Graduate Connections – Meet Mark Nelson

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Mark, 55, from Michigan, graduated from RSI in February 1987. The program Mark completed 36 years ago would be similar to today’s Electro-Mechanical Technologies program at The Refrigeration School, Inc. Mark and his wife Crystal have been married for nearly 30 years.

Thanks for your time, Mark; did you come to RSI out of high school back in the day?

I actually was attending Mesa Vo Tech and I received a scholarship to go to RSI for the Refrigeration and Air Conditioning course, as it was known at the time.

So, when did your family move from Michigan?

We came to Arizona in the early 1970s when I was very young. My father had been a boiler mechanic in the Navy, then we lived in Michigan for a short time, and then we moved to Arizona so my father could attend RSI. In fact, as well as my dad and I, my Uncle Conrad and my brother Bobby also graduated from RSI.

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Wow! A real family connection. Did your father stay in the business after RSI?

Yes, he had an HVAC/R business, including commercial service and installations. The company specialized in computer room air conditioning, what we would call data centers now. I started going out on jobs with him from the age of 9 or 10. As a matter of fact, both my brothers did that too before my eldest brother Steven – 3rd Generation Navy – went off to underwater welding school.

So, you were always destined for an HVAC/R career then!


mark nelson

Thinking back, what did you enjoy most about your time at RSI?

Well, to start off, the instructors treated me really, really well. They treated everyone great as a matter of fact. The questions led into discussions, which got everybody involved. Everybody learned in my class.

Was the course hands-on back then?

Yes, I remember them wheeling the units in with a box of wires and we had to rewire them. I loved it. I remember that the refrigeration part was really hands-on too, but there were also a lot of lectures.

Having worked with your dad since you were young, did things come easy to you?

Some things did, like brazing and mechanical, because I was doing all that with my dad. The one thing that really stood out to me was actually after I graduated. I realized that the training I received at RSI had put me far ahead of older guys when I ran into them in the field…because I had that foundation.

I don’t know how much note taking there is now, but back then there was a huge amount of lectures and note taking, and honestly, a lot of it didn’t sink in until later on when I was in the field. I don’t think it sunk in at the time because there was so much information coming at us all at once, but as long as you stick with it, it’ll come. Then, when you’re on a job one day, things will start coming back to you and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Oh yeah, that’s what they meant!”

Did you have difficult days, frustrating days? If so, how did you deal with them?

Oh yes. Definitely. When that happens, you’ve just got to step back, take a look at the schematic, clear your head, and figure out what’s going on. Maybe ask someone else some questions – your instructor and your classmates. If it happens after school when you’re on a job – and it will – go down and talk to your customers, ask questions, figure out what the complaints are, then go back over it all and look at it again.

That’s good advice. So, when you came out of school, did you work for your dad?

After school I actually worked for three or four mostly residential AC companies in Mesa and Tempe, Arizona, before I moved to California in late 1989. That’s when we all left to go to Silicon Valley. They had a really big earthquake there in October 1989, and as I mentioned, my dad was in the computer room air conditioning field. There was a ton of work after the earthquake. I’m still in the San Francisco area now.

So, just give us the highlights of your long HVAC career since then?

The first highlight in California was with IBM; I was actually a contractor for Shoreline Mechanical, and we worked at the IBM facility for about five years. We did large package units, box car type air conditioners, and data centers. I coordinated several helicopter and crane equipment lifts on their 100,000 sq ft facility. After that I went to work for the Marysville School District in northern California. I was lead guy there for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration. I worked there for 13 years. We had about 24 schools with over 2,200 AC units, as well as dozens of refrigeration units, chillers, etc. for the cafeterias, kitchens, gyms, libraries, and county Special Ed facilities.

Where are you working now?

For the last 11 years I’ve been in San Francisco working for Local 39. I’m working for a major medical facility and there is just a ton of refrigeration needs at a medical facility. You need ice for patients, for customers. I do low-temp tissue refrigeration for bone and marrow material. Then there’s the heating and cooling side of it; there are all the units, boilers, pumps etc. There’s just a ton of work.

After 36 years in the field Mark, are you starting to think about retirement?

I am looking at about 10 more years in the field.

Do you think you’ll retire from where you are, or are you looking for your next challenge?

You never know!

What do you enjoy most about the HVAC/R trade?

I enjoy the fact that this career has given my family everything they want, everything they could need, and the ability to have toys on the side!  It’s given my son the opportunity to be a sheriff’s deputy. It’s given my daughter the opportunity to rise in her occupation at the zoo. It’s given our family everything we need. It’s given us awesome medical which everyone needs, the benefits are great. Not to mention a base salary  and benefits package at around $250,000 and raises twice a year.

It’s a long time ago, but did you make some connections at RSI, people you stayed in touch with?

I was the youngest guy in my class at the time, and to be honest, I didn’t really, no. But I do vaguely remember an instructor named Matt with a bushy beard. He really made an impression on me; he was an instructor I remember from my third phase. The third phase was my favorite part of the course because that’s when I felt I knew enough to start applying what I was learning at school to job situations.

Although not a connection from RSI, I did some employee mentoring while at IBM in the early 90s. I am still the best of friends with a guy I mentored there called Chris, the Marine! In fact, he’s working with me now at the medical facility and we ride to work together every day. We met at IBM and our paths have continued together since. We laugh because we really started our engineering careers together and we’re going to end them together.

What advice do you have for students for them to be successful at RSI?

When I was going through school, I would ask so many questions. The answers to those questions would lead to discussions, and they would stand out in my mind later on. I’m sure it helped me and helped everybody in the class. So, don’t be shy. Don’t be scared to ask questions. Pay attention, take notes, and have confidence that the knowledge will come. The training that RSI gave me on the electrical side, the hopscotch technique, helped me tremendously in my career.

What’s “hopscotching”?

Hopscotching is a method of troubleshooting electrical circuits. You can use it to see which relays were bad or not in units. It was the technique that they taught at the time; I don’t know if they still do it now. I was told at the time that the owner of RSI came up with it, but who knows if that’s the case!

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.