» TV ALERT: The ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship will air on CBS Sports Network on Friday, December 16 at 8 pm ET.
Sometimes the path to success is as simple as pursuing an opportunity.
At the 2022 ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship, the first time HVAC has been part of the Elite Trades Championship Series, that was true for more than one participant:
Mack Shwert, of Marlborough, Mass., almost didn’t compete in Tampa, he joked, because he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of the event being televised. His wife was having none of it.
Auston Pickard, of Poplar Bluff, Mo., found his opportunity in the HVAC industry through a staffing agency, but almost quit after three months because he didn’t like crawlspaces. The chance to play a totally different kind of role kept him in.
Lee Morris Jr., of Charleston, S.C., and his wife learned sign language to spread God’s word to the hearing impaired. Now he has an opportunity and a platform to send that message, and one about the HVAC industry, to a wider audience.
Ricky Curtis Jr.’s “opportunity” came because he had trouble in school when he was 11, so his father put him to work in the Marlow, Okla., HVAC company his grandfather started. Now he owns the company.
All those opportunities, and the stories behind them, made the ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship at the Tampa Convention Center an event to remember, and one to build on. ServiceTitan partnered with Trane to create the challenges for the technicians, and industry experts from ServiceTitan and Trane judged the event.
Scott Caron, who led the design of the challenges and will do color commentary on the broadcast on CBS Sports Network, said the 2022 event provided an opportunity to calibrate the competition going forward, and to promote opportunities in the trades to a wider audience.
“It was a great time,” Caron said, “The competitors, they had a lot of heavy lifting to do. We gave them challenges that were over their head, purposely, to challenge them.”
And the inaugural champion? Now he has additional opportunities—and a $40,000 winner’s check.
“He's really motivated to promote the HVAC industry,” Caron said. “He's doing something that he is passionate about. He wants to be great at it. He crossed a lot of barriers to get here, and he did it.”
More on that in a moment. First, some stories about opportunity.
» Read about the Apprentice Competition here
‘I hated crawlspaces’
Five years ago, Auston Pickard was doing factory work. And he was done with it.
“I went to a staffing agency, and I said I want no food (jobs) and no factories. And they said, ‘Well, we got this, it's called HVAC. It's not a factory, not a food. I said, OK, whatever, I'll do it.”
He almost left the HVAC industry five years ago, too—well short of the National Championship.
“Three months in, I almost quit,” he said. “I hated the crawlspaces and stuff.”
Finding out his wife was pregnant made him reconsider.
“I went to my boss and I was like, ‘Look. I'm going to be honest, I really wasn't thinking about staying.’ I said, ‘But I want to stay here and learn.’ I'm so glad I did because I wouldn't be here today.”
Once he settled on HVAC, he fell in love with the industry, and the opportunity.
“That's all I would think about,” he said. “I came in as a temporary helper for the seasonal position, and I stayed. I got hired on with the company, and that same company has trained me to where I'm at today as far as my NATE certifications. They gave me all the avenues I needed.
“I've been able to purchase a home, raise a family, and my wife stays home. It's put me in a position where I'm very comfortable and I'm learning every day.
“Anybody who can get their foot in the door, even as a helper, should do it.’
From longshoreman to the trades
Shwert had something of a home-court advantage, having lived in Tampa before moving to Massachusetts. Shwert, who does plumbing and HVAC work for HomeServe USA, grew up around the trades.
His father was a carpenter, but didn’t want his son to follow that path..
“My father was like, ‘You've got to become a plumber or an electrician,’” Shwert said. “He's a carpenter. He said, ‘Don't become a carpenter.’”
Shwert took that advice, looking for jobs in the trades on his breaks from his job as a Tampa longshoreman.
“I sat in my car every day at lunch break, calling every plumber out of the Yellow Pages, until somebody hired me,” he said. “I did plumbing, and then the plumbing company I worked for, we went to the shop one day and they said, ‘You're going to this class, get an EPA (certification). We're doing AC.’
“That was 2012. Now I do plumbing and HVAC."
That day at the shop led Shwert to Tampa, although he joked about not coming when he found out it’d be televised—and never told his bosses he was competing, taking vacation time instead.
But he’s glad he came, cameras or not.
“It was wicked cool,” he said. “That whole thing was wild. It was nice to be in your own little bubble, and just do your thing.”
Join the family business
Ricky Curtis got into the trades after having trouble in school when he was 11. His father started taking him on HVAC calls for the company his grandfather started in 1955.
“My dad said, ‘OK, you're going to work." And I went and started working with them and the rest is all history, I guess. I'm proud that I started so early, but at the same time I wish I would've taken more time and enjoyed childhood.
“But I look where I'm at right now.”
That would be owning Curtis Refrigeration, in Duncan, Okla., and competing in the ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship.
Curtis said he hoped someone would see the competition and become interested in the HVAC industry, because hiring continues to be a challenge in the industry. There is vocational training in Duncan, he said, but it’s hard to retain the graduates.
“Our town is kind of a smaller town, so a lot of them go off to the bigger opportunities, which is good for them,” he said. “It's hard to find people that want to do hard physical work.
“A lot of trade jobs go unnoticed. People don't realize what it takes to keep an air conditioner going, or what it takes to get electrical to a building and keep all that functioning. So I think this is going to be a big eye-opener for a lot of people.”
An opportunity for everyone
Lee Morris Jr. has been doing HVAC for almost 30 years, and that experience helped him advance to the HVAC National Championship final.
But it’s not all he does. He and his wife also have a sign language interpreting business, both having learned to sign about 15 years ago.
As Jehovah's Witnesses, they have been able to give a population of deaf people without traditional access a way to learn the Bible through their own language.
“Now I'm able to use (sign language) not just in helping teach them about the Bible, but also helping them in their day-to-day life—whether it's a doctor's appointment, Social Security, those going to school.”
He was motivated to learn as a child.
“When I was a little boy in Decatur, Ga., we had deaf members of our congregation, and I would watch them and they would interpret the meetings. I was fascinated by that,” he said.
“About 15 years ago, we started learning with the main goal of being able to teach the Bible. Hanging out with deaf people, that's the best way to learn the language. We had some incredible friends who were more than happy to teach us.”
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The qualifying round
The usual workplace environment for an HVAC technician is solitary. Not so with the ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship.
Cameras. A live audience at the Tampa Convention Center. Competitors. It had the potential to be unnerving.
“I've got 15 other guys around me and they're all top-notch professionals,” Morris said. “That was the thing that scared me, and it was real. The pressure was real.”
Pickard thought he might have an advantage he didn’t expect: Trane equipment, provided by the manufacturer for the competition. Pickard’s employer, Aire Solutions, is a Trane dealer.
“Once I saw (the Trane unit), I was like, OK, OK. I deal with these every day,” Pickard said. “I'm not an installer, so it's not something I do every day, but whenever I go to make repairs, I'm cutting exhaust out. I've got an exchanger I’ve got to replace, I got to rerun that exhaust. So there's little things you take from here and there.”
How would he do, though, executing those tasks against the clock?
“If you don't know what you're doing, you're not going to be able to compete,” Pickard said. “There was a lot of detail-oriented (work) and making sure everything aesthetically looks OK, but you want it to be right as well.
“Then you're looking up and it's like, Oh, 10 minutes, eight minutes, and then two minutes and then one minute—and then it's done.”
Did he finish? Almost.
“I didn't get my joints glued,” he said. “I got my pitch that I need, I just didn’t get them glued, as far as the exhaust and the intake, and I don't have them secure.
“With an hour time span, it's hard to get it done.”
Despite the quality of the work, the slightest slip could be costly. Pickard, one of the youngest competitors in the field, didn’t qualify for the final round. The title would be decided between Shwert, Morris and Curtis.
But Pickard wasn’t discouraged. Quite the opposite.
“I'm five years in this year doing HVAC, and I'm here,” he said. “I see a lot of the competitors are older than me, and I think that's pretty cool. I am one of the youngest here.
“I hope this goes on next year, because I plan on being here.”
For Pickard, and everyone else, there will be another opportunity in 2023, back in Tampa.
Here’s sweat in your eye
In the final challenge, Shwert felt like he choked.
“I put the filter dryer up backward because I had sweat in my eye,” he said. “I couldn't see what I was doing. And when I realized that, that annoyed me so I cut it out, flipped it around. I was like, oh, I just shot myself in the foot. It's over.”
Instead of giving up, he worked faster.
“I said, just fly,” he said. “Do the best you can from here on out. See how much you can get done.”
Morris and Curtis could have issues of their own.
“I didn't know how far they got until we were all done and we were looking at each others' stuff.”
Regardless, one of the main objectives was achieved, Morris said.
“This competition could, at the very least, put a spotlight on this trade,” Morris said. “I know the IDEAL Electrical Championship has done that for electrical. So I hope this will help people to see the variety of men and women that are out there competing.
“We have tall ones, short ones, older ones, you have ones that are not as old, seeing the variety of people and saying, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”
What about hearing-impaired ones?
“We have deaf who are in pretty much every profession you can imagine—doctors, lawyers, trades people,” Morris said. “So there's nothing stopping any deaf individual from becoming an HVAC technician.
“Deaf people are excellent at communicating with hearing people, despite us.”
And the winner is …
Ashley Shwert bounded across the competition floor and tearfully hugged her husband around the neck.
“I told you!” she said, echoing the optimism she maintained throughout the competition. “I believed in you more than you did!”
In a matter of days, Mack Shwert went from a sometimes-plumber-sometimes-HVAC-tech to the ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship winner, complete with a $40,000 check and a huge trophy.
Morris won $20,000 for second place, and Curtis took home $10,000 for third.
The Shwerts’ first order of business? Re-up the cable television subscription so they can watch the competition broadcast on Dec. 16 (CBS Sports Network, 8 pm ET).
He hadn’t told his boss he was coming to compete. He joked he wasn’t coming because there would be cameras and he doesn’t like the attention. And yet, he won.
“Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting into because this was the first time it's ever happened,” Shwert said. “There's nothing to reference, so I had no idea what I was getting into. And I didn't want it to be a big thing back home so I didn't really (want to tell my boss.)"
“He's going to know now.”
The future: New opportunities?
With Year 1 in the books, the excitement and anticipation for 2023 has already begun for the participants. Almost certainly, they’ll have more competition for the chance to compete in Tampa.
“Almost everyone said they can’t wait until next year,” a Principal Industry Advisor at ServiceTitan Chris Hunter who worked with Caron and Trane Technologies on the competition design, said. “They all definitely think they could do a whole lot better knowing what to expect, so it ought to be exciting for them.”
It’ll be exciting for potential HVAC employees, too, he said.
“Can you imagine these videos being shown at high schools and trade schools and things like that?” Hunter asked. “It brings a level of excitement that wasn't necessarily brought to the trades before, and it kind of showcases that. They start learning about it and then they realize, ‘I can go and learn this trade, and actually get to do this type of work, and then also make this kind of money?’ I think it'll be really eye-opening for them.”
Next year, Shwert will get a taste of what electrical competition mainstays such as Anthony Kovalchick, the 2021 winner, and three-time champ Greg Anliker got in the lobby of the competitors’ Tampa Hotel.
Pointing. Whispering. Respect.
“He'll feel like a rock star,” Hunter said. “All those guys will. I think it'll bring an extra level of excitement. If anyone re-qualifies, they'll be more comfortable because they've been there, they actually saw someone they knew, and I think they'll make new connections.”
And, like Shwert, get new opportunities. But will they be the same? Shwert considered not entering the 2023 HVAC competition. Briefly.
“I might be one and done,” he said. “I feel like it took five years off my life, worrying about it.”
But Ashley was having none of it, and Shwert quickly reconsidered.
“The whole experience, whether you win or lose or whatever, just meeting guys from across the country that do what you do is wicked cool,” Shwert said. “And everybody's on the same level. It was just a wicked cool environment.”
That’s true for other trades, too, at similar events for electricians and auto techs. Others want in on the action, Hunter said.
“It was funny, I went and posted this in some HVAC groups on social media. I say HVAC, but they were trades groups on social media, and so many plumbers joined in asking about plumbing. ‘Hey, is this going to have plumbing?’ and, ‘It's great you're celebrating HVAC, but …’"
What could these competitions mean for men and women in the trades? Companies supporting multiple technicians who enter, building recruiting and cultures around them, and a big social media presence are some possibilities, Hunter said.
“I think this thing could be huge,” Hunter said. “In the age of the influencer, think about if you're a technician and you make it to the finals or even win, think about the possibilities for tool sponsorships, people wanting you to be on their podcast, almost like a true sports superstar.
“I think we'll see a lot of people celebrated in the trades like that.”
So, what if a plumbing competition is added in the future? Shwert said he might try to win that one instead.
“Oh wow,” Shwert said. “I'll be like Bo Jackson.”
And THAT would be an opportunity.
The ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship will air on CBS Sports Network on Friday, December 16 at 8 pm ET.
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