Im going to say the important stuff first then get into details.

Is paying 10 grand for HVAC trade school a rip-off?
In short, yes it is.
When you hand over 10 grand, someone, somewhere just hit the jackpot.

I will also say that i've done it and i don't regret it,
and i don't regret the electrical and mechanical knowledge i've learned.

My Advice: If you don't plan on running your own business out of your own truck, or trying to put togther a larger business, you probably shouldn't enter this field.
(Most of the HVAC industry is run by small business)
Contractor requirements are 3 years exp in many states 5 years in some.

if you live in Southern California or Nevada, you're going to have a tough time.

Testing your Area: Before you enter the field you could ask people some information who are working in the trade, so you can get a sense of what the businesses are like in your area.
Ask them if they like their job and ask them how long they've been working at their current company, if the techs you meet say they've been at their company less than two years, your area is likely to be a "Hire & Fire" area.
Most people lie about the wages they earn ,so you can get a more direct answer by asking what they think a starting technician would earn at that company.


* Try to aim for union or commercial work, stay away from residential.
Companies tend to keep you in the area you started in.
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Sallie Mae "Federal loans": Many people still believe Sallie Mae is a government company , it is not, and hasn't been for years.
Sallie Mae is not a respectable business either.
The only thing "Government" about Sallie Mae is a judge will make it harder to file bankruptcy on any loans you take out.

Sallie Mae split my $8,000 loan into three parts, two smaller Federal loans, one for 8% one for 9%, and one high-interest loan 17%.
You can't pay off the high-interest loan until you pay off the smallers loans.

After my first HVAC job came to an end, i had some unforeseeable problems and i couldn't pay my loans for about 4 months.
During that time Sallie Mae managed to compound my loans to rip me off for another $2,000.

I was so pissed off , i moved back in with my parents and hit the loans for over $1,000 per month to get rid of Sallie Mae.
So much for an HVAC job giving me independence.

I would have been better off placing the trade school bill on a credit card, although, with the last credit card changes, companies can now raise your rates when ever they want, and with a large balance, you better believe they will do it.

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The Mistake We All Make: Everyone thinks they are going to go to trade school, learn the books inside and out, then get a job with a company and prove they are a valuable employee.
Change this way of thinking.
Companies don't care.
Why? i'm not exactly sure, but what i DO know is, a company would rather go out of business than admit they need you.


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SALES BASED COMPANIES: The term "Sales" is a code word for
* Change from hourly pay to commision,
* Low pay for what you do,
* Justification for high prices
* Pressure to sell a new system rather then fix, to collect more money.
* Goodbye when the work slows down

Usually sales based companies will pay commision and drop those commision rates every few years, to the point where you find yourself working for minimum wage.

According to some business owners, these tactics are coming from companies like Carrier, in-other-words, this system is coming from the top.

Companies will hire & fire technicians on regular basis, companies don't seem to be too worried about complaints for poor workmanship from their customers.

Companies who are "always hiring", are always firing.

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The Game: In many states, bisnesses are required to tell you if they plan to hire you on a temporary basis.
Companies get around this by telling you that your employement is driving them out of business, and trying to make you think you are a screw-up so you will accept the fact they fired you.

* Running around busting your ass , and the boss says "what were you doing all day?"
* Sending you to jobs that are far away then telling you , you took too long to get there
* Any call-back percentage is too much
* Any sales numbers you pull in are not enough
* After telling you , you need to increase sales, if a customer gets mad they'll tell you , you tried to rip the customer off.
* If you fix a unit, they'll say you should have replaced it and made a sale.
* If you replace a unit, they'll say you should have fixed th unit and saved time & money.
* You work flawlessly for 6 months, then when there's a problem, the boss is happy he has something to hang you on.

The bottom line is, you made the company a lot of money and they tossd you the second things got slow.
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Unions:
You'll see a lot of guys says "Work union", "live better".
yeah , it's not that easy.

Unions are the most discriminating employment there is.
They go through you're intire histoy and give you all kinds of testing.
The bottom line is they hire who ever they want .
Some even have a question on the application that says "Who do you know who works in the union"

You could be in an area that hires only white guys.
you could be in an area that hires only black guys.

Some people spend 5 years applying for the union.
People that i know who have been hired , in Los Angeles, got dropped after 6 months.

If you get into this trade, you should apply for the union, even though it's a big waste of time for most people

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My Experiences:

I graduated trade school at the top of the class, There's never been a HVAC test i haven't aced, My tests scores were always about 98%.


Company 1) My first job was in Las Vegas Nevada.
They said they would pay me $17 per hour plus commissions.
They said they were starting a training program and they would give us additional schooling
5 other guys and i were sent to another trade scool for extra training.
I scored the highest on testing which you would think would be a good thing,
but my scores caused jealousy between me, the new hires, and the previous technicians.
The company started weekly training and testing and the new techs were scoring higher than the old ones, the older techs got together and told the company they didn't want to participate in the testing.
I worked over 60 hours in one week doing warranty work.
According to the company, $17 per hour, times, 60 hours per week, equals a $300 paycheck.
The company gave me that check, was giving me a hard time about getting parts, and scheduled me for nothing but compressor replacements, a couple per day.
I walked off the job after less than 1 year employment.

Company 2) Back in L.A. i took a job at a sales company.
This was the only HVAC company i worked at that had common courtesy.
my largest 2 week paycheck was $900 , my average check was $350.
The company's prices were so high, we didn't do a lot of work and we only sold one complete install about once per month.
They fired a guy, like he was nothing, who was doing over 1 million in business for the company, because they caught him doing a side-job.
I spent 2 years at the company , a lot more than i intended to, because time flew by because the work evirionment was pretty good.
When the companies prices went from outrageous to unbelieveable, i had to go.

* I bounced around at some small companies owned by clowns for a while.

Company 3) This company was a large nation-wide company.
Believe it or not, they didn't give me a ladder, then would get mad when i wasn't able to complete jobs.
I stuck it out for a year and half.
I made $18 per hour plus a lot of OT.
The company hired some guy who lied about his experience to be the manager.
The manager walked through the door and said he wanted to start with a new crew.
The company allowed him to fire me and several other long time employees.

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Now I'm either going to try to get into some kind of commercial job, or start my own residential company.


Conclusion:
HVAC seems to be a good field if you want to start your own small business, but it seems that if you are looking for a career, companies don't seem to want to pay for this kind of work, and it's probably going to get worse as time goes on.
Many careers are no longer paying what they used to.