Curtis, 55, graduated the nine-month Electro-Mechanical Technologies (EMT) program at RSI in 2016. Curtis is a member of the Navajo Nation tribe and is originally from a small community called Wide Ruin, Arizona, north east of Holbrook. Today Curtis resides and works for himself in Kayenta, Arizona.
Thanks for sharing your story, Curtis. What brought you to RSI at 50?
I wanted to refresh my skills and update my credentials. Although I’ve been in and around construction since about 1987, it’s been a while since I went to school.
So, you have experience in this field?
I actually went to a refrigeration school (UTI) right after high school in 1987. I’ve always been around electrical, plumbing, mechanical systems, working with my hands. I’ve always been around boiler systems, refrigeration units. Playing with mechanical systems was my hobby, it still is! But for work I spent my younger days welding and pipefitting.
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Why did you not continue with an HVAC/refrigeration career back then?
In those days the refrigeration business was not a big deal on the reservation. We didn’t do HVAC on the reservation because we didn’t need it with the climate back then. So, to earn money I had to go into a different field unless I wanted to stay in the city to work in refrigeration. I went into welding and pipefitting. I did a lot of traveling in my younger days. I moved back here from Phoenix in 2005.
What changed to make you come back to HVAC and refrigeration?
I wanted to come back because this was my career goal out of high school. Things have changed big time in the last 30 years. Because of climate change, there is more demand for HVAC on the reservation now than there was 30 years ago. The weather is a lot warmer than it used to be. People were starting to ask for HVAC and I thought, “I know how to do that!”
I knew I needed to go back to school to refresh my memory and update my credentials in freon and all that stuff. That’s what brought me to RSI. I am now able to help my people, my tribe. I don’t charge as much as people coming from Phoenix to install duct work, refrigeration, or heat pumps. I’m introducing the idea of all this stuff to them. It’s been great for me, and I’ve been really successful. I’m busy 24/7.
What did you enjoy most about RSI?
I really enjoyed getting updated on everything, learning what was new, what was old. I also enjoyed being more focused, paying more attention than I did last time I was in school 35 years ago! I took it a lot more serious than I did then. I understand why things works now. RSI taught me how to do things right, and how to troubleshoot things correctly, to understand why something isn’t working, not just how to fix it.
So, you have your own company now?
Yes, I’ve had my own company on the reservation since 2010. The business is called Toh Den Nas Shai Electric-Plumbing. I almost gave up soon after I started. I wasn’t sure if it would take off, but after a while everybody got to know me, and pretty soon everyone was calling me. I’ve built a good reputation. I do refrigeration for business and restaurants, help people with HVAC, solar, plumbing, duct work. I do electrical wiring for new homes. A lot of the government jobs need somebody certified. I’m certified through RSI, so I’m good to go!
That’s awesome. What do you enjoy most about this trade?
I like meeting different people. Every day I get to go to a new place, meet new people, and help them. When I fix something, I see the smile on my customer’s face and that gives me the most pride. I love what I’m doing; I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. This career has helped my family a lot; my kids, my sisters, and brothers…my whole family. I have accomplished a lot. I became successful and I’m proud of it.
You have employees?
I have five guys working for me and I have four service trucks on the road. I’ve also got some heavy equipment. None of this would be possible without going back to RSI.
Why do you say that? With your experience, what did RSI give you?
It gave me a lot of confidence in myself. In the past I always worked for other people because I wasn’t sure if I could do things on my own. I had to have a supervisor, someone to be able to turn to and say, “Is this done right?” I had doubts in myself. But now, having gone back to RSI to refresh my skills, being more serious about it, and learning more about the field, I have full confidence in myself. I’m not scared of facing any contractors out there because I can tell them if something is wrong or right. It made everything easier.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy about having your business?
This computer stuff is all new to me. But I had to learn it because running a business I have to do invoices, proposals, scope of work documents. My wife does my bookkeeping and a lot of my typing! I hate being at a desk and doing that kind of stuff, but you have to as a business owner!
At 55, what’s your career plan from here Curtis?
I want to retire when I turn sixty because I will have enough money in my account to enjoy the rest of my life. I don’t want to work until I drop. I want to enjoy some of this money while I can. I want to do other things, help my family. I come from a poor family. I was raised on ranching and my parents were uneducated. Look where I’m at right now? Successful, employing people and helping their families. I wish my parents could see me now!
What advice do you have for new students just starting out at RSI?
You have to pay attention to everything that’s going on. Make sure you understand everything, ask questions of your teachers. Make sure you are there to learn, not to just take up space. Get the most out of it. This is a good career, a good field. Because of climate change, this school will teach you skills that you must have. Everybody needs refrigeration, everybody needs heat, everyday needs electricity. If people don’t have a way to get electricity, if you go to school and learn how to do solar like in the EMT program, you can get them electricity. A lot of my people are a long way from power lines; if they want electricity, it has to be solar.
If you’re an RSI graduate and would like to share your success story and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), and program.
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