I would love for my daughter to become an electrician or HVAC technician. There is a ton of work to be done, it is fulfilling work (especially if you care about climate change), it is hands-on (she loves that), you can be your own boss (she loves that too), and you are out in the real world solving real problems for real people. The work is interesting and continuously evolving, especially now, and it is unlikely to be taken over by an AI bot any time soon (so much for my blog!). Every building brings its own set of issues and its own problems to solve. These jobs involve technical know-how, creativity, and people skills, and they pay good wages, especially with experience. These jobs have it all.
So I don’t understand why so few people around here take up this work. The HVAC people I have met have consistently impressed me, and I love my electrician. They are thorough, disciplined, thoughtful people who know their stuff. It is not all that easy to get certified, but it is doable, it's easy to start, and there are many career paths. Yet there seem to be few people going into these jobs, and even fewer women. What’s up with that?
My daughter, like any good teenager, doesn’t listen to my career suggestions. But I thought I’d talk with a few of these tradesmen (men only!) about how they got started and what they like or dislike most about their jobs. Even if it doesn’t convince my daughter (yet?), maybe some of you will be interested. I’d also love to hear from others of you who have worked in these fields.
Image source: Palo Alto Adult School
Josh is an electrician based in Tahoe. Josh’s enthusiasm for his job is infectious. He seems to enjoy all aspects of it, from sizing a panel and updating wiring to hanging light fixtures and talking with clients. And yet electrical work was not in his sights when he was applying to college. He majored in psychology but found that it was hard to get a job without doing graduate work. He worked in a ski shop and at a restaurant for a few years but grew frustrated with the lack of a career path and the nature of the work. A carpenter friend of his suggested he become an electrician since there were lots of jobs. Josh started apprenticing and acquired enough hours and training to become a “journeyman”.
As he describes it, a journeyman is a certified electrician who has more autonomy than an apprentice, can do jobs from start to finish, and knows each part. One step beyond journeyman is an electrical contractor, who can contract directly with customers and employ and train other electricians. It takes at least 4800 hours of training and a passing grade on a 3-hour qualifying test to become a certified residential electrician (journeyman), then four more years and another set of exams, covering business and legal as well as technical expertise, to become a licensed contractor.
Josh says there are lots of ways to specialize as an electrician. He enjoys residential work because it seems more creative than commercial, which can be more rigid. When I asked Josh what kinds of people are good candidates for this kind of work, he replied that he looks for people with good attention to detail and focus, people who are motivated to do well. He doesn’t think they have to be science or engineering geniuses, but some physics can be helpful. In his experience, about one in three of the people he meets turns out to be a good candidate.
I asked him what he dislikes most about his job, and he said it gets pretty cold in the winter up in Tahoe, plus it can be awfully dirty when you are crawling under basements and you have to deal with stuff like rat poop. He is also unhappy that his job doesn’t come with health insurance. He said the work can be physical, but it’s not as bad as framing or carpentry. He loves that it’s outdoors (well, except in winter), the hours are reasonable, and there is no end of good work. He enjoys his job and the people he works with.
Michael is a hydronic heating contractor in the Bay Area who is in the process of trying to grow his business. He loved physics in school and got some HVAC training before getting licensed in hydronics, after which he installed water heaters every day for five years. “I thought I’d do one thing really well. I did that and made lots of money. But it wasn’t an extended career path. I needed to learn and take on the jobs that were really hard.” He could see that heat pumps were becoming more and more popular, so he got certified to install those systems and hasn’t had a day off since.
I asked who he thinks is a good fit for the work and related Josh’s comment about attention to detail. “Yeah, that is important. In my mind, though, the number one thing is attitude. Everything else is negotiable. I look for someone who wants to learn, who understands that respect must be earned. If you’ve got that, you are miles ahead. Talent is great, but nothing replaces attitude. I hired a kid recently because he stopped at the side of the road to help me pick up stuff that fell off my rack. That’s a kid who’s eager to work and be helpful.”
Michael loves his day-to-day work in hydronics, dealing with technical and design issues, maximizing efficiency, and working with other great technicians in the area. But he also reflected on some of the more challenging aspects of the job. He mentioned the difficulty of working with some inspectors: “Somebody who knows less than you is telling you how to do your job.” Then he mused about the risks of doing hands-on work. “The plight of the mechanic is simply, once you’ve put your hands on it, the likelihood of being blamed for anything thereafter has shot through the sky. Never mind if it’s shoddily built, etc. This is complicated by there being some really poor mechanics around here who are less than honorable.” He then added “But in the end it’s a self-correcting system, small entrepreneurs need repeat business, and there’s a feedback loop that works.”
He admires people like Manny Jimenez, who runs EJ Plumbing. “He has crazy tools, knowledge, tricks up the wazoo. He cares about his reputation and trains people well. They know their stuff and can take on really tough work, municipal jobs that are sketchy hard.” Michael’s business is well shy of EJ Plumbing’s 50+ employees, but he hopes to build a committed staff in the coming years if he can get some breaks between jobs to get that going. (1)
Michael takes a lot of pride in his work, and has learned over time to identify risks for customers so that they understand some of the issues he may face on the job. That allows him to be compensated for additional time needed to fix unanticipated problems. His estimates early on were too low because he didn’t plan well enough for this.
There is a deluge of work needed to efficiently electrify buildings, and Michael encourages all who are interested to consider the work since it’s interesting and remunerative and plentiful, and there aren’t enough contractors who can do it.
Finally, I spent some time talking with Barry Cinnamon, a solar contractor and licensed electrician in the South Bay who’s been electrifying homes for 40 years. The 1970’s energy crisis back when he was in high school sparked his interest. Long lines were forming at gas stations and only even or odd license plates could buy gas on a given day. He got intrigued by solar thermal systems and did his thesis on them, even installing a system on the roof of MIT’s nuclear engineering building. He worked in the solar industry for a few years after graduating but the incentives disappeared with Reagan and the work dried up.
Barry went back to school and spent 15 years in software until he moved to California, where the Enron-inspired electricity crisis of 2001 rekindled his interest in solar systems. The economics looked better and he “accidentally” started a solar installation company, grew it steadily, and sold it in 2012. But he missed the work and found that many of his neighbors were interested in solar. So he “got a pickup truck” and started doing installs, and now has almost 40 employees doing all kinds of home energy work “as long as it goes through a wire”.
Barry strongly encourages people to consider this line of work. What does he look for? “They need to be handy. They need to have tools, know how to do wiring. They have to have that aptitude. Some people have it and some don’t know what end of the screwdriver to use. It’s important to have that knack because you can’t teach it.” He mentioned that one of his daughters clearly has this, and she’s been doing some work for his company.
He said it’s also important that candidates have an interest in technology. He looks for “intellectual curiosity” and said a scientific background can help depending on where you want to go. He mentioned that engineering aptitude helps if you are going for your contractor’s license, whereas physical qualities are more important for someone installing solar. There are lots of options.
One thing Barry worries about is the growing complexity of systems and the relative scarcity of people who can deal with it. “Mounting and wiring and basics is one thing. But when you get solar and storage and chargers, technology that is used to control these is complicated. It’s really important to have good computer skills, otherwise you can do the physical part but you can’t design and configure the system. You don’t have to be an IT expert, but you can’t be IT oblivious. You should be able to configure a computer, read a manual. I work closely with a dozen electricians, some very senior, but only 3-4 can do the configuration. If you think about a Span panel, it does one thing, but it comes with an 80-page manual. Battery backup systems like Tesla, they have lots of optional features and configurations. All of these companies offer training courses and certification, which is a first step. But fewer than half the people that pass those tests are really good at doing the work. Then what happens when you have a Google Nest working with a Tesla energy bank, an Xfinity alarm, and a Mitsubishi HVAC?
He continued: “Maybe only 1 in 100 electricians really have the electrical skills, solar skills, computer skills to master the battery systems on the market right now. I’ve seen this for 20 years. They want to get into it but realize it’s a whole different kettle of fish, they need much more specialized skills.” He continued: “I remember about 3-4 years ago I was electrifying a whole house in San Jose. The heat pump water heater was the easy thing, but I could find only one plumber in all of Silicon Valley who could do it. I had to do the electrical and configuration. And these appliances are very easy compared to HVAC systems, which are still very easy compared to storage options.” (2)
Are you interested in seeing if you like this kind of work, maybe trying some on a part-time basis? The non-profit SunWork is a great way to get some solar and heat pump water heater experience. SunWork is a solar contractor and General B contractor doing residential and non-profit installations while training volunteers to help install the systems. They take adult or teenage volunteers as young as 16. The next volunteer intake training is early next year, a 3-hour Saturday morning webinar on solar basics, tool use, and safety. Once you’ve taken it, you can start working with crews on roofs and in garages around the Bay Area, and begin learning about electric and solar work.
If you already know you enjoy the work and you are looking for something full-time, Barry says that Cinnamon Energy Systems is always looking for good people. His company will often hire people with no solar experience as long as they have aptitude and interest, though some electrical background is a plus. Working there can advance your career. "We start training them and if they have aptitude and interest, they can become a battery system expert. That is a very valuable skill to have!” He adds: “It’s great when you can have a career that is both financially and emotionally rewarding. There’s no doubt in my mind that designing and installing solar, batteries and working on electrification is the fastest growing profession in the U.S."
You can read more about becoming an electrician here, and about becoming an HVAC technician here and here. The Palo Alto Adult School offers some courses in these areas.
Notes and References
0. For those of you who were interested in the last blog post on EV charging in multi-family housing, there is some good news to report for Palo Alto. Today only 13% of EVs in Palo Alto are registered in multi-family buildings, even though multi-family households make up 42% of households. A city-wide initiative aiming to close that gap, by providing technical assistance and rebates, is gaining traction. Over 100 multi-family buildings are now enrolled and actively proceeding in the city’s residential EV charging program, which aims to install outlets or chargers in parking spots at these buildings. Those 108 buildings comprise 38% of the city’s multi-family households. This is substantial progress from just two years ago, when the city was having difficulty finding interested owners and managers. None of these projects is easy, so the city’s progress here is really commendable.
1. I think there is some good opportunity for honest and supportive trades management to help some of the skilled tradespeople to grow and scale their businesses and to train up-and-comers. So those of you who aren’t hands-on yourselves but are great with people and business…
2. Michael echoed this challenge with control systems, given the variety and lack of standards. An older HVAC guy I spoke with also agreed, saying he’s lucky because even though he doesn’t understand the control systems, his son does. I hope that developers of these systems can find ways to standardize and simplify interoperability and configuration, to give our tradespeople a chance of increasing their productivity.
Current Climate Data (October 2022)
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