Kitty, a 40 year old woman is tired of “retail hell”. She is considering going back to school and getting an associate’s degree in HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, Air Conditioning) repair.

From Kitty:

Hi Mish,

I’ve been reading your blog for about a year now, and like your outlook and analysis. Keep up the good work! If you could spare a moment to give me some feedback, I’d be much in your debt.

I’m a 40 year old single woman with no children. I’m currently in my second year with a nation autoparts chain store, after being out of the workforce for many years dealing with my elderly parent’s medical problems. They’re stable now, and I’m looking ahead.

I don’t care to stay in retail hell ($8.63/hr, 25-30 hrs/wk), and would like to be able to live through the next 20 years without having to depend on family for support.

I’ve been looking into fields that are necessary and would be very difficult to outsource. That kind of narrows options, eh?

I’ve settled on a field that involves repairing and maintaining large immobile machinery that’s necessary for life in the Southwest: HVAC facility repair. I can get an Associates’ degree in 2 years in the field (to complement my useless BA Comm.) while continuing in retail hell to pay for it all. I would finish school with no debt.

Does this sound like a good way to keep a steady income through bad times? It has to be better than retail and there’s always a good chance of doing cash side work. Most people think A/C is magic, so it might just be good to be a magician for once!

I’d like to get a thumbs up/down, just to have an opinion from outside the friends and family echo chamber.

Keep on rocking the truth, thanks.


Dear Kitty,

That is an extremely difficult question. Bear in mind I am not a career counselor, nor do I have any in depth knowledge of HVAC other than to know what it stands for . However, I will take a shot at answering your question.

As I see it, HVAC work is tied to commercial and residential real estate. The first question that comes to my mind is: How many skilled (5-15 yrs+ experience) HVAC specialists are out of work now?

I am not trying to be sexist with the next question, but many hiring will be.

Although early 40’s is a lot better than mid-50’s, will someone hire you, 42 years old (after you get your degree), on the basis of an associate’s degree only, with no prior HVAC work experience, when you may be competing against younger men with lots more experience?

I do not know the answer to that question, but it’s a crucial one.

Let’s approach this in a generic way with a few more questions to ponder, leaving the issue of sex completely out of the question.

Will a welder out of work, retrained as a Java programmer find work as a Java programmer when there are tens of thousands of skilled programmers out of work?

Will a Java programmer retrained as a welder find work as a welder when there are tens of thousands of skilled welders out of work?

While both are possible is either likely?

To a great degree, success will depend on your attitude (you seem to have the right one), luck (an unknown factor), a rebound in demand for HVAC (unknown), local conditions (known but varying and subject to change).

In aggregate, taking everything into consideration, those seem like tough odds, not impossible but very tough.

Do I think you should try?

That is a harder question yet. If it would bankrupt you to try and fail, then no. However, your email indicates that you can weather the storm.

Still there is one last point for you to consider. Doing something for money is seldom the road to success. If possible, find something you want to do and pursue that. If HVAC maintenance and repair is what you really want to do, then go for it. If you selected that line of work simply because it pays more money, then don’t.

You may also consider auto repair, nursing or other health care professions. I suspect that nursing or health care professions would have the highest odds of success, but I can easily be wrong.

Here is the key that only you can answer: Whatever you pursue, make sure it is something you really want to do. Otherwise it may take you years to land a job only to find yourself in “another hell” shortly after you are hired.

Don’t trade one hell on earth for another. Life’s too short to be doing something you hate doing.

Good luck to you.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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