In high school, Roger Cuadra, now 40, played football and baseball and tried to wrestle and run — but he wasn’t a star student.
“High school was an adventure,” he says. “I didn’t take it seriously, to be completely honest. Even though I tried to stay on track. My family sacrificed a lot to get us here to the United States.”
Born in Nicaragua, Cuadra’s family moved to Santa Fe Springs, California as a child and later to Whittier, California.
After moving from Pioneer High School to La Serna High School after his freshman year, Cuadra faced some serious decisions.
“I hung out with some of the wrong crowds for a while, but got back on track and started focusing more on school,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, I didn’t finish school there. I had to go to secondary school and ended up that way.” In California, continuing schools are dedicated to helping students who might not otherwise graduate from high school earn their degrees.
College felt “inaccessible,” he says. “My family obviously couldn’t afford to send me to college out of pocket, so I started working right after high school.”
One of his first jobs was as a bag boy at Food For Less. He remembers making $7.25 an hour.
Today he lives in Corona, California and earns between $80,000 and $120,000 per year as a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) technician. Cuadra says he wishes he could go back in time and give his high school some guidance himself.
“My advice to a 17-year-old Roger is, ‘Stay in school and do your best,’” he says, adding, “And go to HVAC immediately.”
“I entered the job market after high school and started doing minor construction work,” Cuadra says.
“Just dead-end jobs.”
Cuadra says his professional path was shaped not least by his father driving him to work.
“My father would sometimes take me to work and encourage me to work in mechanics. He was a mechanic all his life. He is a mechanic to this day,” he says. “I think about him a lot when I’m at work – [about] those moments we shared.”
In 2009, Cuadra learned that a local HVAC distribution center was looking for a driver. He felt this was his chance to get closer to a job like his father’s.
He went to the office and filled out an application. He returned for the next five days in a row to make sure he was considered for the role.
His perseverance was rewarded. Cuadra got the job as a driver, began learning about the various parts he would provide and met HVAC technicians who began teaching him the basics of the trade.
One of the mechanics he met was named Ishmael Valdez. In 2016, Valdez started his own HVAC company called NexGen and asked Cuadra to join.
“At that time, I held back a bit. I had a safe salary. I didn’t roll the dice and immediately seized the opportunity,” says Cuadra. “Then I took the plunge and decided to take a chance to try and advance my career. I started sweeping floors. I would organize our little little warehouse we had at the time. I was responsible for delivering part of the parts for the installers that we had, that was about three to four crew members at the time.”
Over time, his new colleagues began to offer to teach Cuadra more.
“On one of my last deliveries, I had the opportunity to stay a little longer, clean up their mess, learn the tricks of the trade and what it entails – to install this equipment that I had been working on for many years. finally putting it all together, like, ‘Okay, this stuff goes here, that goes there,'” Cuadra says. “Until I finally got the chance to join a crew and be the third helper.”
In 2017, he made $55,000 as a third assistant on one of NexGen’s HVAC crews. After a year he moved up from third helper to second helper and later to chief installer and technician. Now his base salary is $80,000 but his total salary depends on the amount of business he does. Cuadra says he can make $120,000 this year thanks to commission bonuses.
“I committed myself. I would go home and watch YouTube videos,” Cuadra says. “I signed up for some classes that the town of Downey is giving, NATE certifications, have to do with air distribution, heat pumps, different types of systems that we use in industry.”
NATE stands for North American Technician Excellence, and Cuadra says these lessons, as well as an obsession with earning positive Yelp reviews, helped him climb the ladder.
“I’m proud to have a great reputation online. We have Yelp reviews that we get and that I’ve been getting since I was an installer. I didn’t really think about it at first. I just did some justice and answered all the questions from these customers. Finally, I started seeing these nice Yelp reviews. It made me feel good,” he says. “It made me take more care of my job because customer service is a big part of the process and this job.”
Cuadra usually works six days a week and wakes up around 5:30 am to go for a run.
“I like to keep myself fit,” he says. “I feel like it helps me have the energy to go through the day and deal with these 110-degree attics where we are sometimes for hours.”
He usually arrives at NexGen’s headquarters in Anaheim between 6:30 AM and 7:00 AM, often before his colleagues arrive. He uses this time to check what equipment he has in his van and replenish what is missing.
Cuadra’s first phone call often takes place around 9 am. He usually sees three to four clients a day and comes home around 9:30 pm. He estimates that he earns about $336 per day.
Summer is the HVAC industry’s busiest season, so Cuadra often takes December off.
“My girls know summer, not vacations,” he says. “Summer time for me is all about work… It’s my time to earn money, then I earn most of my annual income.”
Cuadra has four daughters and says that giving opportunities he didn’t have motivates him to increase his earnings as much as possible.
“I want to give my daughters a different life than I had. It’s not only a motivation, but it’s also very satisfying, knowing that I can do that for my girls,” he says. “What this money means for me and my family is that we have more freedom, more options and more security for my family’s future.”
“I love being able to offer.”
But beyond the money, Cuadra says he finds solace in the safety the HVAC industry provides. Due to climate change, “everyone will always want and need air conditioning,” he says.
And he prides himself on his ability to make people more comfortable.
“The most rewarding thing about this job is not just the money, but the satisfaction I get from helping these people,” he says.
“My advice to anyone delving into this industry is, stop thinking about it and just do it,” he says. “Grab that opportunity.”
Do you have a creative or non-traditional career path? We would love to hear from you! Fill out this form to be considered for a future episode of “On the Job”.
Do not miss: