By Dana Simas, OPEC – Information Officer II

IMG_0327Sheet metal crunches, hammers pound, and blow torches spark in the warehouse buildings inside Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI).

Here, inmates enrolled in the heating, ventilation and air-condition (HVAC) program, who have asked themselves where their future is headed now have a clear path to success.

“You have to be at a point in your life where you’re like, ‘What am I doing? Where am I going?’ ” inmate Pierre said. “By us being incarcerated, our success rate is statistically very low. You have to put something in your back pocket so you can beat those odds.”

Inmates enrolled in the HVAC program are required to show up six and a half hours a day, Monday through Friday. Given the custodial nature of a prison, there may be days where the inmates cannot attend class. Even so, this course runs an attendance rate of more than 90 percent.

“(The inmates) want to learn.  As a teacher it doesn’t really get any better than that,” HVAC program instructor Thomas Melton said.

Inmates learn a multitude of trade skills involving air-duct installation and repair, copper welding, refrigeration, electrical, window air-conditioning units, fountains and more.

“It’s a very diverse industry,” Melton said. “You can go to work as a plumber, an electrician, but hopefully they’ll go into the HVAC industry.”

The HVAC program is one of DVI’s most successful vocational programs. Inmates have the potential to earn $20 to $25 an hour immediately after release.

One graduate of the DVI HVAC program was named “Journeyman of the Year” in the entire nation just a few years after being released from prison.

The target course completion time is 18 months, culminating in an inmate receiving a nationally recognized trade certificate from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).

“I was able to accomplish my (Environmental Protection Agency) 608 license, which you need in order to work in the industry,” inmate Frank said. “I’m very excited. Aside from this, I really don’t have a trade that I can go out and seek employment in.”

In order to earn a certificate, an inmate must demonstrate comprehensive knowledge from theory to practical application. Inmates work on small projects as prescribed in the curriculum but also have helped with HVAC projects needed around DVI.

The Employment Development Department is still saying that the HVAC industry is the number one industry in the United States through 2018, Melton said. “Even entry-level (wages) are high.”

HVAC workers should be looking at salaries of $80,000 to $100,000 a year, he said.

There is a high demand and available spots in the class fill quickly.

They learn to work independently and to practice self-motivation, but they also learn to help each other and critique each other’s work.

To help inmates with their transition back into society, the program targets inmates with 48 months or less remaining in their sentences. As they are released, those who have successfully completed the program and obtained certificates have earned jobs that pay from $25 to $87 an hour, and many also include health benefits.

“I want to be able to get a job in HVAC and make those prevailing wages and live a comfortable life,” inmate Frank said. “I have a 10-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old daughter who I’m going to be able to support financially when I get out there and give them a better life. I want to be a role model for them, be the father I haven’t been for them.”

All of the materials in the program are recycled and anything that can be used for the next project is saved. An inventory of materials and tools is conducted at least three times a day.

Due to Melton’s ties to the outside HVAC industry, he has been able to get more than $100,000 in donations for the program at DVI, including whole air-conditioning units on which inmates can practice.

“Every one of these guys that hits the street and stays out (of prison) is saving us thousands of dollars,” Melton said. “The statistics show that these programs do work. We don’t want to see them again.”