“Wild Bill” Sharpless says he’s done some crazy things in his life, which have earned him the moniker. He calls himself a “two-wheeler” because he has ridden his Harley every day, rain or shine, since 1996. He even worked for Harley-Davidson for a while, but for the past year and a half, Sharpless has been riding his motorcycle to Florida Academy, where he teaches HVAC.
“[When I worked for Harley] I was taking a break from HVAC,” Sharpless says. “That’s the beauty of HVAC. You can take a break and then get back into it.” A chance meeting at a party through a mutual friend resulted in his re-entry into the field. When Sharpless mentioned his many years of experience in HVAC, the new acquaintance told him that Florida Academy was looking for a nighttime instructor. “He asked me, ‘Is that something that would interest you?’ And I thought, wow, what a great opportunity!”
Sharpless, who had been a commercial service technician, says, “When I was a service tech in the field, I was pretty much working by myself, so it was kind of my own thing. Now with this, I get to be a counselor and instructor, and it’s everything all rolled up into one.” The program is 684 hours – about six months – and runs from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday, with 15 to 20 students per class. “We have another teacher at nighttime that helps me, that takes the students to another level,” he continues. “I get them through the fundamentals, and then he takes over with the higher area.”
Florida Academy offers a 210-hour day course that is really unique. “We bring in veterans who have just finished their military tour, and they have VA benefits to pay for their education,” Sharpless says. The school flies vets in from around the country, puts them up in a nearby hotel and gives them four weeks of training. “We teach them all the fundamentals, and then we help them get a job wherever they’re going back to – at least we get them interviews and things,” he says. “It’s really awesome. It’s a great program.”
For all students, including nonveterans, hands-on learning is a huge part of the training, which covers both air conditioning and heating. “I personally try to do a 20/80 mix – 20 percent on the books and 80 percent hands on,” Sharpless says. “It’s just too hard to learn this business when you’re sitting in a chair, reading it out of a book. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, so we try to go over it and then go right into the lab.”
“I love the passion of the students,” Sharpless says, “and then there’s that little turning point when suddenly they get something.” For those who do “get it” and know they want to make a career out of HVAC, jobs are plentiful. “The outlook is phenomenal,” he says. “We have almost every single contractor in this town – in Fort Myers – calling us every day, asking us if we have a sharp student to get started already.” Many students start working within the first week or two of training. “What our contractors here like about it is that because they’re going to night school, they’re already making a commitment to the field,” he says. “You’re coming at nighttime for four and a half hours. You’re away from your family, so that’s a big sacrifice.”
Once students complete the program and earn their certifications, they’re qualified to do almost everything in HVAC. “Most of them get started in doing installation because it’s a good way to see how it’s all put together,” he says. “They do that for a while, and then some of them switch over into maintenance, where you’re going in and taking readings and changing filters and greeting customers. That will lead into service.”
There’s a tremendous variety of jobs graduates can do in HVAC: estimator, salesperson, office manager, project manager, lead technician, lead installer and more. “What I did when I started was I got into transport refrigeration, so everything that has to be transported has to be cold,” Sharpless says. “Then I got into grocery stores. Your grocery stores, your restaurants – all that commercial stuff – run 24/7, so that all has to be fixed. It is a monstrous field.”
Salaries are not bad either. “They’re usually starting about $15 an hour with no experience. Within six months, most of them are around $18 an hour, and then the sky’s the limit. I’ve heard up to $45, $50 an hour. You get 10 years in this business, and you’ll be at $40 or $50 an hour.”
However, not all people get into the field for the money or for a long-term career. Some do it just for their own benefit. “In my class now, I have a person who owns a 7-Eleven, and he’s actually taking this course so he can understand when the people are talking to him if they’re giving him the right story,” he says. “We also have several students who are working for a family AC company, so they’re already working in the field; they’re just coming to get more knowledge.”
About 99 percent of students complete the program, and Sharpless says several things contribute to the program’s success. The school pushes customer service skills. “You can be a really good technician, but if you can’t talk to a customer, you’re not going to be doing anything,” he says. Another plus is the communication between staff and students. “We stick with the kids. We don’t just drop them – OK, great, you finished the program. See you later. All four of us instructors always have our phones on 24/7. They always have contact with us at all times.”
For Wild Bill Sharpless, the opportunity to teach at Florida Academy has been better than he could have imagined. “Helping students get a job in the field and then hearing from them all the time and helping them along the way, it’s just incredible,” he says. “It’s just a great place to be. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, HVAC technician employment is expected to increase by 15 percent through 2026. If you think an HVAC career may be for you, contact Florida Academy today. New classes begin several times a year.