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Veterans turned students find an oasis in RCC’s HVAC program

More and more veterans are making the decision to return to the classroom as they transition from a life of service in the military to life as a civilian. Education tends to be key in ensuring a smooth transition, providing opportunities for retooling, networking, and forming lasting friendships with classmates while reinforcing the same values they gained on duty.

That’s the case for Private First Class David Bethea, Specialist Parker Pickard, and Sergeant First Class Kimberly McMillan. All three are enrolled in the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration program at Robeson Community College, an oasis of opportunity that they hope will take them far.

“I love learning new things every day,” stated Bethea, who served at Ft. Lee in Virginia and Ft. Carson.  “The transition was pretty easy, I was taught discipline and how to work hard, so starting back to school came pretty easy as well.”

For Pickard, who served for 5 years and was stationed at Ft. Bragg, enrolling in HVAC was an opportunity to do something different.

“I worked for a year at the VA and I hated working a desk job,” Pickard said. “I thought the trades were something I would like to do; my cousin was working in heating and air and he pointed me to RCC.”

SFC Kimberly McMillan served a total of 21 years in the United States Army.

“I didn’t get to complete a degree when I was in the Army, so I started working on a degree when I got out,” McMillan said. “RCC had a lot of different programs that I was interested in. I earned an associate’s here in criminal justice and decided to come back here for the HVAC program.”

Why HVAC? For McMillan, it was a simple experience.

“My unit broke at home and I like knowing how things work and how to fix it,” McMillan said. “I found this to be interesting… I like more hands-on stuff and I would love to work for myself one day, be my own boss.”

That’s a sentiment that Bethea and Packard also share.

“I hope to get a job in HVAC, learn the ropes, and then branch off and start my own business,” Bethea said. “This is a great school with great instructors who have a lot of experience to share, so you learn as much as you possibly can.”

“I would really like to get my contracting license and start my own business too,” said Pickard. “The HVAC program is amazing. You get hands-on learning and such a good foundation for HVAC… you come to school, but it’s like you’re working for a company and the whole time you are here is to teach you how to work for that company. It’s great.”

The opportunities in the HVAC industry are endless, according to RCC’s Lead Instructor, Timothy Bryant, who also happens to be a graduate of the program.

“There is a lot of opportunity in the industry and the HVAC pay grade keeps going up,” said Bryant. “HVAC is not just residential, there are many opportunities on the commercial side and in industrial plants.”

Those opportunities include becoming a service technician, refrigerator tech, installation technician, or owning a business as a licensed contractor.

Pickard is already working in the industry as a service technician for Southern Heating and Air in Lumberton.

“I go out and fix and repair residential and some commercial heating and air units,” Pickard said. “I’m trying to learn as much as I can while I am at Southern.”

Technicians in the HVAC field are in high demand, partly due to a shortage of skilled labor.

“There is a huge skills gap because a lot of people when they think of HVAC, they believe they will be stuck in an attic or crawlspace, and that’s simply not true,” stated Bryant. “HVAC is not a physical job, but a mental one.”

Bryant says that he has seen the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration program at RCC grow substantially in recent years.

“The last five years we went from 8 students to 35 in the program,” Bryant said.

Much to his surprise, he says the program grew the most during the pandemic.

“Enrollment picked up during COVID,” Bryant said. “We offer a flexible schedule that includes blended and hybrid classes, so we only see students during the labs.”

By providing lectures online, Bryant says that it has given students the flexibility they need to plan out their schedules. It also allows the program to offer more classes per semester.

“Some of our students take day and night classes and they are able to finish quicker,” Bryant said. “Our students enrolled in the night classes can finish in just a year and a half.”

Bryant also attributed making the classes more accessible to being part of the reason he is seeing more veterans enroll.

“We have a lot of ex-military,” Bryant said. “Our program at Robeson Community College is known for having smaller classes and a team atmosphere, which makes it appealing.”

Students enrolled in the program learn how to install and troubleshoot heating and air conditioning units, the theory of refrigeration, and preventative maintenance.

The program offers an associate degree and three certificate programs, as well as a certificate program for high schoolers enrolled in the Career and College Promise program. After completion, students can opt to transfer to a four year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree and beyond, which is something Bryant did.  

“I had the time, and through Heating and Air Conditioning I had the money, so I decided to invest in myself,” stated Bryant, who will be completing his degree in Industrial Electronics at ECU this December. “Having been in the program, I can encourage other students to go in the same path.”   

With 25 years of experience in the industry, Bryant says, “I try to get students as close as possible to what they will run into in the field, so they will know what they need to know when they leave here.”

Part of what brings Bryant joy is seeing how far his students have come.

“One the first day, many of these students didn’t know how to read a volt meter, and now they actually know how to troubleshoot a wiring diagram,” Bryant said. “It’s amazing, they have the confidence now, many are opening their own units and giving it a shot troubleshooting, and they are buying their own tools.”

“Students know that you can work anywhere in the United States after completing this program,” Bryant said. “In the last semester, you can work and go to school at the same time.”

Bryant says that graduates leave making on average $15-$16 per hour.

“But that they don’t stay there long,” Bryant says. “They will be making $15-$25 in two years, most will be at $30 in a few years.”

For Bethea, Pickard and McMillan that’s welcome news, but the best part about HVAC they say isn’t the money.

“I really want to set my own hours and be able to work for myself,” Pickard said. “I don’t want to stress out about being late to work, and things like that, especially after having been in the military.”

“Becoming your own boss, you can set your own schedule 24/7,” McMillan added. “HVAC is a very challenging program. If you want to become your own boss, you like hands-on experiences, come to RCC because there are a lot of opportunities… RCC is the place to be.”

To learn more about the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration program at Robeson Community College, please contact the Lead Instructor Timothy Bryant at or 910-272-3473.


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