Stefan, aged 24, took a few years and several different jobs before coming to RSI at 23. He graduated from the Electro-Mechanical Technologies program in March 2016. We spoke with Stefan a couple of weeks after graduation, just two days before he started his first job in the HVAC field for Pizza Hut.
Thanks for your time Stefan. What was your path to RSI?
From high school I was a welder for about a year. I worked multiple welding jobs here and in San Francisco, but the pay wasn’t what I was looking for, so I changed direction. I went into retail sales and sold home furniture for about a year, before spending 18 months as an auto mechanic. I learned a lot, but I wasn’t making enough, and they say don’t make your hobby into a career. So I went back to sales, this time for a high end patio store. That’s where I worked when I started at RSI, although I went back to the furniture store [part-time] during school because I made more money there.
Working on cars – Is that something you’re interested in?
Oh yeah. With those jobs I always had a side project. I love working on cars; it’s kind of my thing.
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So what made you decide to go back to school?
I always wanted to go to school, but I didn’t know what for. I was conscious of getting into debt, then figuring out that I didn’t want a career in what I went to school for, and waste a bunch of money.
So what made you choose RSI and the HVAC field?
I’m kind of blessed that my mom works for the school, so my tuition was covered. All I had to pay for was my books and tools. That was obviously a big incentive. But having always been a car guy, I was interested in mechanical things. Cars have a/c and pressurized systems, but I’d never really got into that area, although it did interest me. I kind of knew how things worked, just not why.
Even though there wasn’t a large financial investment for me, nine months is a long time, and I wanted to be sure. So I did my research to see what people make in the field, and that was an incentive too.
What did you get most out of the program and why?
Personally, because of my prior experience, it taught me patience, and that’s something I’ll need in the field. Patience is key in this industry. When you go out to a job, if you show up thinking you know what’s wrong and just fix that, you’ll probably get a call-back from an angry customer because it turns out you didn’t fix the problem the first time. That’s why I liked the structure of the program. They start at the very beginning with the Fundamentals of Electricity because a lot of students start with no knowledge.
I knew a lot of the things they taught in the early days, so I had to learn patience. Even though you’re going through the basics, you still need to know the fundamentals. When I started I wanted to get right into the diagnostics, the troubleshooting, but going through the fundamentals taught me that I couldn’t just rush in to a job, I had to go through a process.
Did you leave RSI feeling you were on your way to becoming a specialist?
You don’t become a specialist in 9 months. But not having been out in the field yet, I don’t know exactly what my experience in the field is going to give me in the future. But I’d say that RSI definitely expanded what I knew by three times easy. As I said before, I knew the “how” but I didn’t know the “why”, so it definitely amplified my knowledge. Benefiting from the teachers’ experience was very useful; they gave us hints and shortcuts, things to look for that you only know with experience.
Did you make any good connections at school; have you built a network?
Yes, an easy dozen. I had to re-phase due to a clash between my work and school hours when I switched jobs, so I joined another class and met a whole new group of guys. I always tried to network, absolutely.
So how did you find this job with Pizza Hut?
I got talking to a customer in the furniture store where I worked. I’m a people person, so I asked what he did for a living as I’d just sold him some pretty nice furniture. He said air-conditioning. I told him I was going to RSI, working part-time to pay the bills. Long story short, we exchanged numbers and then I called him back about two months before I graduated.
We met up again and talked more formally. Then a week before I graduated I met with his boss for an interview. He was very impressed that I’d prepared a resume; I guess he’d not seen too many of them. It turned out his background is very similar to mine; he asked me some troubleshooting questions, put me on the spot a little, but was impressed with my knowledge I guess…I start this week.
What kind of work will you do for them?
I’m working for a franchisee, so it’s going to be very diverse which I’m looking forward to. I’m not just going to work on air conditioners. I’ll be working on coolers, freezers, maybe soda machines, possibly even grills and ovens. They have stores all over the Valley, and up to Prescott and Flagstaff. There’s a guaranteed 40 hours a week, and depending on the job, there’ll be long days and short days. There’s the possibility of overtime, and I’ll be on call every other weekend. They rotate weekends between the guys.
So are you happy with the starting salary?
Oh, absolutely. Even as a starting salary, it’s going to be more than I earned in sales. They don’t provide a service vehicle, so I’ll also get $500 a month for my own vehicle. Plus, they’ll pay for my gas, an oil change monthly, and they’ll give me a new set of tires every year.
Do you have a truck or have you got to buy one?
I asked them what the time frame was on getting a vehicle, because I drive a Honda Civic at the moment. That’s not going to work with a 10ft ladder! But, I’ll be doing ridealongs for the first few months, so they tell me I have time to accrue some funds to get a vehicle of my own.
Is that what you’ll do with your first paycheck then?
Actually my lease is up in about 6 weeks or so. That first check will be move-in money for my next apartment. Then, I’ll start saving for a vehicle.
What do you anticipate being your favorite aspect of working this job?
From what they say, the diversity of what I’ll be working on. I don’t like the idea of doing the same thing over and over again. Working on different things expands your mind; it makes you think outside the box. Every shop is going to have different issues, different systems, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.
Where do you hope your career will be in three years?
I’d like to go back to school in a few years. I might do something more electrical, working on higher voltage stuff, maybe on the electrical grid. But welding does pay well if you get into the right field, in the right part of the country. Honestly I don’t know; I wasn’t planning on doing this a year and a half ago!
What’s your dream job?
Designing concept vehicles. I’d love to make my own car designs, as far as looks and performance.
What advice would you give to prospective students considering attending RSI?
Be consistent. Carry the excitement you have on your first day through to your last day. Everyday life makes you stumble but keep going. For the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. If you have experience, you may get a little impatient, but by the end of the program you’ll realize that you did learn things right at the beginning. You may know the “how,” but what you learn is the “why” and that’s important.
What do you do for fun?
Provided I have the money, I like building cars. I like doing things you don’t normally see. My last project I put a Ford 302 motor in a little ’87 Mazda RX7. That was a monster of a car. I like doing engine swaps; things out of the box.
If you were a millionaire for a day, what would you do?
Depending on the time of year, I’d get my buddies together and hit the slopes or head to the beach; we’d have a blast.
If you’re an RSI graduate and would like to share your success and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your full name, your graduation date (month/year) and program name.