Faculty Appreciation Month – Meet Monte Cunningham

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Monte, 55, from Sweetwater, TX, is an instructor at Tulsa Welding School & Technology Center in Houston. He has been an instructor for two years and teaches the commercial & residential comfort systems phases.

Thanks for your time, Monte; how long have you been in the HVAC field?

I got my EPA certification in 1993 and I graduated from HVAC school at a community college in December 1994. I started working in the field as a service tech in January 95. So, almost 30 years.

Tell us a little about your background before going into the trade.

I joined the Navy out of high school, did eight years including my time in the reserves. Based in San Diego, I did a couple of WESTPAC deployments. After I got out of the Navy full-time and went into the reserves, I started working in the oil business. I’m a Texan, so I’d always been around the oil business. I worked offshore for three years, but I didn’t care for that life. I wanted to work on land. I got sent to South America doing geophysical exploration, and I loved that. I lived down there for a few years, working in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Columbia. Then I moved back to Texas and that’s about the time I met my first wife.

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monte cunningham

How did you get involved in HVAC from the oil business?

I’d met my wife; we had three boys and I decided I needed a job where I got to stay home. I discovered I had an aptitude for HVAC. Actually, this is how it started. We had an air conditioning problem one summer. This was 1993. We were renting a house and we were paying $700/month for air conditioning on our electric bill. But our house never got below 83 degrees. Our landlady sent out one company; the guy said he had to clean the outdoor unit and add freon to the system and then drove away. The bill was $400. The next day we were still sweating, it was like no-one had even been there. We were still at 83 degrees, sweating like pigs, giving all of our money to the power company. So, we were really frustrated at this point. The landlady sent another company, and he didn’t do much good either.

One thing I noticed is that they never went into our attic. So, the third guy that came was a little more seasoned, an older guy. He actually went up into the attic. I followed him, put my head in the attic and it was 70 degrees up there. I looked around and sure enough there were two disconnected ducts. So, all of that time we’d been cooling our attic all because some duct tape had come loose. That drove me absolutely nuts. It was the simplest fix in the world. I wondered how many other people go through similar things. It was at that point I said, you know what? I want to get into this trade. I wanted to learn it. We didn’t have Google back in those days, remember. I had no clue. All I knew about my air conditioners was that they had a thermostat, the outdoor unit was noisy, and it cost a lot to run.

So that experience encouraged me to get into the trade. I went to trade school, actually it was a community college. I used my GI Bill and got my certification in 1994, immediately after that miserable summer.

Thank you for your service. As a kid, what did you want to be?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a fireman! My father was a CPA; he made me work with him in the summers. I definitely didn’t want to become a CPA and work in an office. He told me he was miserable, and I could see it in his face. From that moment on, I knew I wasn’t an office person – I liked being outside.

What made you go into teaching in 2021?

I just got too darn old. I actually suffered a mild stroke in 2014. I lost a lot of my fine motor skills in my left hand. I just wasn’t as good as I used to be. I also couldn’t handle the heat as well as I could when I was in my thirties and forties. But what I’d noticed is as I’d become a senior tech after 20 years, I found that I was constantly training the new guys that they’d bring aboard. I absolutely loved that part of the job. Training these kids how to be HVAC techs was the most rewarding experience I’d ever had. I made them talk to customers. A big part of being a good HVAC technician is mastering the soft skills. Knowing how to talk to people, being confident. The technical part will actually take care of itself over time. Turning your people skills on, and actually listening to customers is key. That’s why I’m very interactive with my students when it comes to communication. I have to get a lot of them over their shyness.


What do you like best about teaching?

Getting phone calls from my graduates that are now out in the field. They’re out there working, and they have a question. They call me up, “Hey Mr. C., I’ve got a problem, can you help me with it?” I live for that. I love that. They know exactly what data they have to give me because I’ve gone over that with them in class hundreds of times. So, they’ll have their data and I’ll say, “What could it be? What are you thinking?” I like to let them figure it out for themselves. I’ll just ask them leading questions. But to me, that is the most rewarding thing. Then of course, we catch up and they tell me how successful they are. “I just got a new truck!” They tell me what a difference coming to our school made in their lives. It sounds corny, but it’s absolutely true.

Tell me something most people don’t know about you.

I’m completely bilingual in Spanish. My students are shocked because we do get a lot of Spanish speakers in our school. When I say something in Spanish, they look at me like I’m crazy. I say, “Did I say something wrong? And they’re like, “No, we didn’t know you spoke Spanish!” They’ve been speaking it among themselves for three or four weeks, and they’re shocked to learn I understood it the whole time!

If you could choose to have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would that be.

Mick Jagger. I’m a Rolling Stones fanatic. I could sit down with Mick Jagger and shoot the breeze with him for hours! I’d talk about every song I love. I’d ask where did he get the ideas, how the hell did they write all those songs? Those guys are classic to this day. It’s still some of the best music you’ll ever hear.

Tell us about your family, Monte.

My ex-wife Deborah and I were married for 16 years. We are still the best of friends. We had three sons, two grandsons and a granddaughter. We actually lost our eldest son two years ago. He had an aneurysm; it was terrible. That was another thing that contributed to me wanting to teach young people. I just missed him, and I think that had a lot to do with it. When we lost him, I didn’t feel like crawling in attics anymore.

I’m so sorry for your loss. You get an unexpected day off, what would you do?

Depending on the weather, my first choice would probably be to go golfing. Otherwise, if it wasn’t going to be too hot, I’d pack up my truck, take my fishing pole, go get some bait, and do some shore fishing. I love playing golf and I love fishing. Those are my two all-time favorite pastimes.


What was your favorite part of the industry when you worked in the field?

Every call was a different challenge. This trade never stops challenging you. Even after 20/25 years I would still occasionally run into things that I had not seen before. I think the most rewarding part would be the ‘hero’ factor. When you’re in a house in Houston in the middle of summer and the air conditioning is not working; if you’re the person who comes to the house and fixes it, when you leave, just to look those people in the eyes and see the gratitude is as rewarding as anything can be.

I’ve also got stories that I’ll have for the rest of my life. Like the older Asian lady who was in a yard next door to a house where I was working. She told me she’d been kidnapped, asked for my help to escape! Turns out her kids didn’t want her to live on her own anymore – it was unsafe for her – and she didn’t want to live with them! Of course, there are also cat lady stories, I’ve got a bunch of those!

What advice do you have for new students just starting out at TWS?

Be confident. Don’t be afraid to make errors. Focus on critical thinking. Critical thinking is everything in this trade. I encourage my students to watch an old detective show called Colombo. He would always say, “Just one more question…” before he left. I tell them, “Put on your Colombo hat when you’re working on an air conditioning system.” You don’t want to fix something, only to get a recall two days later. That means you’ve probably lost that customer because you weren’t thorough enough. Don’t just change a part and leave. Take your time; give that customer all your attention. My biggest thing is to be as thorough as you possibly can. Take advantage of every service call you’re sent to, to do the best you can.

I understand you have a clever way to get your students some priceless real-world experience.

I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, and we’ve got a lot of family around Houston, so I’m constantly getting calls in the summertime, “Hey, can you please come look at this? I don’t know what to do.” I like to take my students along on those calls, or if one of my students lives in that general area, I’ll tell them that I’m going to send one of my students over to look at it. The students live for that. They love that. I tell them to call me when they’re there, and I’ll walk them through everything. I’ll always try to give them that opportunity, just so can get their first experience with a real live service call.

What was your favorite tool of the trade when you worked in the field?

My multi meter. 90% of our service calls, AC breakdowns, are electrical related. So yes, my multi-meter is my best friend. I’ve had that thing since 1994 and I will never get rid of it. I’ve left it in I don’t know how many attics and had to go back and get it. It’s been through hell and back and I’ll keep changing the battery, as long as it keeps giving me the data I need. It’s an old field piece, it’s my best friend!

If you could tell anyone “Thank you” for helping you become who you are today who would that be?

It would be my mother. Back when I got into this trade, people looked down on blue collar jobs. But the fact of the matter is money’s money, and if you enjoy what you do, you’ll never be unhappy. And that’s what she told me. She could tell right off the bat that I was in love with the trade. She told me not to worry about what people think. She would say, “Just enjoy what you’re doing, that’s the most important thing. The money will come.” And she was so right. I never looked at it like that. I thought you’ve got to be a lawyer; you’ve got to be a hold some fancy degree. No, you don’t. You just have to enjoy what you do and be good at what you do. If you like what you do, you’re going to be good at it. And if you’re good at it, you’ll make money doing it. That’s a fact. That was probably some of the best advice I ever had.