Graduate Connections – Meet Christopher Small

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Christopher, 35, from Jacksonville, Florida, graduated the nine-month Electro-Mechanical Technologies program at Tulsa Welding School in Jacksonville in June 2022.

Thanks for your time, Christopher. What did you do before coming to Tulsa Welding School?

After high school I went to college for computer drafting and design. I got my associate degree and then I went on to get my bachelor’s in Business Administration. Then I went to University of Phoenix for my MBA.

At 22, I joined the U.S. Army. I did logistics in the military for 12 years. I got out just as COVID hit and I was out of work. The VA came up with the VRRAP program – Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program. It’s a reintegration program that provided access to education/training for high-demand jobs to veterans who are unemployed because of COVID-19. Tulsa Welding School and their programs are eligible, so the VA paid for me to go to school, they paid for the whole program.

Thank you for your service. Why did you choose HVAC/R as a career?

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I joined the program basically because of my brothers. My oldest brother is a mechanical contractor; he has his own business, and my other brother is also in HVAC. I guess part of the attraction was wanting to understand the family business! I actually didn’t want them to know that I was doing the program because I wanted to surprise them, but midway through the program, I guess it slipped out. My brother came to the house and saw my refrigeration book on the table. That’s how he found out.


Did you have any HVAC experience at all?

My brother had taken me on a couple of job sites to see what the business was about. I had some exposure, but no experience. He’s in Orlando and I’m in Jacksonville. I was pretty green when I started.

What did you enjoy most about your time at Tulsa Welding School?

I would say the hands-on time. I’m a theory guy. I love the theory behind HVAC. I love understanding how the whole process works, but the actual hands-on time, allowing me to have an opportunity to troubleshoot a system, and the opportunity to actually hold a torch and actually braze, stuff like that. Those are great skills to have going into the job market. It makes you very marketable. It’s pretty much how I got my position at my job.

How did you get on with the program? Was it tough?

There were a lot of mixed emotions. There were some days when the concepts of just rolled naturally, and then there were days when it was more challenging. Those were the days when I had to do a little extra research, watch a couple of YouTube videos to make sure I actually understood the concept of what was going on. But by then I had my brothers as a resource too. Once I told them I was in the program, I’d go over some of the stuff that we were doing in class, and they’d give me their insight.

So, are you working?

I stayed off work for July and August, then I found my job in September. I work for Chaddock Refrigeration here in Jacksonville.

When you were ready, how did you find the job?

I am a strong proponent of networking. It was one of those “through the grapevine” deals that led me to find out about the company. I reached out to the service manager. He invited me in for an interview and we went from there.

Tell us more about the role.

Their specialty is refrigeration, but they also do commercial and industrial HVAC. I’m a service technician; they don’t separate it, so I work on both sides of the house. I’m still in the training process, but my trainer and I typically do four jobs a day—two refrigeration jobs, two HVAC jobs. I’m happy with that, as it gives me the opportunity to have that mix, a blend to keep me well rounded. Refrigeration might be working on chillers in a grocery store, while HVAC could be figuring out an AC or heating issue.

What do you enjoy more so far, from your exposure to both sides of HVAC/R?

I would say the refrigeration side.

What’s your career plan from here, work with your brothers one day?

Right now, with the current company I’m with, I want to see myself progress. I want to take the top job! I am definitely going to do all the work and take the necessary steps to progress myself in the field. My brothers don’t work together currently, but maybe one day we’ll eventually all join forces.

That’s cool. What do you enjoy most about your new trade?

I actually love two things. One is brazing. I love handling the torches and brazing those capillary lines. And then two would be the customer service, helping people. When I arrive at a job site and see the customer is frustrated and upset that their system is not working, and then we go fix it. Just having that satisfaction of knowing that you’re going to put a smile on their face before you walk out the door. I enjoy that.

Talk to us about money and starting over in a new field.

I’m going in at entry-level. I know that the longer that I’m in it, eventually I’m going to make more money when I have more experience. So, I went in with the mentality of knowing that I had to start at the bottom and work my way up.

What class did you do?

I did the evening class. I worked during the day cleaning Airbnbs. I will say that my class started out with maybe 15 people, and by the end we were down to four. On day one at orientation, they said look to your left, look to your right. The person to your left or right might not be here with you at the end of your program. Just be prepared. They’re very honest and transparent about that.

Why do you think that is?

Life situations. Some people let life get in the way of their dreams. For others it was discipline. They didn’t have the discipline to want to stick it out. It’s a tough program. The time you’re there, you’re supposed to have the equivalent of being in the field for two years. Basically, they give us two years’ worth of information in seven to nine months.

Did you make some connections at school, people you want to stay in touch with?

Yes, I did. I mentioned already that I’m a big proponent of networking. One of the guys who was actually in one of my last classes, he’s still in school now. His first class was Solar, and that was my second-to-last class. So, he’s still in the program now, but once I got onto my job, I hit him up because they were still hiring. I was like, “Hey, I know that you’re still in school, but I have this opportunity for you to help your family. You’ll have insurance and all that stuff.” I got him on, so he’s my coworker now and he’s got two more months of school to go.

What advice would you give to students considering Tulsa Welding School?

Show up every day, show the dedication to see it through, and have the discipline to finish.

If you’re a TWS graduate and would like to share your success and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), program, and campus name (Tulsa/Jacksonville/Houston). 

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