Andrew Kalkofen learned while working alongside HVAC technicians the difference between those with formal training and the correlation between the type of work or manual labor they were doing. This inspired him to go to school to become a certified HVAC technician. When he was invited to his colleagues' homes, he noticed how their education allotted them a lifestyle that appealed to him. He said, “When I was working and doing the manual labor, I saw what the knowledge did for them outside of work and at work.”
This is Andrew’s last semester in the HVAC program at South Texas College. He is proud of his educational journey and discusses how there’s more than one way to pursue education after high school. According to Andrew, the narrative in high school prepares students for one path of education that seems to lean toward a 4 year college or postgraduate degrees in medicine or law. He wants to dispel the misconception that the only path to success is to put yourself into a load of debt on your way out of graduating college. He goes on to mention that there is dignity in working in the trades and that message doesn’t get portrayed enough.
“Turning nothing into something… is one of the things I really like about the trades more than anything else.”
Andrew began his formal HVAC education with two years of experience already under his belt. This prior experience has been beneficial for him in the classroom and has given him a greater appreciation for the knowledge he is attaining while completing his coursework. This same appreciation applies to his work ethic as he understands “there’s no shortcuts to knowing what you have to know.”
In Andrew’s scholarship application, he talked about the importance of safety while working in the field and how working in HVAC is a lot like honing a craft with your name associated with the work you complete. The ability to create, fix, and work with his hands gives him a great sense of dignity and pride in the jobs he completes. Andrew makes a conscious effort to leave job sites better than when he arrived. That way, he explains, the next time someone goes out there to work on the system, he will have made it that much easier for them. Or, it may even be him that revisits his work and he’ll be glad he made it manageable and to specification. Each call out to the field is an opportunity for Andrew to put his signature on a project, and he finds great pride in that.
Learn more about Andrew and his experience by reading the transcription from our interview below.
What does winning the scholarship mean to you?
It means that the last few months and working all summer season was on track to doing something good for me. Personally, I’m 26 years old now and this is my first time going to college so being able to get back on track and try to finish what I started a long time ago is really something to me and my family. It means a lot.
What do you plan to do with the scholarship award?
Honestly, the majority of it is going to go into savings for rent because I live alone - I live off campus. I work full time at an AC company already and I do get financial aid, but it’s tough right now, especially. So yeah, all of it really is going to go toward necessities.
In your written application, you talk about the decision of getting your education after observing other guys you worked with and comparing their duties to the manual labor of setting up for them. Can you share more about how that situation inspired you to pursue education?
Yeah, I saw that they would show up with a tool pouch and a precision screwdriver and maybe like a meter and some people wouldn’t even show up with a meter. I was there with multiple bags, a pipe bender, and just compared the workload that I was having to do during the day and what they were having to do. Then there was the discrepancy in pay and I was like, ‘okay, well, I think it’s time to see where this leads on the educational level.’
What has had the biggest impact or influence on your work ethic?
I’m surrounded by people who cut corners, and you see the outcome when you pay attention to what happens in their life or pay attention to what happens in the future. For example, someone might get callbacks if you don’t pressure test the system after you do an install, you’re going to have a leak. You’re going to have a callback. So I’ve learned to just be redundant and make sure you have everything done right because in the future you won’t have that happen and you won’t have a customer mad at you, and it just saves a load of headaches.
You said it’s important to have respect for your craft and perform work with your signature on it. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you see HVAC as a craft?
It’s definitely a craft because when you’re sent to a call or you’re sent to do a task it’s your name there next to it. When you get there, and you interact with the customer, it’s also your name there, and it’s your reputation. That goes a long way because it can go ahead and be like ‘this person took real good care of me.’ Then they recommend you to somebody else so it goes a long way and it gets you more recognition, kind of like in art. It’s about finding that peace, that bliss, where you’re at work and you’re able to do something good with your hands, and you have all your tools to do the job right. There’s a real satisfaction from that. Where you’re able to turn nothing into something. That’s a good way to put it because you have nothing but raw materials in front of you, but to you, it makes something work.
How do you find pride in your craft?
When it’s done well and you leave it in a good state, it’s one of my favorite things. When I do an install, I try to leave wires laid out right and leave it serviceable for the next person. It might be me to come back there and if I tried to leave it better than it was before, better than I found it, if I can. It’s your name right next to it, so you might as well have pride in it, because it’s going to be there with you forever.
You also mentioned avoiding hazards. What do you think is the best way to learn safety as an HVAC student?
Personally, in school, I do know that a lot of my classmates aren’t working in the field. We might overlook certain things in the field. I’ve learned just by seeing things that aren’t supposed to happen, happen. Working in the field has taught me that redundancy is the most important thing. Even if you think a breaker is off, I will always double check and I always call and have them flip it on and see if it receives power and then see it come off again. I’ve turned off the breakers and went to test them and found voltage and that happens over and over. Here in school, they do teach us. Without that element of ‘it’s your ass or the grass,’ there’s no learning that. In school, everything is set up crystal clean, everything is clean and to code and to specification. I’ve seen no disconnects, I’ve seen electrical boxes underneath the drain pan. I’ve seen all sorts of things so you never know what you’re going to find so you always got to be careful.
When you say you did this for 2 years before enrolling in school, do you feel it gave you a leg up in comparison in school?
Working before has definitely given me a leg up, especially now. I’m in my final semester and I’m taking ‘advanced controls,’ and before I was a subcontractor installing control equipment and chill water systems. Now I’m learning about what the actual functionality of the equipment is. It puts it all together in my head because before I was like, “what’s this all for, I don’t know what this is.” Now I know ‘hey, that’s a VAV box and it uses a fan code system.’ It’s just really interesting and it definitely did give me a sort of respect for the knowledge that comes with what I’m learning. I know that it’s going to be able to provide for me in the long run. Going back to how I saw those technicians in the workplace, when I was working and doing the manual labor, I saw what the knowledge did for them outside of work and at work. I would go over and eat at their house and I would see how they were doing and I was like ‘this is a lot to aspire to.’
What message would you share with someone considering a career in HVAC?
Like I said in my application, there’s no shortcuts to knowing what you have to know and there’s no way to supplement it. Like me, I have to sit through the classes and I have to learn the things that I have to learn. Sometimes I might think ‘oh, why am I here, we don’t have to do this out in the field.’ But we might have to do it, you might have to do anything out in the field, so you have to be ready for anything. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and don’t be afraid to stand up in front of class. You can short things out, within safety, but what professors always say is ‘you can break something, they’re just going to raise tuition next year.’
Why do you think it’s difficult to recruit people into the Trades?
I think it has a lot to do with movies and people’s expectations. A lot of high school is geared toward preparation for getting into a biology program or a law program. It’s not bad, I have a couple of friends who went and they passed the bar and they’re lawyers now. But now they’re lawyers looking for work and it’s hard to find a job and stable work. It’s hard to start a practice and you have to have experience and capital. In my opinion, we have doctors and lawyers and we don’t really need much more. We need locksmiths and plumbers and people who work with their hands. It’s not glamorous, but it does pay pretty well and there’s dignity and fairness to it. It’s not about getting your money from ripping people off, it’s doing dignity work, working with your hands, earning, and like I said before, turning nothing into something, really. Which is one of the things I really like about the trades more than anything else.
Meet more of the winners
Curious to get to know the other exceptional winners of the Trade Academy 2021 HVAC Scholarship? Click here to see the full list of scholarship award winners.