Mark, 42, born and raised in Indiana, moved to Prince of Wales Island in Alaska in 2000. He lived there for 14 years. Mark graduated from the six month Refrigeration Technologies program at RSI in July 2015.
Thanks for your time, Mark. Tell us what you did before coming to RSI.
I was doing heating, cooling and plumbing up in Alaska, but was more of a plumber really. I did it for 11 years. Plumbing kind of got old. Paying with human feces is never fun! One day my boss asked me if I wanted to work on ice machines. Next thing I knew, I was putting in walk-in coolers, and then working in refrigeration rack rooms at the local store on the island.
Did you got to school for plumbing back in the day?
No, I learned on the job. I caught on quick working with Southeast Mechanical. There weren’t a lot of job opportunities on the island. I managed restaurants, then a sporting goods store. Southeast Mechanical was the only plumbing company on the island. There’s only about 1200 residents. I was mechanically minded, always have been, so they asked me to try it. I thought why not? Sure enough, I was pretty good at it. It paid pretty well for a kid my age, especially for Alaska. I stuck with it, but plumbing got old after a while.
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Is that why you decided to go to school?
My boss tried to teach me refrigeration, how to do rack systems. It was very loud in the rack room and I couldn’t hear anything. He’d tell me a bunch of stuff, say there’s nothing to it, and walk away. I hadn’t heard a thing! I decided I was going to go to school and get it taken care of!
Did you want to move away from plumbing, or just add another skill?
Both, really. I got some bad water in my eyes, and it made me sick for months. That’s when I decided I was done with plumbing. But there are some parts of the year, like Spring or early Fall, where the temperatures are so nice that you don’t have a lot of HVAC calls. If you can do plumbing, too, you’ll still have work. I don’t do any plumbing in the job I’m at now, but I don’t mind doing it occasionally. I just don’t want to do it all the time. Also, once you’ve learned it, plumbing is not very challenging.
Did you intend to go back to Alaska after school?
I didn’t know, to be honest, but my first son was born a couple of weeks after graduation. When you add kids to the mix, it’s totally different. We stayed in Arizona for a couple of years and then decided to move back to Indiana where the grandparents are.
What did you enjoy most about RSI?
All the teachers I had were really good—very open-minded and accepting. They tried to not leave anyone behind. I also liked how “yes sir, no sir” or “yes ma’am, no ma’am” was prevalent. The teachers taught with respect, and that taught students how to interact with customers with respect right off the bat.
How was being back in education in your mid 30s?
It was a little unnerving at first, but after the first phase I knew RSI was where I needed to be. It was easy for me. It’s great to finally have something I’m really good at, a career where I look for challenging jobs.
Most students were 15 years younger than you, how was that?
They didn’t treat me as an old guy, and there were other people there my age. In fact, several teachers asked me to help other students, tutor them a little with troubleshooting. I was happy to do it.
Tell us about your employment since graduating.
I joined Forrest Anderson in Glendale, Arizona. They were an outstanding company and treated me great. Once they found out I was a plumber and an HVAC guy, they set me up with a truck and I was always busy. It was definitely an advantage for me to have both skills. I was with them for close to three years before we moved back to Indiana.
Having been in the field before, how was the money as a new RSI grad?
I made an extra $20,000 on my gross the first year! That’s pretty good. I made way more than the cost of the program was then in one year. It was the best decision I ever made. I’m making six figures now and have never looked back.
Who do you work for now?
I’ve been working for Advanced Climate Solutions for two years. I’m a senior tech. We provide commercial and industrial HVAC and refrigeration services. The company is based in Illinois, but we have multiple locations and are working on becoming a nationwide company. I’ve worked in Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. We’re just getting ready to open up in New Mexico. I’m driving back from Arkansas now. I’ve been down there a month.
Do you have a family? How do you manage the traveling?
My significant other, Erin, and I have two boys, aged 4 and 2. It is tough being away from the family and seeing my kids grow up in pictures, but just like every parent I know, you want to provide better than you had. I have goals in life. I work a lot.
What’s your career plan from here?
After we open in New Mexico, the company plans to expand into Phoenix, Arizona. I hope to be driving back into Phoenix one day in a company van and be able to hire a couple of employees. Maybe I’ll go back to RSI and hire some graduates! I don’t plan on leaving Advanced Climate Solutions anytime soon. They’ve been great to me. It’s the best company I’ve worked for.
What do you enjoy most about your new trade?
The troubleshooting. It’s like a puzzle for me, trying to figure things out. Once I get things figured out, that’s the big win for me. But what I like most about my job is that it’s always different. I may see the same thing twice, but it’s always in a different situation.
Did you make some connections at RSI?
Yeah, I made a lot of friends there. Over four years later I still talk to several of the guys I graduated with, mostly guys in Arizona. I go back to Phoenix every once in a while, and we get together. It’s good to see that some of them have done really well in the HVAC business.
What advice do you have for new students just starting out at RSI?
If you can, take your notes extremely well and carry that skill into the field! When you do really good notes in your job, your dispatcher will see that, and they will like you because they can read them! If they like you, they will give you more work, and because you get more work, you will make more money! It’s all about the notes. If you do your notes well in this field, they’ll never fire you because nobody does notes right! And that starts at school. I still have my notes, and I still carry my school textbook under my seat in the van. When I get stumped—four years later—I know I can find the answers.
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.