date on technical changes, but being able to write reports, work as part of a team, and exhibit traits of leadership.

Carlos agrees, saying that many areas of hvacr, including sheet metal, have changed so much that the same tools are not even used anymore.

Not only does a degree give you a well-rounded education, it can receive a great deal of notice from employers.

Jack Cunningham, a contractor for Dywer Service Corp. in Alexandria, VA, believes the degree program is very important. “It’s probably Virginia’s best-kept secret,” he said. “If we market it a bit better, we could get a better response.”

Cunningham is also a member of the Air Conditioning Contrac-tors of America (ACCA), and helped Carlos at the beginning stages of the project to get it started. As a contractor, Cunningham sees the importance of having employees with a degree.

“This is not for everyone, but for 10% of your [employees], you want them to be all that they can be,” he said. “I would like to see 10% of our folks aspire to a degree.”

Cunningham explains that a degree raises the level of technicians and the industry. It also shows that workers can be ambitious. Currently, Cunningham has four employees in the degree program and one that has already earned his associate’s degree.

Moving Up

Now that Helton has earned his degree, he is reaping the rewards. He explains that he now has more options open to him just by doing an extra year’s worth of work. “It wasn’t that difficult to achieve,” he says. “You just have to make a little bit of sacrifice.”

That sacrifice was two nights a week for one year. Helton explains that the whole process was not very difficult. He says he had a limited amount of out-of-pocket expenses because his employer picked up the tuition costs. He also says that everyone involved in the program was very helpful in accommodating him in any way to get his degree.

Finally, Helton says he carried a 4.0 GPA for the entire year.

He also says that he is telling everyone he knows about his experience, especially people he works with. He says that they often don’t believe how well the program went for him, but they are nonetheless considering taking the classes.

“I’ve opened up a door [for myself] to be eligible for promotions. It’s a win-win situation. It’s a year’s worth of work, but once you have the degree, it’s yours,” said Helton.

Publication date: 06/25/2001