Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Meet Jamie Christensen. Jamie, aka @northwest_hvac, is a commercial journeyman HVAC service technician who has worked in the trades for two decades since earning his associate’s degree in HVAC from UTI in Phoenix AZ in 2002. After starting his career in the residential/light commercial space, he joined the union 8 years ago to pursue working on bigger equipment and to diversify his knowledge – which includes working on everything from ductless split serving an elevator machine room to a chiller serving an entire building. When he’s not laser-focused on his various projects, Jamie shares his extensive experience and tips through his Instagram, where he engages with his followers and HVAC community that has grown to feel like family. Inspired by his passion for HVAC and the importance of unions, Jamie founded Blue Collar Crew, a clothing company created to support American jobs, with every item made in the USA and printed by union members.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
When I was younger, I was always mechanically inclined, like working on my own car and stuff – but not great. When I was going to high school, I was in AutoCAD drafting class. A Universal Technical Institute recruiter came to my parents house, and he was like, “Can you really see yourself sitting on a computer for eight hours a day?” I thought “No, that actually sounds miserable.” He goes “What do you think about HVAC?” I just thought back to when I was a kid and teenager, and I always was super curious on how a refrigerator or an air conditioner worked. I thought I was gonna go to school for something completely different… I never thought of HVAC as a career. I was just a curious kid. But I went to UTI and got my associates degree in HVAC.
What’s your favorite part about your trade?
I have a lot! If I had to choose one thing it would be wiring and diagnosing electrical issues. I get so focused when I’m doing that stuff – I don’t sit there and look at the clock and be like, “Oh, man, I still got three, four hours.” Next thing I know, I’m like, “Oh, sh*t, work’s done!” I think my favorite is problem solving.
Every trade has its own subculture. What would you say is unique to your specific trade?
I truly feel like HVAC technicians are king of the trades, because we’ve got to know electrical, we’ve got to know plumbing, we’ve got to know AC, we’ve got to know heating – there’s so many different pieces of HVAC equipment to work on. Some people get pigeonholed and work on the same stuff, but I’ve been blessed enough in my career where I’ve worked on so many different style types of systems: chillers, VRF, ductless, and packaged units. I really enjoy this trade, and the people I associate with have the same feel and outlook on the trade – and they take it seriously. They’re not these hack technicians that are just gas-and-go type and throwing parts – we really want to know what happened, what’s wrong, why it went wrong to prevent future breakdowns. It’s just a very strong community.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
I think it’s really more mental. We do have a lot of physical work, but to be mentally strong is probably the most important because we have to troubleshoot complex systems, whether it’s on the refrigeration side of things, or electrical side of things, like, it’s, it’s hard. There’s days where I get home from work and my body’s not tired, but my brain is. I’m mentally exhausted, because you’re just playing all these scenarios over in your head. I’m thinking about it 24/7 – if I screwed up on a job, I didn’t figure something out, or I figured it out but I wasn’t 100% sure of why something happened. It’s hard for me to shut off my brain. It’s probably the type of person I am – hyper-focused – but also with this trade. Every employer I’ve ever worked for, I tell them: I’m not the fastest guy – you’re not hiring me for speed, I’ll tell you that. I can be fast depending on what it is, but I will do the job right the first time. I will spend extra time to be 100% sure so I know I did my job thoroughly and I’m not going to get a call back the next day like, “Hey, it’s broken again.” I’m really thorough on everything I do. Even if it’s a simple thing. I just always want to be 100% sure, because callbacks are the worst thing for a company. They happen to the best people, but if you can limit that stuff, it’s a huge win for you, the customer, and your company.
What do the trades mean to you, and what important lessons have you learned while working in the trades?
I definitely think it’s getting better, and that may just be my perspective, because I’m getting into it further. I’m It means everything to me, because this trade gives me a really bountiful living and provides for my family, but specifically being an HVAC service technician… we provide comfort. It’s very important. As it gets hotter, especially after the heat wave this year in the summer we’ve had so far, more and more people are realizing we need air conditioning. Whether it’s heating or cooling, you’re needed. When people have a problem – whether it’s in the winter or the summertime – and you fix their problem, you feel you just feel like a king. Everybody’s just so happy – they high five you and they’re like, “You’re the man!” It feels so good to make people happy by just doing your job. I’ve never been the type of person to just be comfortable with where I’m at. I’ve always set goals and work towards those goals. I switched companies a couple years ago to help build a service department, but I was super unhappy with the work I was doing. I had a good job and a good company prior to that, but I took a risk because I had a good opportunity to go be a foreman for these guys and help them build the service department. So I took a risk and it ended up not being worth the money. Part of what made my decision was money – it’s 10% over scale. Well… money can’t buy happiness. I was making more money, but I was miserable. Finally, I left that company and took a pay cut, but I’m so much happier.
What are your thoughts on the state of the trades right now industry-wise?
I think it is getting better. I got into the trade when technology was kind of getting to that point where the industry was transitioning into more efficient equipment like variable speed motors and compressors, and it’s advancing with all the VRF especially. You’ll talk to a lot of guys that don’t have any VRF experience, so you could put them on a project and they would have no idea what they’re looking at. Things are getting more efficient and more green. I think some equipment can be over engineered, but the technology’s there. Especially for the younger generation, because they’re more computer literate. When I got into the trade, we had pagers and Nextel cell phones – like big old yellow and black brick Nextel and the Thomas guide, flipping through pages trying to figure out what road to take to get here. Now it’s so convenient with GPS… just plug it in, set our phone down, and watch it go. These young guys don’t even know what a Thomas guide is. It’s funny. With this trade, things are evolving so rapidly. You have to stay up on continued education and watching videos. I think the worst feeling is not knowing something on a piece of equipment. You don’t really need tech support on a lot of things, because you just go on the internet and Google this model number, and you can find the install manual and all the service facts. If you’re smart enough, you could figure it out. We didn’t have that when I got into the trade – I was thrown in the trenches taking grenades.
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
Always read and research manuals or pieces of equipment, but probably one of the biggest things is don’t be afraid to ask questions. A lot of people have an issue with just saying “I don’t know” or “I’m not comfortable with that.” It’s a pride thing. They don’t want to look stupid. I never had that problem. I felt that problem – I thought, “why am I in this trade?”, but I don’t have so much pride where I wouldn’t call somebody and be like, “Hey, dude, I’m stuck,” or “Can you help me?” It’s totally okay to not know. This trade specifically, you’re never gonna know everything – it’s not possible. You’re not going to know every piece of equipment or every manufacturer.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
I’ve got a son, he’s almost two years old. When I get off work, I really miss him and my wife. I’m a family guy, so a lot of my free time is focused on being a dad. I do like to play some video games and do outdoor stuff – camping, shooting guns, fishing, and stuff like that. Ever since we had our son… about three or four months before COVID, he got really sick. At seven weeks old, he got RSV, so we were already kind of quarantining before COVID hit, and then COVID hit and we were quarantining for a year. Now we’ve been back at the gym and living a normal life. The last two years were pretty rough, but we’re getting back into it.
Our thanks to Jamie for making time to share his story and industry insights with us.