“When you stop growing, you start dying.” Most people have heard this famous quote by American writer William Burroughs reminding us of the importance of growth and continually improving ourselves. The saying applies to every aspect of our lives, but especially the skills we use for our careers. The more we develop as employees, the more valuable we become to our companies, and the more companies are willing to pay us.

In a booming field like the HVAC industry, there are incredible opportunities for people just entering the job market as well as those with experience, who’ve honed their skills and are ready to move into higher-paying jobs.

If you want to improve your marketability and earning potential within the HVAC industry, you need to know what skills are sought after by employers. A 2018 survey on salaries and job growth in the HVAC industry noted that “the most significant factor in achieving higher pay is education. 61% of the HVAC-R professionals and business owners surveyed had completed some kind of professional education.”

As education and certifications accumulate from entry-level technician levels to senior management, the pay increases along the way. The same survey shows that people with an HVAC-related bachelor’s degree make 32% more money than those with only beginning HVAC certifications, but “professional education” is not limited to mechanical engineers or project managers. Certifications requiring increasing levels of expertise are available to HVAC technicians and installers to give them a pathway to more money. Whereas all HVAC techs should have the EPA 608 license for working with refrigerant systems, organizations like “NATE” offer service certifications on small heat pumps up to larger commercial refrigeration units that improve an employees earning potential by documenting their experience.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) asked Are Certifications Worth the Effort? and confidently answered, “yes.” Their article cites a study by Prometric, a provider of technology-enabled testing services, that HVAC certifications provide enhanced “reputation, credibility, and confidence” and most importantly “increased marketability” of prospective job candidates. The article goes on to point out that an HR.com survey of hiring companies found that “100% of respondents agreed that industry certifications are preferred during the hiring process.”

But technical skills and certifications are only part of what makes people good job candidates. Customer service skills including the ability to handle irate customers, work with difficult colleagues, or even how to contribute to the selling process are skills not taught in a classroom, but have a significant impact on the success of the company. Many HVAC contractors are beginning to prioritize customer service skills over technical skills during the hiring process. Speaking to HVAC industry publication the News, Angie Downey, with McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning says “customer service ability is probably more important than technical ability.” When hiring new employees, Downey comments that customer-focused soft skills make the difference in who they select for jobs. “Technical skills can be taught [but] some people are just better at communicating with people than others.” For those looking to advance in the HVAC industry, working on “relationship skills” can set you apart from those with just the technical background.

With people changing jobs five to seven times in their life, having a long-term career plan will move you towards your goals faster than those who don’t plan for the future. If you are an entry-level technician, maybe you want to be a team lead in five years. If you’re already a senior project manager, in ten years you might want to be running your own HVAC company. Without a career goal, you’ll almost certainly never get to your dream job.

As you’re making a career plan, consider how your income changes as you move up the professional ladder. The HVAC income survey cited above provides key salary information to help guide your choice of future jobs.

Interestingly, the survey indicates that “neither the maintenance tech [n]or the installers are making an above-average salary. To do that, you need to either be a manager or supervisor…” To make above-average money in the HVAC industry, your long-term goals should include taking on managerial and supervisory roles within your company. These are jobs where you oversee a team of people and take responsibility for their work. For example, you might be the leader on a large commercial duct installation, or you perhaps oversee a team of residential service technicians and coordinate their work with the service manager.

But take note, the additional responsibility of management isn’t always just offered to you; sometimes you need to ask for the opportunity for more responsibility including overseeing people and projects. If no one knows you’re looking to advance, you may never be given the chance. Success comes to those who plan and seek it out.

As the economy expands and HVAC companies scramble to fill vacancies, there is great potential for career and financial advancement. You can be part of the opportunity by improving your marketability to employers with professional certifications, showing your customer service skills, and perhaps most importantly, creating a long-term plan to get the job you want.