Bissell began taking HVAC-R classes through the Mid-Plains Vocational Technical College, on what is currently North Platte Community College’s North Campus. At that time, the HVAC-R program at the college was two years. It has since been shortened to 11 months.
Through his studies, Bissell realized he really enjoyed HVAC-R and decided to apply for Thermo King transport refrigeration school. Thermo King contacted Bissell shortly after he started his second year of classes in North Platte.
“They said they had an opening and needed me to be in Bloomington, Minn. that week for an interview and physical,” said Bissell. “Mid-Plains said it would give me credit for the rest of the semester if I passed the Thermo King course. Just like that, I was on a career path for refrigeration.”
The opportunity sounded like an adventure to the newly married Bissell. He and his wife packed up and moved to Minnesota, where he spent the next six months learning how to troubleshoot, repair and rebuild refrigeration compressors, diesel and gas engines among other things.
“There were students from all over the U.S. and one from Iran at that school,” said Bissell. “The deal was that after I was finished, I had to go to work for a Thermo King dealer for at least six months.
So, Bissell moved back to North Platte and took a job with the Fletcher Refrigeration Company, a Thermo King dealer owned by Freal and Evelyn Fletcher.
Bissell spent a year responding to service calls and working on transport refrigeration units while finishing his fourth semester at Mid-Plains. He then accepted the position of western territory salesman for the Holmes Supply Company in Kearney, which sold wholesale heating and air conditioning units.
A year after that, the City Supply Corporation in Des Moines, Iowa offered him a job selling furnaces and air conditioning equipment. It was while trying to make a sale in October of 1976 that Bissell stumbled across the opportunity that would lead him back to North Platte for good.
“I was trying to get Al Dowhower, who owned AJ Sheeet Metal to buy my brand of products, and he said he didn’t want to change brands because he was looking to retire in a year or two,” said Bissell. “I told him if he got serious about that to let me know because I would be interested in purchasing the business.”
The next week, Dowhower flagged Bissell down on Front Street to see if the offer still stood.
“I told him it did, and he invited me over to his house to go over a plan that he had all figured out,” said Bissell. “Taking over the business was a big adventure. My wife and I had two kids under the age of three at that time, and AJ Sheet Metal was just a one-man shop.”
Today, the business employs 50 people and has a 150-mile service area. Building up to that took hard work, perseverance and a willingness to change with the times, all of which Bissell believes are crucial to the line of work he’s in.
“It’s definitely a challenging profession,” said Bissell. “Advancements in technology and efficiency are probably the biggest changes I’ve seen over the years. Furnaces used to be extremely simple to work on - now they have microprocessors and circuit boards.”
Furnaces that used to consist of four small electrical and mechanical components have been replaced by circuit boards, processors, variable-frequency drive motors with variable firing rates for improved comfort, sound and efficiency.
“The old furnaces used to be about 60 percent efficient, and now they’re up to 96-98 percent efficient,” said Bissell. “Electric air conditioning and heat pumps have also increased efficiency dramatically. Now, we have geothermal systems and radiant floor heating.”
That evolution is part of why he believes there is and will continue to be a huge demand for skilled HVAC-R technicians into the unforeseeable future.
“The higher efficiency equipment takes more attention,” said Bissell. “Add to that the fact that there are a lot of systems out there ripe for converting and that there’s attrition in retiring technicians, and I believe there will always be plenty of work available.”
As an employer, he can vouch for the fact that there’s always more job openings than there are HVAC-R technicians.
“It’s been that way since I started in the business,” said Bissell. “It’s hard to find someone with HVAC-R experience. It’s also hard to find an employer willing to train somebody because as soon as they do, that employee leaves. It’s a lot quicker for job applicants to get the training they need through a school, which also makes them more marketable.”
Once the certification is in hand, it pays off.
“There’s a year-round demand for heating and air conditioning, and the working conditions in this profession are generally good,” said Bissell. “People can make good money doing it, and it’s a great way to go into business for yourself. That was incentive enough for me. I would think it would be for others, too.”