How learning and teaching a skilled trade changed my life

Men working on air conditioning unit

My life has truly been a learning journey. Education has changed my life for the better—and I’ve been fortunate to also be able to pass along that gift to others through teaching.

My journey began when, like many young men and women, I joined the military right out of high school with no idea what life had in store for me. Returning home from the Marines four years later, I found myself with a wife and two kids to support and little in the way of skills to offer an employer. After realizing that there were good jobs available in the skilled trades area, I enrolled in an air conditioning and heating technician program at a state technical college. Three years later, I was self-employed as an HVAC service technician and earning twice my previous salary. For the first time, my family had the job stability and income to enjoy such things as a better car, medical insurance, and even an occasional vacation.

Since I had seen firsthand the results of training and education, my new goal was to become an HVAC teacher. Seven years after enrolling in my hometown college, I found myself teaching in the same HVAC program from which I had graduated. A conversation with a somewhat new student will provide you with my outlook on learning. The student, somewhat frustrated, said, “Mr. Harris, you act like just anyone can do this stuff!” My response was “Well, I suppose that there are people out there who cannot do this, but I just haven’t met them yet. Of course, I have only been teaching a little over six years.” I believe that if you set a goal and stay the course, you can achieve whatever you want.  The student did fine after this.

I continued on in my career, becoming an educational consultant and later the director of several programs at the largest technical college in the state. In all of these roles, I’ve received great satisfaction from having the opportunity to impact lives. I have watched many people move from unskilled to skilled status and enjoy the benefits that come from training and education. I enjoyed my career, and it served as an example to my two sons who have also graduated from college and gone on to rewarding careers.

My advice to young people interested in a skilled trade is to start this journey early and not wait until they are responsible for a family and a mortgage. I tell them to calculate the salary of an unskilled helper (about $10 per hour) and that of a skilled tradesperson (about $27 per hour) and see what that can mean throughout a 50-year career. Your salary will determine the lifestyle that you and your family will enjoy—the type of home, food, medical care, clothing, and so on. There is also the satisfaction that comes with being able to troubleshoot and repair systems as well as the job opportunities that come with having those skills.

Taking time to get training doesn’t have to be a hardship. Apprenticeship training programs, such as those I am now involved with through Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., can offer a trainee full-time employment and paid tuition while learning a skilled trade. Apprenticeship training in several trade areas is also offered at many high schools.

Learning does indeed make us. America needs skilled tradespeople, men and women, and the pathway is open to a better and rewarding career. What are you waiting for?

Photo of Tom HarrisAbout the Author

Tom Harris is a graduate of Bowling Green Technical College in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He received associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Kentucky University, is a certified HVAC tech (retired), a licensed technical teacher, a certified vocational school principal, and an educational consultant for Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc.