A 5-minute online quiz about his job was the start of an exciting, challenging and lucrative journey for Hunter Lee, the winner in the apprentice division of the first ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship.
Lee, from Breckenridge, Minn., stumbled upon the digital quiz while scrolling through Facebook.
“I just did it,” Lee said. “I didn't really know if it was an actual competition.”
Scott Kiggins said he got home early from work one day in Hamilton, N.J., saw the quiz posted in one of his trade-related Facebook groups, and took it on the spot.
“I totally forgot about it,” Kiggins said. “A month or so later, I got an email saying they’re going to send me the Round 2 stuff — and now, here we are.”
Patrick Boldt from Leipsic, Ohio, the third finalist, found out about the competition from his instructor at the University of Northwestern Ohio, who also qualified to compete in Tampa. “It was worth it to answer five minutes of questions,” Boldt said, “to see if I could actually try to win $25,000, and come down here.”
More than 1,000 people took the online quiz — with 76 advancing to an at-home second round. Judges reviewed those submissions and selected 15 apprentices and 15 professionals to compete in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 2.
For each round of the in-person competition, the challenge was kept secret until just beforehand, when the competitors are briefed on the work they’ll be performing. Round 1 for the apprentices was installing a furnace. The judges considered workmanship, proper use of tools and safety. Competitors were given one hour to get it done, with speed being the tiebreaker, if necessary.
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Lights, Camera, Action
All three of the men who made it into the final said the production crew’s lights and cameras were the most uncomfortable part of the competition.
“It's not something I'm used to,” Lee said. “I'm used to just going in and doing the work and then getting out.”
Kiggins wholeheartedly agreed.
“The competition itself wasn’t even the nerve-wracking part,” he said. “I was shaking waiting in the group of 15 for them to call the finalists. Those in-the-spotlight moments and stuff, that was crazy.
“The work is work. I do it every day. Coming in here with tools that aren’t mine in a station I’ve never seen, in a place I’ve never been, that’s the toughest part. Once you get to work, you’re working.”
Origins of Greatness
Each of the finalists found his way to HVAC in a different way. Lee got his start because his mom worked in the front office of an HVAC shop, immersing him at a young age.
Boldt found it after serving in the Marine Corps.
“I was in the military before, and I liked using my hands — so I changed from heavy equipment to HVAC,” Boldt said. “Several people in my area told me it was a really good field, and I like it.”
He used his GI bill to pay for school while he worked at the craft.
His wife, Alissa, said she was thrilled to see the finalists get the recognition they deserve.
“I’ll be honest — I couldn’t believe it for how long he’s been in the profession that he made it, but I’m just so happy for him and proud of him,” she said.
Kiggins said he discovered college wasn’t for him — and turned to the trades. He said it’s awesome that ServiceTitan, Trane, Little Giant and Intersport are supporting the trades this way.
"We go out every day not wanting recognition, and not expecting recognition,” he said. “We just do the job — but to get recognition is always nice.
"Everybody likes a pat on the back, so to get it on this scale on this level is phenomenal. Even if I fall on my face out there and walk away with $5,000, it’s the experience, and it’s been a blast.”
His fiancé, Isabella Papaccio, said she was blown away by the competition.
“I never thought I would spend an hour of my life being so focused on him doing an install and being so excited and stressed out to watch him do HVAC,” Papaccio said. “I never thought I would do that, but it really is exciting.”
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Spreading the Word
All three men said they would encourage others to join the trades.
“There's a lot of knowledge and money to be had, and it's a great career that's going to help you for years down the road,” Boldt said. “People are always going to want to stay hot or cold. And there's more than just the trades in HVAC or electricians — there's construction and auto mechanics and more.
“There's a niche out there for everyone.”
Lee agrees. “There's a lot of bonuses and perks to it,” he said. “Not just the satisfaction of doing the work, but we got a house a year ago and there's so many things that I don't need to call somebody to come and do because I have experience with it or I can work my way around figuring it out.
“There's just lots of benefits to doing the trades.”
The Short Hour and the Long Wait
The finalists said the hour in the final competition flew by. The final challenge was to set and wire AC condensers and install a UV light and thermostat better than the others — again, all under the spotlight and watchful eyes of judges and the TV cameras.
“You’d think an hour is a lot of time, but once you get going, it's not very much time at all,” Lee said, laughing.
But the wait to hear who won was excruciating.
When the names were called, Boldt walked away with third place and a $5,000 check. Kiggins claimed the second-place prize of $10,000 — and Lee hoisted the trophy and a check for $25,000.
Lee said he was glad that the trades are being put in the limelight this way and really enjoyed the whole experience.
“Just meeting all the different people, service guys, and installers from different parts of the country, and talking to them and seeing how it's done in other parts of the US,” Lee said. “It's amazing how different it is from one state to the other and East Coast to West Coast.”
Lee was also already thinking about possibly returning to Tampa—and maybe even jumping up to the pro competition—in 2023.
But for now, he gets to enjoy the spoils of his historic win.
Asked what he was going to do with his winnings, Lee took the practical approach and said, “We’ll buy a couple of toys for off time. Other than that, it's going toward the house.”
His girlfriend, Vanessa Sunderland, said they’d be celebrating too.
“He promised me a bottle of wine,” she said with a big smile.
The ServiceTitan HVAC National Championship will air on CBS Sports Network on Friday, December 16 at 8 pm ET.
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