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On the Job: What It Takes to Earn $80,000 as an HVAC Tech in Corona, California

In high school, Roger Cuadra, now 40, played football and baseball and tried wrestling and track — but he wasn't a star student. 

"High school was an adventure," he says. "I didn't take it seriously, to be completely honest. Even though I was trying to stay on the right track. My family did sacrifice a lot to bring us out here to the United States."

Born in Nicaragua, Cuadra's family moved to Santa Fe Springs, California, and later, Whittier, California when he was a child. 

After transferring from Pioneer High School to La Serna High School after his freshman year, Cuadra faced some serious decisions. 

"I was hanging out with some of the wrong crowds for a little bit, but got back on track and started focusing more on school," he remembers. "Unfortunately, I didn't get to finish school there. I had to go into continuation school and finish off that way." In California, continuation schools are dedicated to helping students who may not otherwise graduate from high school get their diplomas.

College felt "inaccessible," he says. "My family obviously couldn't afford to send me off to college out of pocket. So that's why I joined the workforce right after high school." 

One of his first jobs was as a bag boy at Food For Less. He remembers making $7.25 an hour. 

Today, he lives in Corona, California and earns between $80,000 and $120,000 per year working as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technician. Cuadra says he wishes he could go back in time and give his high-school self some guidance. 

"My advice to a 17-year-old Roger is: 'Stay in school and do the best you can,'" he says, adding, "And get into HVAC immediately."

Getting the job

"I joined the workforce after high school and started doing little construction jobs," says Cuadra.
"Just really dead-end jobs."

Cuadra says his professional path was shaped in no small part by his father taking him to work. 

"My dad would sometimes take me to his job and he encouraged me to get into mechanics. He was a mechanic all his life. To this day he's a mechanic," he says. "I think about him a lot when I'm working — [about] those moments that we shared." 

In 2009, Cuadra heard that a local HVAC distribution center was looking for a driver. He felt that this was his opportunity to work his way closer to a job like his father's.

He went into the office and filled out an application. He returned the following five days in a row to make sure he was considered for the role. 

His persistence paid off. Cuadra got the driver job, began learning about the different parts he would deliver and met HVAC techs who began teaching him the basics of the trade.

One of the mechanics he met was named Ishmael Valdez. In 2016, Valdez started his own HVAC company called NexGen and asked Cuadra to join. 

"At the time, I kind of held back. I had a secure paycheck. I didn't roll the dice and take the chance right away," says Cuadra. "Then, I took the leap and decided to go and take a chance to try and advance my career. I started sweeping floors. I would organize our small little tiny warehouse we had at the time. I was responsible for delivering some of the parts for the installers that we had, which was about three to four crews at the time." 

Over time, his new coworkers began offering to teach Cuadra more. 

"On one of my last deliveries, I got the opportunity to stay a little longer, clean up their mess, learn the ropes a little bit more and what it consists of — of installing this equipment that I had been around for many years. I finally started putting everything together like 'Okay, this stuff goes here, that goes there,'" says Cuadra. "Until eventually I got the opportunity to join a crew and be the third helper."

In 2017, he earned $55,000 as a third helper on one of NexGen's HVAC crews. After one year, he rose from third helper to second helper and later, to lead installer and technician. Now his base salary is $80,000, but his total salary depends on the amount of business he does. Cuadra says he can expect to earn $120,000 this year thanks to commission bonuses.

"I dedicated myself. I would go home and watch YouTube videos," says Cuadra. "I enrolled myself into some classes that the city of Downey provides, NATE certifications, having to do with air distribution, heat pump units, different types of systems that we use in the industry." 

NATE stands for North American Technician Excellence and Cuadra says these classes, as well as an obsession with earning positive Yelp reviews, helped him climb the ladder. 

"I take pride in having an excellent reputation online. We have Yelp reviews that we get and that I've been getting since I was an installer. At first, I didn't really think too much of it. I was just doing what's right and answering any questions these customers had. Eventually, I started seeing these nice Yelp reviews. It made me feel good," he says. "It made me take care of my position more because customer service is a huge part of the process and this position." 

A day on the job

Cuadra typically works six days per week and wakes up around 5:30 a.m. to go for a run. 

"I like to keep myself fit," he says. "I feel that it helps me have the energy to last all day and to deal with these 110-degree attics that we're in sometimes for hours."

He typically arrives at NexGen's headquarters in Anaheim between 6:30 and 7 a.m., often before his coworkers have arrived. He uses this time to check what equipment he has in his van and restocks what is missing. 

Cuadra's first call often happens around 9 a.m. He typically sees three to four clients each day and gets home around 9:30 p.m. He estimates that he earns around $336 per day. 

Summer is the HVAC industry's busiest season, so Cuadra often takes time off work in December.

"My girls know summertime, no vacations," he says. "Summertime is all about work for me…  It's my money-making time, that's when I make the majority of my yearly income." 

Some of the Cuadra family.
Some of the Cuadra family.

"I love being able to provide"

Cuadra has four daughters and says giving them opportunities he didn't have motivates him to increase his earnings as much as possible. 

"I want to provide my daughters a different life than I had. Not only is it a motivation, but it's very rewarding, knowing that I am able to do that for my girls," he says. "What this money means for me and my family is that we have more freedom, more options, more of a sense of security for my family's future."

"I love being able to provide."

But beyond the money, Cuadra says he finds comfort in the security that the HVAC industry offers. Due to climate change, "everybody's always going to want and need air conditioning," he says. 

And he finds pride in his ability to make people more comfortable. 

"The most rewarding thing about this job is not only the money, but just the satisfaction I get when I help these people out," he says. 

"My advice to anybody that's looking into this industry would be 'Stop thinking about it and just do it,'" he says. "Take that chance."

Do you have a creative or nontraditional career path? We'd love to hear from you! Fill out this form to be considered for a future episode of "On the Job."

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