Program offers fast track to all-weather career

By Abbi Overfelt

September 27, 2013

HAMLET – Bill Frye knows how to survive in a tough economic climate.

“I tell my students that they are learning to control the weather, and people are always willing to pay you to do that,” says the instructor of the Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Technology program at Richmond Community College.

Frye is entering his second year as an instructor of this program that the college began offering in 2010. It prepares students to work with heating and air conditioning in homes and commercial refrigeration in restaurants, stores and warehouses.

“Students are learning a completely transferable trade, meaning you can work in California, Canada or Florida. All heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems operate basically the same no matter where you go in the world. It’s the same theory,” Frye said.

Students learn about mechanical refrigeration, heating and cooling theory, electricity, controls and safety. They can enter the diploma or degree programs.

Graduates of the diploma program will be able to assist in the start up, preventive maintenance, service, repair and installation of residential and light commercial systems. Graduates of the associate degree program will demonstrate an understanding of system selection and balance and advanced systems.

“Most people don’t realize how much theory they have to learn and understand. They also have to couple that with good hand-eye coordination, be able to troubleshoot, put forth a good personality and be able to communicate with customers, employers and employees,” Frye said.

Frye said someone with no prior knowledge can enter this program and graduate with a solid understanding of all aspects of heating, air and refrigeration systems.

“When I started the program, I knew that air conditioners blew cool air. That’s all I knew,” said Chris Jackson, who graduated in May with a degree in the program. Jackson, who is married with two sons and a daughter on the way, was working as a cook at Rockingham restaurant when he decided to go to college.

A week after graduation, Jackson began working for Shelby Heating & Cooling in Shelby. He is a member of an installation crew that provides service for both residential and commercial customers. In a year’s time, he’ll be able to move up to a service technician position, which also means a higher salary.

Entry-level jobs include installation and start-up technicians. As technicians gain experience, they move up and can expect to see pay increases — according to Frye, as much as $25-$30 per hour.

Dale McInnis, college president, said the program’s enrollment has grown by 33 percent since last fall.

Frye tells his students, “If you learn this trade, you’ll never have to look for a job. The job will be looking for you.”

Wylie D. Bell is the assistant director of Marketing and Communications at Richmond Community College.