Graduate Connections – Meet Zach Nelson

Zach, 26, from Phoenix, AZ, graduated from the Refrigeration Technologies program at RSI in July 2017.

Thanks for your time, Zach. What brought you to RSI?

I hit my mid-20s and decided I needed a career. I’d been working at a dental office for about three years doing front office stuff. That wasn’t going to give me the opportunities I was looking for.

What made you look into HVAC as a trade?

My uncle did it for about 20 years and made some pretty good money. Plus, it’s hands-on. I wouldn’t be sitting at a desk all day.  I know some people like that, but I got tired of it.

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Did you speak with your uncle about it first?

Actually, I didn’t talk to him before I went in. Honestly, we didn’t speak that often, but we touched base again about halfway through and he gave me a lot of good advice.

Why did you choose RSI?

It was kind of on a whim, actually. I was on Facebook and saw an RSI advertisement. I thought I’d go for it.

What was your favorite part of the RSI program and why?

I really enjoyed learning the basics. I didn’t do too well in high school, but it was different in trade school because I was focused on one thing, and I wanted it. I really buckled down and ended up finishing with a 4.0 GPA and perfect attendance. I really enjoyed it. I love to read, but I don’t like learning from books. I’m more of a hands-on learner, so I really enjoyed that aspect.

You graduated almost a year ago. Tell us about your career so far.

I was going to RSI at night and working at the dental office during the day. I really wanted to get out of there. I found a job with Nighthawk Restaurant Services about three months into the program. I started on restaurant refrigeration and air conditioning. I did that for about eight months, then a month or two after school I got hired on with the Industrial Refrigeration & Boiler Company.

It was a big step just out of school. I don’t think you hit your stride until you’ve had two to three years in the trade, so I struggled a bit and they let me go six weeks ago. It was really top-tier refrigeration. It was top-of-the-line stuff, so you have to know your stuff. I didn’t mind getting knocked down a rung. It was a good learning experience. The guys were cool; it was a good company, but I don’t want to get knocked down again. I got hired on with Elite Mechanical about six weeks ago. I’m doing commercial HVAC; I like it, I’m learning a lot, and it’s a good crew.

Did you use the Career Services team?

I found my first job through the school. If you go to the career portal on their website—students have their own login—you can go in and look at job listings. Companies send specific openings just for the school. I got called for an interview and nailed it, so I ran with it. My thinking was, I could spend the whole winter learning the basics because being in the field is so different from school. I did well at school, but I still struggled in the field. I made a bunch of mistakes. But that’s the nature of the beast. I figured it would be better to make mistakes in the winter when it’s not 110 degrees out!

What do you enjoy most about your trade?

The satisfaction of fixing something and making someone happy. You know what, it’s not even fixing something, it’s making someone happy. Cooling people down, making them happy, is a good feeling.

What was it like getting your first HVAC pay check?

I started out at $16 an hour in my first job. It was about $650 a week, which was pretty good while I was in school. After that, it went up dramatically. Just 18 months after leaving the dental office, I’m already making $10 an hour more than I was making there, so it was a great decision.

Where do you see your career going?

I see my future in refrigeration. I just started doing side work after I got more comfortable with my skills. Eventually, I want to start my own restaurant maintenance business, maintaining refrigerators, chillers freezers. Half of those people don’t take care of their equipment or even have it cleaned. That’s where the money is.

There aren’t a lot of refrigeration techs out there. There’s a difference between an HVAC tech and a refrigeration tech. While the fundamentals, ideas and principles are the same, it’s a different world. Not a lot of A/C guys do refrigeration.

18 months after deciding on a new career, are you happy with your progress?

I am, and there’s a lot more to come. I just want to put as much experience as I can on my resume. I don’t care what it is, either. I’d like to get my business up and running within two years, but you never know. Side work can build up so much that you eventually build a client base. There are techs that do so much side work, they have to quit their job and start a business. I may reach that point, I may not, but it’s best to be prepared for the opportunity if it comes.

What kind of side work are you doing?

I’ll take anything I can. My cousin works at a Scottsdale restaurant, so I just got in with them doing maintenance and repairs. I just started that last week, so the journey’s new. The guy owns a couple of restaurants, so I’m just trying to get my foot in the door.

What advice would you give to new students just starting out at RSI?

Sit at the front, or as close as you can, and pay attention. These days with phones you’re more prone to not pay attention sitting toward the back. When you get into the field, don’t think it’s going to be easy, that because you did well in school, it’ll be a cakewalk… because it’s not. You’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to be frustrating, but everyone made the same mistakes starting out. You have to have a tough mentality, the drive to stick with it, to suffer through your mistakes and learn from them.

There’s a shortage of good techs in the field. I really don’t see many guys my age, I’m usually the youngest guy. That goes to show there’s a lot of room for me to make a lot of money in the next 10 to 15 years. All these older guys will retire, so companies will be paying guys my age a lot of money to fill their shoes. Pretty soon, I’m assuming that all these companies will be fighting over good techs, moneywise.

If you’re an RSI graduate and would like to share your success story and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), and program.