Miguel, 63, from Brawley, California, is a Master Instructor at The Refrigeration School where he’s known as Mike around campus. He’s been with RSI for 12 years, and currently teaches Advanced Troubleshooting, Phase Eight of the EMT program. Miguel is also an RSI graduate; he graduated from HVAC school in 1987.
Thanks for your time, Miguel; when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I came from such a small town, I had no goals, no interest in anything. My dad had us in the fields working all the time. I feel bad that I didn’t have a goal or desire to do anything, but I was always working.
Please share your story with us. How did you end up coming to RSI as a student 36 years ago?
I was living in Imperial Valley, CA. I wasn’t doing anything with my life. I was working at a gas station living paycheck to paycheck. My sister moved to AZ in the late 70s because her husband was in the Air Force; he got stationed at Luke Air Force Base. She told me there was a lot of work out here. So, I moved here and went to mechanic school. I was a car mechanic for about 10 years, but there was no money in it. It wasn’t really something I wanted to do; it was just something guys did at that time.
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I could barely afford to live; I moved in with a bunch of guys. One of them was going to school to learn air conditioning. He kept telling me that there’s a lot of money in HVAC, and I should get into it. But at the time I was kind of nervous to try something new, so I kept doing what I was doing.
Anyway, years later after I was married, my wife says, “You’re not making any money, all your money is going on tools!” That was true. So, I finally went to RSI. They walked me through the school, and I really liked it because I saw how it could open a lot of different doors for me because I’d learn a lot of stuff.
What did you do after graduation?
When I graduated in 1987, I was looking for a refrigeration job, but I couldn’t find one. At that time, they wouldn’t hire a refrigeration tech unless you had experience. I offered to work for free, or for cheap. I just wanted to get my foot in the door. But because I couldn’t get into it, I went on my own. I worked for myself for a year, just doing side jobs. I made a lot of money, and I was very happy, but I wasn’t getting enough work to make it. My wife’s family is in the tile business in Sacramento, so I worked over there for a while. I made money to support my family, but I missed the business. I came back to AZ and worked for Chas Roberts Air Conditioning for 15 years; I really loved it. Then I decided to go work for myself again.
Why did you decide to work for yourself?
I saw the money you can make as a contractor! I took a second mortgage on my house to borrow $10,000 to start my own business and get my contractor’s license to do home warranty work. I tried hiring experienced guys, but I spent too much time trying to get them out of their habits. They kept going back to their bad habits. So, I hired five students that went to RSI, and I trained them. It was easy for me to train them the way I wanted them to work. I always wanted them to treat our customers the way we would want to be treated.
They learned a lot. I had five techs, two installers, three staff in an office. Anyway, it was going great, we were very happy, doing well financially and then the housing market crashed around 2008. I had to close my office and let everybody go except two guys. I kept two vans and set up an office at home. It’s funny, the business makes a lot less money, but I take home a lot more now.
What’s the biggest thing you learned from that experience?
The biggest mistake I made is that I figured because I could fix an air conditioner, I could start my own a/c company. The problem was I didn’t know anything about business. I didn’t know about overhead, about taxes. I didn’t know how to pay the tax. I didn’t know anything about business and that really, really messed me up. I regret not taking business classes. I think if I would’ve taken business classes, I would’ve had a lot more money and I still would’ve had all these people working for me. That was my biggest mistake.
Do you still have your business?
I do; I only have two guys that work for me now, and I don’t do that much work. I focus on my teaching.
Why did you decide to get into teaching?
Because of what I experienced early in my career. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of young techs out there. A lot of the older guys that have field experience don’t want to teach the younger people. I don’t know if they’re afraid they’re going to take their job or that they’re going to be smarter than them. That really upset me. I saw a lot of guys that didn’t know what they were doing out there. I felt sorry for them. I told my wife, if I ever get into teaching, I’m going to teach them everything I know.
The real motivator was my insurance was killing me. I was paying more than $500 a month. My wife said why don’t you apply at RSI? I had an interview and I really liked what I heard, and I liked their benefits! That was 12 years ago and I’m very happy. I go way beyond what I’m supposed to teach. I teach them a lot of stuff that you only learn out in the field from experience.
Tell me something most people don’t know about you.
I’m a very loving, emotional man. People don’t know that about me because I’m very tough, especially at work – call it tough love. Everybody thinks I’m mean. I tell my students on their first day in my class, “I’m going to yell…a lot. I’m going to push you, but I will never disrespect you, I will never make fun of you, but I’ve got to get you out of your comfort zone.” Sometimes you’ve got to push people to get them to wake up, to motivate them, because sometimes we don’t know what’s in us until somebody pushes us.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I’ve had students say they couldn’t stand me when they started my class; they thought I was a jerk. But then when they leave my class, they thank me. They say they’re very glad that I have the attitude I have and that I pushed them the way I did. They wouldn’t have learned as much as they learned had I not pushed them. That’s when they know I care. I actually got an email just recently from a student that graduated 10 years ago. He told me how great he’s doing, how great his family’s doing, that he’s making a lot of money and he loves his job. And that is my greatest joy; having my past students’ text or call me to say they’re making a good living; they’re supporting their family. That is my greatest joy of teaching.
I really love my students. I’ll do everything I can to help them. I even give them my phone number. I always want to be there for my students. I even told my boss, “With all due respect, I don’t work for you. I work for them. They’re my customers.” So, I treat them like customers, and I do everything I can to help them.
Tell us about your family, Miguel.
My wife Rina and I have been married for 42 years. We met cruising down Central Avenue in Phoenix. I had a low-rider, and everybody used to get together at night and just cruise, play music, park, and talk to each other. That’s how I met Rina. She was cruising with her sisters. She was from California too, and we had a lot in common. We’ve got two boys and two girls and 13 grandkids, with #14 on the way.
Great story! If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
Billy Graham, the pastor. One thing my mom instilled in us was a lot of religion, a lot of Christianity. I know that he came from a poor family, he didn’t have any riches, and he made it. He became famous, he was well off. And the bottom line is he had a lot of respect. Even people that didn’t like him had respect for him. I could see his humbleness, his love for people and that’s what attracted me most.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to new students considering RSI?
No matter what you do in life, enjoy it. Don’t think about the money. Money isn’t everything. If you make a thousand dollars an hour and hate your job, that is not a good life. It’s all about enjoying what you’re doing. The money will come, don’t worry about it. You don’t want to pick a job or career just for the money because you’re not going to be happy. Whatever you do in life, enjoy it because you only get one. When you do what you love, you won’t think of it as a job. I love teaching, I enjoy it, I don’t look at it as a job.
If you got an unexpected afternoon to yourself, what would you do with that time?
I’d spend time with my kids and grandkids. I didn’t spend as much time with them as I could have. I always worked two jobs when the kids were growing up. I didn’t want my wife working when they were young. But because I worked so much, I never spent time with them. My wife basically raised them. I was there for them, but they always went on trips without me because I was always busiest in the summer. That’s the only regret I’ve got.
What was your favorite part of your time in the field?
I tell my students that your greatest joy will be when you go to a customer’s house where nobody’s been able to fix a unit, and you fix it. Nobody can replace that. That is my greatest joy. Fixing something that nobody was able to fix and knowing that the customer’s happy and I’m happy when I’m done.
Do you have a favorite tool? Something you always had spares of.
Gauges. That’s my number one tool. I always had three gauges in my truck. I tell the guys all the time, carry at least two gauges because if one breaks, you’re really in trouble. Plus, if you’re working on two, three units, which you will be, you don’t want to be hooking up one gauge, taking it off, putting it on another unit, and then taking it off. I hated digital gauges when they came out. I never wanted to go digital because I thought I could buy two analog gauges, the ones with the needles, for the same money. When digital gauges first came out, they were $300, $400, some almost $500. I told people they were crazy; I am not buying a gauge for $500 when I can buy two regular gauges for half that price. But now that I’ve gone digital, I’ll never go back! I tell my students all the time, go with digital gauges as soon as you can.
If you were to tell someone “Thank you” for making you the person you are today, who would it be?
My wife, Rina. She encouraged me. She pushed me; the days that I wanted to quit, to give up, she was there for me. She helped me with my company. I don’t think I would’ve been able to build my company without her. She actually ran the company, she was the brains of the company, I was the labor