The Pennsylvania College of Technology student contingent at the 2004 ACCA Conference included (seated, from left) senior Jed Breon, senior Ryan Schiavone, and freshman Amanda Button. Students standing (from left) are senior Dan Izer, junior Brian Bitner, junior Dan Shields, sophomore Brian Woods, and the college’s advisor, Marc Bridgens.
Pennsylvania College of Technology (PCT) assistant dean and advisor Marc Bridgens has every reason to be proud of the way his PCT students handled themselves at the 2004 Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Convention. Seven PCT students had traveled from Williamsport, Pa., to New Orleans to put on an informative session for convention attendees.

It actually could have been even more informative had a few contractors in the crowd just listened to what the students had to say, instead of jumping to conclusions and creating some needless tension in the room. In this case, the Generation Xers showed much more maturity than some of the Baby Boomers in the audience.

In their workshop titled "What A Service Technician Wants," the students came to share their thoughts and views regarding the present job market, what they look for in want ads, what they seek from a contracting firm, and how they want to be treated as employees. As Bridgens noted (or is it warned?) in his introduction, "Today's generation is a lot different than the generation that most of us grew up in."

But, again, the intent was to pass along information for the ears to soak in and the brain to process. Dan Izer, president of PCT's ACCA student chapter, provided an asterisk right from the start.

"We don't want to step on anyone's toes here," he cautioned politely. "We're just here to do an informative presentation. And hopefully you'll learn something from it."

It Takes A Few

The bump in the planned Powerpoint presentation surfaced almost immediately when Dan Shields, the chapter's treasurer, began displaying some actual want ads on the screen behind him. His mission was to point out the "good" ads vs. the "bad" ads, as polled by his fellow students.

"The first thing we look at in an ad is the qualification area," he said. "The second thing on an ad that might be an eye-grabber for us coming out of school is if a company is willing to compensate for relocation. We're coming right out of school. We are four years in the hole [financially] already. That is definitely a big thing if a company is willing to help, depending upon how far we are going to have to be relocated."

At that, a few audience members began squirming in their seats. In truth, what the students were relaying was not rocket science. After all, the real-life "bad" example had anonymous descriptions and names, misspelled words, failed to list any benefits, and included this crazy line: "No phone calls or walk-in visits."

"Now, how can a student get to know this contractor?" asked Shields. "I really don't think he'd want to."

Things Heat Up

The igniter, though, was the "good" ad. This chosen firm (again, a real-life advertisement) was very specific in what it sought, listed needed experience (or equal education), showed vacation and benefits, noted profit-sharing opportunities, and more.

"This just sounds more inviting for someone coming out of school," explained Shields. "It sounds like this company is more dedicated towards their employees. It makes us eager to want to be a part of that team."

Oh, yeah. The pay noted in the advertisement was $40 an hour, which, apparently, was too much for one contractor to swallow. He had to set these whippersnappers straight.

"I'd like to say something to you guys," he started out. "I want to enlighten you about something on that ad. One thing that jumped out at me, and I am sure it jumped out at you, was the $40 an hour. I've been doing this for almost 20 years, and if I saw that ad today, I'd leave the company that I'm working for right now and go there. [But] if you think when you get out of college that you are going to work for something like that immediately, I'd hate to be the bearer of bad news."

The gauntlet was dropped.

Chimed in contractor No. 2: "Most kids coming out of school today want what it took their parents 30 years to get. You just can't do that. I don't necessarily need anybody with an education. You know what I need? You know what most contractors in the country need that is very short of? Somebody dedicated, that wants to learn, and sees the HVAC field as a career. I can teach you what you need to know."

Professionals Are Left Standing

Rather than go into the gory details of how this "one-sided discussion" unfurled, let's just say the students graciously let a few people vent. Thankfully, the majority of the crowd came to the students' rescue, letting them know that they appreciated their time and effort in getting an education, for being involved in the industry, and to feel free in asking for the salary they believe they deserve.

"We are not saying this is what we want," interrupted Izer. "We know we are not going to get $40 an hour coming out [of school]. We are well aware of that. That was just an example we put on our Powerpoint."

After The Debate

Thankfully, tempers did subside eventually, the students completed their presentation, and the session concluded with Bridgens asking the audience to rethink the current salary situation.

With his students, he handed out a fact sheet, noting the average earnings, both hourly and annually, of installers and mechanics. The figures were listed for each state, and the sheet contained some sobering statistics.

The salaries were based on 2002 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. According to their findings, the average earning was $16.78 an hour, or a $34,900 average annual salary.

That's not to say service techs are receiving this amount, said Bridgens. According to the 1998 Department of Labor statistics, Bridgens said the average salary for a person who dropped out of high school was $19,000 a year.

"If you pay your service tech $10 an hour today - and, you may say, ‘That's a good wage to start' - at 2,040 hours, which is a typical work year at 40 hours a week, that comes out to $20,400 [for an annual salary]. Now that's just above the mean wage of the person who dropped out of high school.

"These are hard facts and some of you people may disagree with that, but if we are going to get anywhere in this industry, we're going to have to look at this."

Some were glad to vacate the premises after the 90-minute session. I had to stay behind to shake the hands of the industry's future.

Mark Skaer is editor-in-chief. He can be reached at 248-244-6446, 248-362-0317 (fax), or

Publication date: 03/22/2004