How To Become An HVAC Technician: An Interview with Anthony Spagnoli
This was a fantastic interview with Anthony Spagnoli, the director of testing and education at NATE. He shares a lot of insight into:
NATE's testing philosophy
Joining the HVAC field
Transitioning into HVAC from a skilled trade
The future of HVAC
Worker shortages in HVAC
Here is a complete transcript of our conversation. Note: This transcript was automatically generated and 95% accurate.
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Eric: [00:00:00] Welcome everyone to SkillCats, weekly blog post. Today, we're going to be interviewing Anthony Spagnoli. He's the director of testing and education at NATE. And for those of you who don't know NATE, It's widely considered to be the gold star of HVAC certification. So we're super excited to have Anthony on the blog today. Thanks for being here, Anthony.
Anthony: [00:00:19] awesome.
Eric: [00:00:19] Well, cool. I think it'd be good. Just to start off kind of with your background, if you could just share a little bit about yourself.
Anthony: [00:00:25] so, I started working out at a college. my background was political science and philosophy, which doesn't seem like it really lends itself to HVAC certification.
A lot of the statistics we do for surveys and stuff like that. It's actually very similar to what we do in the certification industry to, review exam items or, their efficiency. so I started at NATE back in 2010 as a customer service rep, and started assisting, than the beauty of certifications. You know, some of the exam development. I found that I kind of had a knack for it and then stuck with me for 10 years now and just kind of climbing the ladder to where I'm at now. That's
Eric: [00:01:06] awesome. Out of curiosity, I mean, if you studied political science, what made you even look into HVAC? I mean, I get the statistics it's similar, but it seems like it's kind of an overall departure.
Anthony: [00:01:16] Yeah. It really was that, you know, I graduated and was just looking for really any kind of job. after I graduated, the economy wasn't in the best place back then, so I just kind of ended up with NATE, an interview there, and just really enjoy the people, enjoy the industry and just stuck with it from there. So it was kind of a happy accident. I ended up in the HVAC industry.
Eric: [00:01:36] Yeah. That makes sense. How did you find NATE? I mean, was it just like a random job ad you found? Was it, did he know someone there?
Anthony: [00:01:42] Yeah, no. It was a random job posting on a ASAE the American society of. so association executives, that, job board there for just the, different trade associations around the DC area. And so I found a job posting there on a block.
Eric: [00:01:56] That's awesome. Well, at 10 years you certainly know what you're doing. So I kind of wanted to ask you, what do you see as kind of like NATE's role in the HVAC industry? Like how do you guys see yourselves fitting in?
Anthony: [00:02:08] so historically we always were there for the certification and recognizing technician competency. so that's really what we did as a certification body. We didn't really do any of the training or anything like that. We pretty much just certified technicians verify their skills. more recently we have moved into, developing technicians as well. And, we got feedback from the industry that that was needed.
so our board changed our, kind of vision statement, what NATE's purpose was, and, you know, extended that beyond just recognizing technicians and into developing them as well. so that's what we're doing with our new, the certified HVAC professional program. we took the same content from the exams, but broke it down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and then link that to online training and put that all on a portal on our website, really to help technicians, as they get into the industry.
Instead of seeing it as this kind of goal, you had, you know, two, three years into your career that you can really start with me from the beginning and use NATE's, exams and. Yeah, in my training, we link you to, to really develop your your career.
Eric: [00:03:10] That's awesome. And I mean, have you been seeing a lot of workers start that, that NATE program kind of from, from the get go
Anthony: [00:03:19] We just launched that new program, so we haven't seen a whole lot yet. We're excited for the following. You know, people get back into kind of the training season. but yeah, NATE, has had a lot of success, with our ready to work and HVAC support, technician, certificate exams. so they're kind of more entry-level exams that we developed a couple of years ago, that helped I really get into the industry to have an exam that they can start from from the beginning with that ready to work exam.
And then there's an exam kind of in between ready to work. And the actual certification exams called the heating and cooling a support technician. so it's kind of the same topics. This is covered in the NATE exam, but at a more fundamental
Eric: [00:03:54] level. Yeah, it's interesting. You mentioned the NATE ready to work exam. I talked to a lot of HVAC technicians and hiring companies every day and pretty much all of them say if a guy has the NATE ready to work, and EPA 608 certificate, they'll take them. So, I mean, you guys did a great job with that. And does that, that training program, does that really kind of prepare people for the NATE ready to work?
Like, is that, what does that training program cover?
Anthony: [00:04:19] A new training program would prepare somebody to take, it's an actual certification, our, certified HVAC professional it's our new credential. so those training courses would be linked to each one of those new exams. So it has five exams that are in that certification as opposed to the traditional pathway, which had two.
and then the exams are broken down by topic area like HVAC fundamentals, electrical and controls, airflow, and then installation and service. So they would take the specific training courses for each one of those exam modules. And then once they pass all five, they would earn the certification.
Eric: [00:04:51] Okay, cool. That makes sense. And about how long does it take people to pass all five
Anthony: [00:04:56] it's self paced. So it's really, you know, how much you want to really grind it out. he allowed six months in between each exam. So you could take a full two years to get it if you needed to, or you could probably get it done in four to six weeks, depending on how much time you're putting into it.
Eric: [00:05:10] Okay. Gotcha. That makes sense. Well, I guess kind of off of that, you know, what is your philosophy when you're really creating these NATE certifications or exams? Like what, how do you kind of look at it in terms of like creating a prepared worker?
Anthony: [00:05:24] so what we do is we, do what they call a job task analysis.
That's where we sit down with subject matter experts from the industry, kind of from each, Sector of the industry is the manufacturers, distributors, educators, contractors, the certified techs themselves. and you analyze what the job actually, as you go through, for a technician to do this as a competent technician, what are the things they need to know?
And then we have a list of topics from that, which we call our Cates the knowledge areas of technical expertise. And then we survey those out to a larger kind of contractor community. usually by email, some of our contractors have probably gotten them before where, you know, we ask you to rate these different, job tasks and job knowledge areas.
And then that's what we use to develop the exam, to make sure that the exam is right, to the technician's career. These are the job tasks that they have. This is the job knowledge that they need. And then we're able to make the exam from that and then writing the questions we always want to be. we try to, you know, as best we can to be as direct and, making sure we're asking a single question, you know, we don't want these multi-party multi answered.
We don't want any questions where it's, you know, A and B, B and C or anything like that. We want, you know, straightforward question with a single answer.
Eric: [00:06:38] Yeah. Okay. That makes a lot of sense. And I mean, is there a way for people looking to get into the HVAC industry or even experienced texts to see those Kate kind of criteria.
Or do you guys keep those internal and then put them in the exams and training you do
Anthony: [00:06:54] well on our website, NATEx.org, under the technicians tab. And then there's a section for, what exams we have our exam offer. And under that you'll be able to download, the K for any of our exams.
Eric: [00:07:06] I mean, honestly, it seems like if a technician can go and look at kind of that Cate list, they can see what they really need to know to be competent or ready to go into the field.
Do you think that's pretty accurate?
Anthony: [00:07:15] Yeah, we do suggest the technicians review them as the preparing for the exam to make sure that they feel comfortable with all the topics covered by doing that.
Eric: [00:07:23] Okay. Cool. Kind of off of that then, do you have advice for people really looking to get into HVAC? I know you're new programs focusing on people who are just starting out.
Do you have any advice for anyone who's listening? Who wants to get into it, but maybe it doesn't have any experience.
Anthony: [00:07:38] Yeah. a lot of times contractors hire based on profile and not necessarily technical skills. so they're looking for someone who's going to be a good employee, and then they'll just teach you the skills that you need to know.
so, you know, kind of, I would say if you're looking to get into it either, you know, find some training courses. If you wanted to do that on your own, or you can look for contractors in your area that might have an apprentice or training kind of program. and you know, that that'd be a good way to start getting that, your job experience and then I would obviously suggest he takes NATE exams along the way to benchmark your progress.
Eric: [00:08:12] Yeah. That makes sense. And I mean, for when you said that they're mainly looking for people to have a profile of a good employee, like, what do you think people should really be emphasizing in interviews or an emails they send out or anything like that?
Anthony: [00:08:24] Hmm. I know from talking to contractors that usually looking for technicians with good customer service skills and communication skills, you know, professionalism, punctuality, all those kinds of things that you would normally expect in a, an, a good employee. and then the technical skills, you know, they usually do that as something, you know, you can learn. but you know, some of the other kind of more intangible aspects of employers are looking for, you know, that might be more what they're hiring on, on that profile.
Eric: [00:08:51] Yeah, that makes total sense. I was curious to you, do you know why a lot of people tend to kind of neglect the customer service side? Like they don't think about it much when they're going into the industry.
Do you know why that might be?
Anthony: [00:09:02] I don't, no. Most contractors I've talked to, they understand the importance of good communication skills and good customer service. cause obviously you want to have this person be a repeat customer. You don't want to go in there. You know, you might do a great job fixing their equipment.
But, you know, if you were grapher otherwise unprofessional while you're doing it, you know, now might not be a repeat customer. but I think most contractors do prioritize. I would say that the customer service aspect of it.
Eric: [00:09:26] Yeah, definitely. So have you seen workers that have transitioned from other like skilled trades, maybe it's like a plumber becoming a HVAC technician or an oil and gas worker, or like, have you seen much like, kind of transitioned between them?
Cause it seems like a lot of the skills transfer over.
Anthony: [00:09:43] Yeah. Yeah, we do see that, you know, plumbers or electricians, you know, they'll add HVAC on to what they already knows, and they might do plumbing and HVAC, electrical and HVAC. so really any of those trades with technical skills, particularly the electrical side, you know, that'll transfer overwhelmingly to HVAC.
Eric: [00:10:01] And I mean, do you have any advice for people looking to transfer? I mean, is it similar to what you already said for the new HVAC tax, you know, find a good course to go through focus on the soft skills or is there kind of a different path for someone who may already have experience in a skilled trade?
Anthony: [00:10:16] Yeah. they might, instead of, you know, kind of starting at the, at the beginning, they might want to review, you know, kind of what, training courses are offered in their area or online, and kind of gauge where they're at. I know some of the online trainers they'll actually have like an aptitude kind of test that you can take.
they'll tell you what, you're strong on, what you're reading and then suggest courses for you. you know, a program like that, if you don't want to, you know, start necessarily at the beginning because you have some of the, some of the technical skills that you already have, but that might be another path to go and, you know, just still on the rest of that you need.
Eric: [00:10:46] Yeah, it makes sense. I mean, they already know so much. You don't really want to just repeat where you are and you know, it's kind of a waste of everybody's time. Yeah. so in your eyes, and I think you're you're person to ask this just because obviously you're in charge of all the testing and education and NATE, but in your eyes, what makes a technician well trained and capable on like the hard skills sides, obviously, customer service is important, but do you have like four or five skills that you think are, are critical for someone to learn If they're trying to get into HVAC right now?
Anthony: [00:11:15] safety being aware of, you know, general safety concerns. I'd say it's a very important skill to have, you know, that's why our ready to work exam focuses heavily on that before you start any of this, make sure you're doing it safely. in particular, the electrical safety, and because of how kind of complex certain systems are getting, I would say the electrical skills are another one that are really important and kind of as a fundamental making sure you understand the electrical side of it.
Eric: [00:11:43] Okay. So safety and kind of electrical skills, or you'd say it would be like the top two things for people to start learning right now.
Anthony: [00:11:49] Yeah, I would say that's probably a really good place to start. And then obviously in HVAC, you get into some of the more specific things, airflow, you know, some of the more mechanical side of things, but probably getting a good safety background and getting overseeing, being electrical has that's usually where. A technician struggle. I would say it would be a good, a good place to start.
Eric: [00:12:09] Yeah, that makes sense. And one question that I've been wondering lately is what, there's obviously a lot of science behind HVAC. I mean, you can go into the thermodynamics of it all. You can really get pretty deep into it, but what do you think people need to know on the HVAC side to start? Like, if I just learned how to change, whatever an evaporator or a condenser out or to do basic, you know, preventative maintenance, like, do I really need to know all the science in your opinion?
Anthony: [00:12:35] I mean, just to do your job, probably not, but if you really want to make it a career, I would say it's good to really understand what's happening and what's going on. I'd say that's probably something that would differentiate, you know, just kind of a good tech from, you know, an amazing tech is going to make a great career out of this.
It was really being curious about what you're doing and, you know, really understanding.
Eric: [00:12:55] Yeah. That makes sense. and then also in your eyes, what, what do you think the industry thoughts are on, on kind of technical colleges? I'd say it seems to split between people. I talked to some people, I think they're great.
Other people think you don't really need to go, they can just kind of train you up from the start of you. Like what, what is your thoughts on that?
Anthony: [00:13:13] from what I've heard and seen and talked to people, I would say it's probably both that it really depends on the technician themselves and how they like to learn.
That there are some texts that are going to succeed by learning in a classroom because that's how they learn well. and then there's other texts that, you know, they just need to go out and start doing it and that's how they learn. so I really would think it's both, it really depends on the technician and our learning style.
Eric: [00:13:37] Okay. So more individual based than necessarily a right path.
Anthony: [00:13:40] Yeah.
Eric: [00:13:41] Gotcha. Got it makes a lot of sense. Well, the next question is kind of, kind of a big one for you. What do you think future looks like for the HVAC industry? Like five, 10 years down the line? What do you think the space is going to be like?
Cause you've already been in here for 10 years, so I'm guessing you've seen a lot of change already. So, so what do you think the future looks like?
Anthony: [00:14:00] Yeah. I mean, I think it's a good time to become an HVAC tech. I know everything we've looked up from, know the Bureau of labor statistics, constantly show that this industry is going to continue growing that these there's going to be more and more HVAC technician jobs out there over the years.
and as equipment becomes more sophisticated, the skills and everything that those technicians need will likely increase. and just, you know, from industry change in general kind of standpoint, you know, we're moving into eventually likely phasing out a HSC or refrigerants and moving on to, you know, those replacement refrigerants that might have, you know, slightly flammable properties.
So, you know, learning how to do all that and working with that new equipment, you know, there's going to be a lot, a lot of new opportunities in the future.
Eric: [00:14:43] Yeah, that makes sense. And out of curiosity, do you see technology really blending in and kind of integrating more with HVAC? I mean, obviously in the past 10 years, I'm sure there's been a lot.
Maybe you could tell me about that too, but also how you see that kind of going towards the future.
Anthony: [00:14:56] Yeah, and that is, you know, an increasing demand or HVAC technicians to be versed in, you know, the, what do they call it? The internet of things, you know, the connected home. cause we are seeing that with your newer thermostats that are linked to wifi, have an app on your phone, you can control your thermostat.
yeah, so we are seeing an increase in that. And a lot of times, you know, the homeowner's gonna expect the HVAC technician to be able to, you know, show them how to use that new, thermostat. and we've seen a tech start taking those training courses.
Eric: [00:15:25] sense. And I mean, is it training courses more on, I guess, like, I don't know if it would be network design, like, is that typically what it, what it's on or is there, like, what areas should people be focusing on to be prepared for that future?
Anthony: [00:15:36] Yeah, I think it's mostly about a proper install and just getting it connected to their existing, home network that they might have.
Eric: [00:15:43] Okay. So they don't really have to go that deep. It tends to just be more understanding how wifi networks are set up in the home. And then basically how to connect another device to it.
Okay, cool. That makes a lot of sense. this one is, is an interesting one. Have you seen a, a worker shortage in the HVAC industry?
Anthony: [00:16:01] Yes, that's actually a constant topic among contractors is they're always looking for new people. that there is, you know, not just in the HVAC industry, but a lot of similar industries that there is this, you know, kind of skilled, skill shortage.
they don't have skill tax or enough people getting into this training, for the future and really for the increase of texts that we expect to have. that's why I said it's a great industry to get into it. Cause it will be in demand.
Eric: [00:16:27] Yeah, it makes sense. And I mean, why do you think that, that there is such a worker shortage?
I mean, it just seems odd given the high pay that an HVAC technician can earn right out of the gate, it doesn't require a college degree. Like it, it really seems like a field that is easy to get into, and that has a lot of benefits to it. So I'm just curious why you think there is that shortage.
Anthony: [00:16:47] Yeah. yeah, there's probably multiple reasons.
I know a lot of it. You know, can stem from, you know, kind of, really, you know, kids in high school getting pushed to always pursue a four year college degree, and kind of almost, you know, a negative connotation to, you know, not going to college and getting a job like those. But I think we are seeing that reverse now, as people realize, you know, these are just as good as the jobs you would get with a four year degree without having to spend four years getting that degree.
Yeah. So I think, I think that is changing, but I think that was some of the driving force behind, it was, you know, sort of pressure to move to a four year college degree. And, you know, not thinking that these types of jobs were good, well paying jobs when, when they are.
Eric: [00:17:34] Do you know how long the worker shortage has been around for like, has this been a problem they've been talking about since you joined the field?
Is it really in the past couple of years or is it, is it kind of a perennial problem?
Anthony: [00:17:47] it's, it's been a topic of discussion for awhile. more so in looking at future trends as well. as well as right now, I'm really seeing the increased demand with the, you know, the number of technicians [00:18:00] joining the workforce.
That that's, that's where that shortage is coming from. But now it's, it's been a topic of discussion probably since I've been at me 10 years. All right. So
Eric: [00:18:08] it's really been around quite, quite awhile. That's that makes sense. And I mean, the companies that you talk to when they're struggling to hire HVAC technicians, like where are they going to find them, like, say someone new, wanted to join the industry?
Where can they, I guess me companies who are looking to hire or, or even just, just make connections in the industry.
Anthony: [00:18:26] Yeah. I know some contractors will, work with local technical schools, trade and technical schools that they'll, you know, kind of, No, the school will get with them when they have a graduating class and help with some job placement.
And there are a lot of kind of job placement programs out there like that. that'll help, you know, a technician who's currently in school or, you know, getting, the green, you know, some sort of HVAC related field to, to play some, you know, with a job.
Eric: [00:18:53] You know, I know I kind of touched on it earlier. I'd be really curious to hear from you how the industry has changed in the past 10 years. Like just generally speaking what you've seen kind of evolve over time.
Anthony: [00:19:11] Yeah. it really is you you're becoming, I think the industry is getting more recognition as kind of a STEM industry. and, you know, having people. Realize the type of technical skills that these technicians need now, especially with the newer equipment coming out. you know, really that, just that the industry, I think, as a whole is starting to come even more kind of professional, you know, and more highly skilled.
Eric: [00:19:37] So I mean 10 years ago, was it pretty, I'm guessing the industry was smaller? Was it also pretty. I guess kind of disconnected, like, was there not many organizations like NATE or obviously it's been around for more than 10 years, but was there, was there not many kind of governing bodies almost there certification people? or how did that look?
Anthony: [00:19:58] yes. NATE was founded in 1997, and was really driven by manufacturers looking, kind of modeled themselves after the automotive industry, ASE automotive service excellence, really kind of model made as the HVAC equivalent of that. yeah, so that was, you know, 97. So we've been around for a while now?
no, but there there's always been, other organizations representing, technicians for the entire time I've been there, others, like, you know, JCCA or ICS. there's always been a, a decent trade organizations for
Eric: [00:20:27] Well, cool. any kind of final words of wisdom for anyone looking to get into HVAC?
Anthony: [00:20:36] yeah. you know, if you have some questions, you know, it needs nice or, you know, looking for training opportunities in your area, you can definitely come to NATEx.org, or email us at . we'd be happy to help you. you can check out our new, CHP five program, you know, online training, modularized, you know, kind of, exams and, you know, earn work to earn a certification.
Eric: [00:21:01] I can honestly attest to the quality you have need certifications and what the industry thinks of them. They really carry a lot of weight when you have these certificates, certifications, whatever it may be. so I do highly encourage you to go check out their website.
And, excited to, to have you on today, Anthony, for those of you who haven't heard yet, we are hosting a virtual career fair. it's going to be free for companies and technicians and you can find out more information and the blog post below. Thanks for being on Anthony. And it was great talking to you.